Open Letter to Scott Yanow, Jazz Critic, July 2013


(This letter is over a year old, but I’d like to give Scott an opportunity to respond openly.)

 “But in reality, everything that Philly Joe Jones did after Miles Davis was anticlimactic.” ~Scott Yanow, All Music

In realityEverything?

Scott, we’ve known each other a long time, so I’m not going to make this antagonistic, if I can help it.

No one can reasonably refute the fact that during the five years that Miles Davis and Philly Joe Jones spent in and out of the recording studio from January 30, 1953 – July 22, 1958, and Philly’s 3-year tenure in Miles’ band (1955-58), that Philly Joe Jones developed into one of the greatest drummers the world has ever known – and certainly in the top 10 of the greatest Jazz drummers of all time.

To claim “in reality, everything that Philly Joe Jones did after Miles Davis was anticlimactic” is unequivocally unrealistic. First of all, his playing didn’t all of a sudden get worse. Also, he didn’t go from playing with Miles Davis to slumming in cocktail bars, strip joints and playing with subpar local yokels. Philly Joe went on to work with Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell – and those are just the trumpet players – on gigs and in the studio. Keep in mind, these were mostly “blowing dates”, so you got an entirely different set of artistic results from those types of situations than you would from a band that had been working night after night for some years.

Granted, Philly Joe Jones made up 1/5 of one of two of the greatest bands Miles Davis ever had and unimpeachably one of the greatest bands ever to grace a stage. It’s almost impossible for there to have been a better band than the band with Red Garland, Paul Chambers and John Coltrane; as great as, yes, but, not better. It is no secret that Miles knew how to work a group, which would make it pointless to even try and compare the works of these sidemen post-Miles; his concept was so clear, specific, directed, and prolific. But, again – their offerings were far from not being high points.

Here’s a short list of some amazing work by Philly Joe after his departure from Miles’ band:

Bill Evans “Everybody Digs Bill Evans” – December 15, 1958
Jackie McLean “Jackie’s Bag” – January 18, 1959
Chet Baker “Chet” – January 19, 1969 (plus trio sessions from that session)
Blakey/Elvin/Persip – “Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland” – April 25, 1960
Wynton Kelly “Kelly at Midnight” – April 27, 1960 (Really, man?!?)
Freddie Hubbard “Goin’ Up” – November 6, 1960
Kenny Dorham “Whistle Stop” – January 16, 1961
Tina Brooks “The Waiting Game” – March 2, 1961

Even if you wanted to wax technical on the “after Miles Davis” time frame and include the happen-stance (and last) studio encounter with the two giants on March 21, 1961, you’d still have to include things like:

Hank Mobley “Workout” Mar 26, 1961 (3 wks after last studio date with Miles)
Freddie Hubbard “Hub Cap” April 9, 1961
Donald Byrd “The Cat Walk” May 2, 1961
Phineas Newborn Jr. “A World of Piano!” October 16, 1961

The issue most grand that plagues the average critic is that you’ve written not from an objective point of view, but from an authoritative, finite and rather dismissive one; this isn’t the first time either. In fact, when I read a cat’s overview, I can always tell when it’s your writing because of unflattering quips like: “not essential” or “no surprises here.” I’m aghast at how you can sum up so much great work in a few short and dismissive sentence fragments.

Unlike the majority, I don’t consider critics to be “complete know-nothings”; rather, I allege that the use of apparent knowledge is being used in precarious ways that do not bode well for anybody. We all lose, Scott.

Most concerned, Eric Reed



3 thoughts on “Open Letter to Scott Yanow, Jazz Critic, July 2013

  1. Hi Eric. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond to your open letter.

    Philly Joe Jones was one of the great drummers of all time. His playing with the classic Miles Davis Quintet of 1955-56 and with Davis’ super sextet of 1958 on the Milestones Lp set the standard for modern jazz of the period. If one were to take a critics or readers poll in 1956, Jones would be listed at or close to the top of the most significant drummers. His playing was so prominent with Davis that it became very influential. For many, his drumming was simply the right way to play modern swinging jazz.

    After leaving Davis, Philly Joe Jones would never be as prominent again. He continued playing great throughout his career, uplifting whatever sessions he was on. And as you mentioned, he was on some memorable albums, particularly during the first part of the 1960s. But if one took a poll in 1966, it is doubtful that Philly Joe Jones would be listed in the top ten of current drummers. By then he was greatly overshadowed by such young masters as Elvin Jones and Tony Williams and the creative veterans Max Roach and Art Blakey. Jones was no longer in the spotlight or the musical role model for most young drummers despite his excellence.

    Philly Joe Jones played great until the end of his life and one of his last significant projects, the group Dameronia, gave him some attention late in his career. But for many jazz fans, when one thinks of Philly Joe Jones, it is of his work with the Miles Davis Quintet. To me, that association was the highpoint of his career.


    Scott Yanow

    • Thanks for responding, Scott.

      One of the myriad problems here is that you, like 90% of the art world, tend to summarize bodies of work into tight, little time frames, not taking into account that, while art is a continuum, it doesn’t begin or end with calendar dates. Another issue is your mentioning of a “critics and readers poll”: artists don’t campaign! While we are spiritually elect, we don’t run for offices. We are individual creators, serving God and edifying mankind.

      “…he [Philly Joe Jones] was on some memorable albums.”

      You are overextending your authority. Cornerstones like “Kelly at Midnight” or “Jackie’s Bag” are not merely “memorable” – they are classics. No Jazz artist worth his salt is unfamiliar with Mr. Jones’ valuable contribution to these efforts and they function as a significant chapter in the curriculum not just for the drummer, but also for all players. And I believe my exact words were, “amazing work”.

      “To me, that association [with Miles Davis] was the highpoint of his career.”

      As with any commentary from a critic, this should always be the tone. The average critic rarely knows how to comment from an unbiased point of view, interjecting his personal tastes into what should be an objective overview of one’s work. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to state only facts in the biography you submitted to AMG? Your diminishing au revoir should have opened with, “To me” and not “But in reality”.

      As far as prominence, you are on point – Philly Joe Jones’ profile wasn’t nearly as high by the mid-60s. What you are failing to grasp is that in the Jazz world, Philly Joe Jones looms large to this day in the pantheon of great drummers. A dimming in the spotlight doesn’t negate the brilliance of glory years. His documentation is unimpeachable and unsurpassable. Just because he wasn’t as popular as the young lions of the period, his influence never waned due to the fact that these young lions studied and processed PJJ’s work into their own. The average “Jazz fan” probably isn’t aware of this.

      Dismissing a period of work as “anticlimactic” is virtually the same as saying, “No one stays on top forever,” which is true, which is moot – you’d have to say that about practically every single artist that ever lived.

  2. Even though this is some years old, I’m glad to see you call this out in part because the review has not be revised. But I also bristled when I read Yanow’s dismissive review and have recognized that trend his work, which you also noted.

    However, by paraphrasing portions of his own words in response: “For many jazz fans, when one thinks of Philly Joe Jones, it is of his work with the Miles Davis Quintet. To me, that association was the highpoint of his career. However, he continued playing great throughout his career, uplifting whatever sessions he was on.” would have been much more accurate and useful to readers than his original sentence you quoted.

    Those dismissive elements of his reviews may be based on his relative standard of “prominence” but as we know, while that is an important perspective to include as part of a critical review, it doesn’t tell a reader anything about whether or not they will enjoy listening to it. Personally, I enjoy listening any recording of Jones’ whether or not it was “prominent”. Recognizing Jones’ sustained high quality work in countless post-Miles recording would lead readers to listen more, as opposed to less.

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