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Bill Shoemaker

Back in the day, my better half Carol was required to take a religion course for her MFA. What Biblical interpretation had to do with clay was not immediately apparent, but her professor’s take on the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden stuck with us. Their sin, he argued, was not simple disobedience, but believing a rumor.

Believing rumors is an occupational hazard for journalists, perhaps the most lethal. Being taken in by a false rumor corrupts the compass of fairness that should guide the journalist; acting upon it can inflict wrongful harm upon the subject of the rumor. It is often the case that the more authoritative the source of a false rumor seems to be, the more damage the rumor does to both its subject and the journalist who believes it.

The most recent and one of the more instructive examples of a rumor affecting, if not infecting a journalist’s mindset involves David Yaffe’s “Brilliant Corners,” an article about Andrew Hill that ran in the July 15 edition of The Nation.

Yaffe’s piece begins with a seemingly innocent, if lukecold assessment of a Hill performance at Birdland in March. His tone starts to darken in the third paragraph, however, when Yaffe links the pianist’s resigning to Blue Note and busy performance schedule to Hill’s costly cancer treatments, incorrectly stating that Hill does not have health insurance. He then opines that “the fuss and awards surrounding Hill’s recent (Blue Note) deal were really all because of what he did during his first stint on the label beginning in 1963.”

This paves the way for Yaffe to dredge up Hill’s “biographical discrepancies” in the next paragraph, which is then followed by a not so rhetorical question:

Back then, Hill was 21 and telling everyone that he was a Haitian protégé of the neoclassical composer Paul Hindemith. In fact, he was a native Chicagoan whose studies with Hindemith were more like an ad hoc correspondence course; the fledgling Hill approached the eminent composer after a performance, the two men exchanged some letters and Hindemith died the year Hill got his record deal. Hill’s biographical discrepancies continued. Various sources credit him with a PhD in musicology from Colgate, but it turned out that Colgate never offered that degree to anyone. Jazz musicologist Lewis Porter did some investigations on the matter a few years ago, and a Colgate professor sent Porter an e-mail from Hill, who said that he didn’t want credit for something he didn’t do and added that jazz critics don’t do enough of their own research and should do everything possible to stop the lie. Of course, Hill’s first few years of recording are worth more than a stack of doctorates, and even if he didn’t write a dissertation of his own, he certainly provides enough material for someone else’s.

Is Hill a genius, a trickster or a con artist? To ask the question is to answer it: all of the above.

Initially, I almost put the article down because Yaffe was so off on Hill’s age. Using Yaffe’s chronology, Hill would have been 12 when he made his first recording as a sideman in 1954. One thing that is consistent in Hill’s bios is that he was born in 1937. But, my eye caught Lewis Porter’s name, which caused me to reread this passage several times. Porter, a Rutgers professor and author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music (The University of Michigan Press; 1998), which is widely considered the definitive study of the saxophonist’s music, is a serious just-the-facts type of scholar (Porter is quoted in this issue’s Turnaround! article, a 1992 Down Beat piece on Coltrane’s evolving legacy). This gave weight to the passage, generally, and to Yaffe’s pointed use of “con artist,” specifically.

Under normal circumstances, Yaffe’s frontloading of this stuff would come off as merely gratuitous, since it really does not bring anything about Hill’s music into a clearer light. However, the timing of Yaffe’s article, which appeared as Hill was finishing a round of chemotherapy that forced him to cancel summer festival dates in Europe, coupled with the scooplet that Porter was on the case, was too perplexing.

So, I went fishing, sending an email to The Nation, enquiring about Yaffe’s sources on the Colgate matter. Within a few days, I received an email written by Yaffe to Nation Literary Editor Adam Schatz, which was then forwarded by Schatz to Letters Editor Judy Long, who sent it to me. Yaffe insists this is a private email. My counter is that The Nation saw fit to send the email to me, that the email was the magazine’s official reply to my queries.

Yaffe’s email seems to be in response not only to my letter, but also to other letters, including one from Joanne Hill, the pianist’s wife; subsequently, much of the information was not germane to my concerns. However, one passage concerning the Colgate degree was alarming:

What Lewis Porter told me was that Hill was living in the town & tried to get something at the university, like an (sic) composer in residence gig, but to no avail. So he just started putting it on his cv (sic) to help him get a job elsewhere, which he eventually got at Portland State.

It needs to be stressed that this accusation did not make it into print. Still, it seems that, within the context of an in-house response to the mail his article elicited, Yaffe felt the need to name – or reiterate? – Porter as the source of this defaming accusation.

It must be true, I initially thought. Here’s Porter, one of the nation’s most respected jazz musicologists, telling Yaffe, a Syracuse University professor who teaches in the nation’s only graduate degree program in arts journalism, that Hill fraudulently obtained his Portland State University post. But, the more I looked at the careful wording of Yaffe’s article, the more I thought Porter didn’t have the dime to drop on Hill.

Since Porter was in Italy, I emailed him about what I knew from the Nation’s email and a phone message I received from Yaffe, citing Porter as his sole source on the PSU matter. I posed several questions to ascertain how he knew Hill had committed fraud. Did he see documents? Did he conduct interviews with knowledgeable persons? These are the kinds of questions I thought Porter himself would ask in my position. Upon his return, Porter called me, confirming Yaffe’s story that the information referenced in the article was conveyed during a series of mostly chatty, what’s-up emails initiated by Porter, congratulating Yaffe on his book, Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz In American Writing, (Princeton University Press, 2006). Porter also confirmed that, initially, he did not want to be cited in Yaffe’s article, but late in its writing, Porter decided that he wanted credit for his research. But, Porter told me he merely made an off the cuff speculative comment about the PSU position in a telephone conversation he thought was casual and private, and expressed dismay that it was even cited in an office memo.

The problem with all this is that Hill did not fraudulently obtain a teaching post at Portland State University. Porter himself quickly produced what he agrees is exculpatory evidence in the form of a PSU Bulletin published years into Hill’s employment, where Hill is listed as having only a Bachelor’s degree. You simply cannot lie only once to get and keep a tenure track position for a decade or more; you have to lie annually when submitting an updated CV to the university. Therefore, it is a fair inference that, if Hill is listed on a PSU Bulletin years after his hire without the mention of a PhD, the claim was never made in the first place.

But, don’t take my word for it. Ask Dr. Thomas “Stan” Stanford, the recently retired head of the Music Department at PSU. He’ll tell you like he told me that he hired Andrew Hill because he’s Andrew Hill and that the position for which Hill was hired did not require a PhD. And, he’ll tell you that I’m the first journalist or researcher to ask him the question.

In his defense, Yaffe says that he wrote nothing that is “punishable.” That may well be true. However, linking what Yaffe wrote in his article and what he told his editor in the email released by The Nation is certainly reportable. So too is the silence on the other end of the line when I informed Yaffe of Hill’s condition when the article appeared, which told me that Yaffe had bitten so hard on a juicy rumor that he forgot to keep his ear to the ground.

Clean Feed Fest

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