Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Somerville’s Jon Garelick: The Boston Phoenix and all that Jazz. Interview with Doug Holder

Jon Garelick

Somerville’s Jon Garelick: The Boston Phoenix and all that Jazz.
Interview with Doug Holder

Jon Garelick is a freelance writer living in Somerville, MA. He writes about music (jazz in particular) and arts and culture in general, including books, TV, movies, art, and theater. He was an editor at the Boston Phoenix for 22 years, until its closure in March 2013. Currently he writes for the Boston Globe, DownBeat, Jazziz, and other publications. He has also written for the New York Times and New York Times Book Review, and Rolling Stone. He has won two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards – in 1993 – for his writing about music. You can find a link to his archive of his work for the Boston Phoenix and other information on his blog  He also contributes to the local Web site The Arts Fuse.

 I had the pleasure to sit down with Garelick at my usual self-appointed office space in the back of the Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square, Somerville.

Doug Holder: So how is it living in Somerville?

Jon Garelick: My wife and I have lived in Somerville for three years. We live in the Union Square area. We love Somerville. The city services are great. I love the robo calls from the city about traffic, etc…The arts community is amazing. The house we have is great for writing—I have a great office space. This is really good because I am freelancing now.

DH: You were the music editor for the now defunct alternative newspaper The Boston Phoenix for many years…starting back in 1990. How did you get started there?

JG:  The first freelance piece I had was in the Phoenix in 1985. That piece was about “The Fringe”—the Boston avant-garde jazz trio. At that time they played at Michael’s Pub. Eventually the paper took me on full time in 1990.

DH: Now with the Phoenix’s demise…is there a big void in the Boston media?

JG: It’s incalculable to me. The cultural ecosystem is supported by things like the Phoenix. Artists need to get the word out. People who are interested in the scene need a place where they can find out about it. Advertisers need the venue. There is still The Dig but they don’t seem any more robust than when we were around.  The Boston Globe is doing what they can do but they are struggling.

DH: I recently interviewed Dan Gewertz—the former arts columnist for The Boston Herald.  He feels the emphasis in journalism now is on the next big thing—like Lady Gaga or folks of that ilk.

JG: Certainly everyone has covered Lady Gaga. You always need something people know about. However, The Globe has been very receptive to any pitches I have made. I have a column, usually the last Friday each month, where I cover jazz. They want me to get local musicians to interview. My experience has been different. There are many people that I pitch that I get no response but that includes famous people as well.

DH: Can you tell me about the atmosphere at the Phoenix in the early 90’s?

JG: In the early days it was very vibrant. Advertising was good; the music was excellent. We worked in conjunction with a music radio station owned by the Phoneix, WFNX. It was a wonderful convergence of writers and the music we found vital and interesting. The kind of music we wrote about became popular. This was Alternative Rock and the Grunge movement... folks like Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Throwing Muses, etc… This was a burgeoning scene. There were actually record stores (Laughs) and record labels. And they did a lot of advertising. There was incredible advertising support that let us do all kinds of things. We had a jazz supplement that I started, and other innovative features.

DH: How about the post-salad days?

JG: The paper lost a lot of pages. The writing was in a smaller space. We went from writing 1200 word pieces to 400 words. We tried to compensate with putting stuff online but that didn’t pan out. Advertising never really turned around.

DH: You have written extensively about many genres of music but especially about jazz. In an article that I read authored by you--you said that jazz was not meant to be “big”—it is small like, say, poetry. Has the jazz scene become smaller since you have come on the scene?

JG: It’s hard to say. You use to use record sales as a barometer. Jazz used to be 10% of the market like that of classical music. Now—how do you measure it? If you measure it by artistic activity I would say it’s at its peak in terms of creativity. I think the things musicians are doing now is amazing. People like Ambrose Aikinmusire from Oakland, California  and Kurt Rosenwinkle do creative things in terms of form, improvisation, rhythm and harmony.

DH: Hasn’t there always been a lot of creativity on the scene?

JG: Yes. But there are many different kinds of jazz now. There has not been a downsizing of creativity. Unfortunately there is no significant jazz radio to get the word out about it anymore.

DH: I remember going to see Esther Philips and Pharaoh Sanders at the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall in Boston years ago. Did you hang out there?

JG: I went to shows there. But I really learned about jazz from jazz radio. But to go to one of those places—it was a big deal for me in 1971. $12 bucks was a lot to shell out for me back then. I didn’t go a lot. But I would go to see big names like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis.

DH: Any jazz clubs you would like to talk about or recommend?

JG: Well of course Scullers at the Doubletree on Soldiers Field Road, and the Regattabar at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square.  In Somerville The Green Room on Bow St. in Union Square now has jazz performances. Johnny D’s occasionally has good people. In Inman Square—the Lilly Pad has many major, major artists playing there.

DH: How about Jazz films—any favorites?
JG: I like “Jazz on a Summer Day” about the Newport Jazz Festival. “The Black Board Jungle” has a great jazz sequence in it. It’s about a teacher in an inner city school who tries to introduce the kids to jazz with disastrous results. I like the Chet Baker documentary “Let’s Get Lost” as well.

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