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Joe Goldberg

Born: 1932
Died: September 10, 2009 in Elkins, West Virginia




Joe Goldberg being interviewed by Mary McPhillips on WOR-TV, New York, in 1967

by Peter A. Gulotta
Copyright © 2010 Peter A. Gulotta

Courtesy of Carol Underhill of the Joe Goldberg Estate

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Remembering a fine jazz author and a marvelous wit

by W. Royal Stokes
Copyright © 2010 W. Royal Stokes

Joe Goldberg, one of America's leading jazz authors, died in Elkins, West Virginia on September 10, 2009. His legacy remains an inspiration for all of us in the JJA.

Joe's Russian-born father, Victor, came to the U.S. in the early 20th century when he was three or four. Trained here as a clarinetist and saxophonist, he joined the reed section of a Meyer Davis Orchestra in Hollywood, Florida, in the early 1930s. Several years later he got a gig playing in the resident dance band at Greenbrier, a resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Victor eventually settled in Elkins, where he took over the management of the family department store, L. Goldberg and Sons.

"I went to a prep school, Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey, for one year," Joe told BBC interviewer Jean Snedegar in a 2007 conversation on West Virginia Public Radio. "I roomed with a real New York hipster.... He had the first Charlie Parker record I ever heard, the first Dizzy Gillespie record, and on and on and on, and I just took to it."

After graduating from Northwestern University as a Radio and Communications major in the mid-1950s, and a subsequent couple of years as a producer with CBS-TV in Chicago, Joe moved to New York to try his hand at becoming a writer, supporting himself by working at the original Sam Goody record store at 49th Street off Broadway. He began contributing to magazines, including Jazz 'n' Pop and The American Record Guide, and writing liner notes, his first being for a 1957 Sonny Rollins LP.

Goldberg's Jazz Masters of the '50s, published in 1965 as the final unit of a five-volume series spanning the 1920s to the '50s and edited by Martin Williams for Macmillan, remains essential reading. It includes early profiles of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Ray Charles and others. Joe told me that the advantage he had over the authors of the earlier volumes in the series — Williams, Richard Hadlock, Rex Stewart and Ira Gitler — was that his subjects were still playing and available for interview and he knew all of them personally.

Explaining his relocation to Hollywood, California, in 1967, Joe told reporter Jean Snedegar: "Two things happened. John Coltrane died [and it] was also the year of Sgt. Pepper's.... One jazz club after another turned into a rock club. That was the end of liner notes for a while, too. The Beatles cost me my livelihood and I should sue them," he added, chuckling at this threat. "Friends of mine who had gone to Hollywood kept ... telling me how great it was and I went out to find out what it was like."

Joe spent 30 years in Hollywood, first at Paramount Studios and then 20th Century Fox, reading and critiquing submitted film scripts, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which he gave a two-word thumbs-up, "Buy it!"

Fifteen years ago, while in his early 60s, Joe returned to Elkins, settling into the family home, where as a teenager in the 1940s he had listened to Duke Ellington 78s. He soon resumed his career writing about jazz, for Billboard, The Wall Street Journal and other publications. He also began writing liner notes again, for Concord, Prestige and others. Among his many magazine and newspaper pieces in this period were interviews with Frank Sinatra, composer Jimmy Webb, drummer Paul Motian and opera singer Renée Fleming, who released a jazz album in 2004.

I'd had Joe's Jazz Masters of the '50s on my shelf for three decades when I first met him upon moving to Elkins three years ago. I encountered him at the local public library, where he was seated at a computer posting articles and liner notes. "This is the office!" he said. It was his routine several days a week to settle in at one of the library's computers. One day we found ourselves exchanging anecdotes about musicians. He recalled that some years ago he had been assigned an interview with Keith Jarrett. Phoning the pianist and outlining his project, Joe was greeted with, "Not interested!" And with that, Keith hung up. A little later, Joe was asked to write a review of a Jarrett boxed set.

The publicity material that came with the LPs cited two of Jarrett's traits, his "mastery of the keyboard and his bluntness in person-to-person contact." Joe quoted this passage in his review, observing, "Of the former I am skeptical but of the latter I can well attest." Joe winked at me, adding, "Don't ever fuck with a writer, Royal!"

I last saw Joe in March at a concert here in Elkins. Saxophonist and flutist Carol Sudhalter had brought a sextet from New York, and during the intermission Joe and I chatted. He remarked that Carol's "Over the Rainbow" on baritone was the most moving rendition of the tune he had ever heard. A moment later Carol appeared at our side and I asked Joe to repeat the compliment. Needless to say, Carol was deeply grateful to hear this from a critic of Joe's standing.

A delightful example of Joe's wit is "The Symposium," a 1959 parody of the writing styles of Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett, Nat Hentoff, Ralph J. Gleason, Gene Lees, John S. Wilson, Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler. First published in the short-lived Jazz Review circa 1960, it's also included in Jazz Panorama: From the Pages of the Jazz Review, edited by Martin Williams (Crowell-Collier, 1962; Da Capo reprint, 1979). Joe's mock critiques are centered on the fictional Ansel Jones, who plays a copper trumpet fashioned from melted-down pennies. Here are two excerpts:

Whitney Balliett: In a typical solo, [Jones] will start with a sort of agonized laziness, as if he were awakening from a dream caused by having eaten too much welsh rarebit the night before.... His pianist Porter Smith, a torpid ellipse of a man, lays down a firm, inky foundation that anticipates the leader's meanderings with the precision of a Seeing Eye Dog weaving its way through a Coney Island beach crowd on the fourth of July.

Martin Williams: [Jones's] compositions are five-strain rondos with the fourth strain omitted (ABACAE), and in using this approach, he might seem to incorporate the sense of form that had previously been notable in only the work of, say, a Jelly Roll Morton, a Duke Ellington, a John Lewis, a Thelonious Monk.... (A strain, it should be explained at this point, is an identifying feature of the work of Morton, roughly corresponding to a riff in the Ellington band of the forties, an episode in the work of John Lewis, or a theme in the compositions of Thelonious Monk.) Omitting the fourth strain now seems an amazingly simple step to have made, but it takes an Ansel Jones to make that step.

More seriously, Joe's knowledge and critical acumen are splendidly displayed in "It Don't Mean A Thing," his 2001 critique of Ken Burns' Jazz for The Threepenny Review. Check it out online at

Requiescat in pace.

W. Royal Stokes
W. Royal Stokes is author of Growing Up With Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk about Their Lives and Careers, Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson, and other books on jazz.

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With 1 reader comment, posted January 15, 2011