The Uh Uh Uhs

Commentaries on Current Music Criticism
by
Bill Shoemaker


Not So

Old rumors die hard in jazz, particularly when they are perpetuated by highly credentialed critics and scholars. The most recent and one of the more instructive examples of this centers about 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, and incorrectly states that Hill was without 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, the founder and Director of Rutgers University Master's in Jazz History and Research Program and author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music (The University of Michigan Press; 1998), is a serious just-the-facts type of scholar. 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, it was troubling that Yaffe implicitly raised doubts about Hill’s integrity in obtaining his position at Associate Professor at Portland State University just as Hill was finishing a round of chemotherapy (which forced him to cancel summer festival dates in Europe). After all, why would a jazz musician lie about a PhD for reasons other than being hired for an academic post?

The problem with Yaffe’s innuendo is that it is reliant on Porter’s incomplete research. Yaffe or Porter never interviewed, like I recently did, Dr. Thomas “Stan” Stanford, the recently retired head of PSU’s Music Department, who hired Hill. Stanford adamantly said that he hired Hill because he was Andrew Hill and, further, he hired him for a position that did not require a PhD. Stanford also told me that I was the first journalist or researcher to contact him on these matters.

Vexed by the question of why Yaffe ran with Porter’s research, I sent an email to The Nation and a separate email to Yaffe directly, identifying myself in both as the publisher of PoD, enquiring about Yaffe’s sources on the Colgate matter, and asking for an on the record response. 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 then sent it to me without stipulating that the information was for background only.

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.

Additionally, a few days later, Yaffe confirmed Porter to be his sole source on the CV in a message left on my cell phone and did not then specify that the information was off the record. Yaffe then reconfirmed Porter as the sole source in a follow-up telephone conversation that he explicitly understood to be on the record.

It needs to be stressed that this accusation did not make it into print. (It should also be noted that when I wrote subsequent emails to Long and Schatz, asking for on the record comments on Yaffe’s email, they passed on a second opportunity to say that the email was off the record. Long said that it was all above her and she was just the messenger, while Schatz, replying a few days later, merely stated that I was already in touch with the author.) 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 information.

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 conclusive evidence.

Since Porter was in Italy, I emailed him about what I knew from the Nation’s email, citing Porter as Yaffe’s 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 were 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 in Yaffe’s 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. However, Porter told me he was merely making an off-the-cuff speculation about the CV and the PSU position during a telephone conversation he thought to be casual and private, and expressed dismay that he was even cited in an office memo on this issue.

Porter immediately produced what he agrees is exculpatory evidence in the form of a PSU Bulletin published years after Hill’s hire, where he is listed as having only a Bachelor’s degree. This document underscores the point that someone 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 without the mention of a PhD, the claim was never made in the first place.

At the same time, Porter also alerted me to a document found at Rutgers’ Institute of Jazz Studies in Hill’s clips file, a folder of clippings from newspapers and magazines. At first glance, it does appear to be a resume of Andrew Hill’s, dating from the mid 1970s. It does not follow formal CV form; rather, it is a two-page, typewritten chronology of Hill’s career to that point, with some handwritten comments in the margins and a phone number at the top of the first page.

The second page of the document includes a line that appears to go to the heart of the matter. It begins with the typed entry:

1970-1971 Composere (sic) in Residence Colgate University

This is following by the handwritten margin comment:

rec. doctorate

I sent the document to Hill, who did not recognize it. He also could not identify the handwriting. But, Hill did remember putting together a resume in that timeframe, though he remembered it to be messier and more fragmented than this document. The job Hill applied for using this resume was a summer workshop program in Vermont. Bassist Chris White, who performed with Hill during the early ‘70s and who was Executive Director of IJS until 1975, directed the program, which offered a possible explanation of how this document ended up at IJS. But, White argues that this theory is implausible; he either sent the document to the Vermont-based administrator of the program, or he took it with him when his stint at Rutgers suddenly ended due to a budget cut: There’s no way that Hill sent this document to him, White insisted.

Perhaps the document was generated when Hill applied for a post at Rutgers and it subsequently found its way into the IJS file. Hill said he never applied to Rutgers for a job then or ever. The shortcomings of this theory are also supported by what I learned about the handling of documents related to the interviewing of applicants at Rutgers from David Cayer, a retired Rutgers sociology professor and a longtime ardent IJS supporter who, coincidentally, was on the interview panel that recommended Porter’s hiring. Although Porter’s hire was a decade later, Cayer surmised that the handling of personnel documents probably had not substantively changed since the mid ‘70s because of the University’s adherence to equal employment opportunity statutes, et al. In the interview process that led to Porter’s hiring, there was strict control over resumes, letters of recommendation and other records included in the panelist’s folders. They were distributed to the panelists by an administrator at the outset of the process and were collected at its conclusion. It’s Cayer’s assessment that it would be extremely unlikely that a resume would be separated from a panelist’s folder and it would be highly improper for it to be added to the IJS archive.

The fact that this document was found in a clips file is intriguing, given that the document should have been in an artifacts file. At IJS, an artist’s artifact file can include all types of original documents, including letters, postcards, and autographs. If this document had been authenticated as Hill’s, it’s unlikely it would have originally filed where it was found. The idea that someone researching Hill, using both artifacts and clips files, misplaced the document seemed possible, but even that scenario did not address the origin of the document.

I also reread articles and LP sleeve notes from the ‘70s and ‘80s to find a citation of the Colgate PhD that was attributed to Hill through a quote or a paraphrase. Though I could find none, I discovered that many of the references to Colgate over the years combined the ’70-1 residency and an undated awarding of the PhD in a way that would read the same as the document’s entry if it was rendered as a single sentence. Given jazz writers’ propensity to recycle information, there had to be a commonly used source. The earliest and perhaps the most widely circulated mention of the Colgate PhD is part of the entry on Hill in Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies (Horizon Press), originally published in 1976:

Composer in residence at Colgate U., 70-1, where he received his doctorate.

Since much of the information Feather and Gitler used in their encyclopedias was gleaned from questionnaires filled out by the artists themselves, it initially seemed unlikely that the document was the source of the information, even though there are other items in the entry similarly worded to those on the document, sometimes appearing in the same sequence. Yet, according to Porter, there is no Hill questionnaire in Feather’s papers collected at IJS, and Hill is sure he never filled one out for either Feather or Gitler. Instead, Hill clearly recalls meeting Feather only once for a Blindfold Test in Los Angeles during the mid ‘70s. Before the test, Hill remembers Feather asking him a few questions for Hill’s Encyclopedia entry, and being impressed with how much Feather already knew about him.

I sent the document to Gitler. Since his Encyclopedia papers are in storage and unavailable, he could only respond by comparing the document to the entry. Although Gitler generally wrote the entries on East Coast-based artists, he said there were exceptions, and that the document possibly could be one. Gitler also could not identify any of the handwriting.

Gitler referred me to Lorraine Feather, his co-author’s daughter. I forwarded the document to her, asking if she could identify any of the handwriting. Ms. Feather identified a small portion of the handwriting as her father’s, and thought another bit could possibly be his, too. However, Ms. Feather could not comment on any process her father may have used to generate such a document.

For possible insight on her father’s procedures, Lorraine Feather suggested that I talk to Leonard Feather’s associate, Francesca Nemko, who assisted in the compiling of the West Coast entries (readers may recognize Nemko by her former byline, Frankie Nemko-Graham). Providing contemporary samples of Feather’s handwriting, Nemko made a persuasive case that the sample about which Lorraine Feather was unsure was not Leonard Feather’s. Nemko also had her doubts about the handwriting Ms. Feather confidently IDed as her father’s. Yet, Nemko verified that Leonard Feather would sometimes convene his assistants and give them various documents and scraps of paper about artists to produce working papers that generally resembled the Hill document.

Two other Feather associates, Julie Compton and Don Heckman, contributed to this process, according to Nemko. Unfortunately, Compton long ago returned to her native England and lost contact with her US based jazz colleagues. Heckman, now the jazz critic for The Los Angeles Times, didn’t recognize anything about the document, and suggested I contact Gitler.

Though my reporting is inconclusive, it does raise enough questions about the document to suggest that, when it is catalogued in IJS’ artifacts collection, it would be prudent to identify it as a chronology instead of a resume, and attribute it to an unknown author instead of Andrew Hill.

2 October

High Zero Festival

> back to contents