From an early age aesthetic choices were important to jazz critic Howard Mandel. "I broke up with one of my first girlfriends because she was all gaga over the Beatles, and I just thought it was puerile," he says. "Her dad had a good album by [trumpeter] Donald Byrd that I liked, but I didn't want to listen to her Beatles record, so she dumped me."
As a teenager growing up on the south side, Mandel romanticized jazz as part of a mysterious artistic underworld inhabited by figures like Jack Kerouac, Hubert Selby Jr., William Burroughs, and Jean-Luc Godard. "It was this exciting world very connected to the city and fast things," he says. When Mandel was 16 his family moved to Wilmette, but as soon as he got his driver's license he started making regular treks into Chicago. On his first foray he discovered the Jazz Record Mart, which he reminisces about in the foreword to his first book, Future Jazz: "I hung out in my abundance of spare time, sweeping the floor to justify hours spent listening to records, talking to Hank the Crank (washboard player for some scraggly trad bands) and Big Joe Williams, the bluesman, who tried to sell me his old Ford." Mandel remembers the recorded-music mecca as a place where free jazz figures like Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre would regularly cross paths with bluesmen like Jimmy Dawkins.
At the same time Mandel was becoming interested in the newspaper business. A fan of Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon, he began producing his own paper, filled with bits of news and opinions. A year after earning an English degree from Syracuse University in 1972, he ended up at the Chicago Daily News as a copy clerk.
Before long Mandel was contributing overnight music reviews of both pop and jazz concerts. But by the time the paper folded in 1978 he was burned out on daily deadlines and decided to go freelance. He stayed in Chicago until 1981, working as an associate editor at Down Beat, serving as the Chicago bureau chief for Billboard, contributing pieces to the Reader, and producing a series for WBEZ called "Jazz Chicago." "I felt like I had really run through my possibilities in Chicago, and plus I was chasing a girlfriend," he says. Mandel followed her to Washington, D.C., but when neither the relationship nor jobs panned out he headed to New York, where he's been since 1982. Since then Mandel has become one of jazz's most visible critics, contributing to countless national and international publications, covering music for NPR, and serving two terms as president of the Jazz Journalists Association.
With connections like that, why did it take him so long to put a book together? "In 1988 or so I began to see that my colleagues were all doing books, and I thought it was the next thing for me to do if I didn't want to get into a rut," he says. "Unfortunately this book took nine years of procrastination before I got the contract." Future Jazz is constructed from interviews conducted over the last two decades with a wide range of musicians expounding on their definitions of the genre. "It became clear to me that I couldn't write about the future without covering the past," he says. While comments from archconservative Wynton Marsalis bracket the book, most of the artists possess pretty expansive notions of what jazz is. From Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians members like Henry Threadgill and the Art Ensemble of Chicago to R & B-rooted guitar populist John Scofield to style-hopping New Yorkers like John Zorn, they ultimately suggest that the future of their music is about destroying stylistic walls once and for all--not just the boundaries between different jazz styles, but the barriers between rock, classical, Latin, and other types of music--while keeping in mind the histories of each form.
Although most of the musicians are well into their careers, the sum of their ideas and experiences sets the stage for what's to come. "Future jazz is music coming up that you haven't heard yet," says Mandel. "It's already out there, but we're just catching up with it."
Mandel will read from Future Jazz and answer questions Saturday at 2 at Tower Records, 2301 N. Clark (773-477-5994). It's free. --Peter Margasak
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo copyright Marc PoKempner 1999.