Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Remembering Sheldon Meyer – Jazz Editor [From The Archives]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For all the reasons explained below, Sheldon Meyer was one of the most important persons in the Jazz World of the second half of the 20th Century. 

Indeed, had he not interceded on its behalf in his capacity as editor for Oxford University Press, much of the written history of Jazz might not be available as either a primary or a secondary source.

His contributions to Jazz documentation are inestimable, yet, very few Jazz fans know his name.

The re-posting of this feature is intended to help correct that deficiency. 


“Sheldon Meyer, a distinguished editor of nonfiction books who was almost single-handedly responsible for the Americanization of Oxford University Press in his more than 40 years there, died on Oct. 9 [2006] at his home in Manhattan. He was 80….

Mr. Meyer … made Oxford a major publisher of books about American popular culture — notably jazz and musical theater — and in so doing helped democratize scholarly publishing in the United States….

In Mr. Meyer’s early years with Oxford, he sometimes had trouble persuading dusty dons across the Atlantic that baseball and Basie were fit subjects for a European publishing concern founded in 1478.

‘Now they’re tremendously supportive,” Mr. Meyer told The New York Times in 1988. “They’re delighted because the books do well and they reflect well on American culture. The whole field now has an aura of respectability about it.’”
- Margalit Fox, The New York Times, October 18, 2006

"I had an advantage in staying at one place for forty years. I never could have done the jazz list if I was moving around to three or four publishers during that period. It is kind of an extreme irony that the greatest university press in the world, with these high standards, should become the major publisher of jazz, broadcasting, popular music, all these areas. But I was there at the right time and I had a group of people at the press who had enough flexibility and understanding to let it go forward. Now everybody is enormously proud of this whole thing. I couldn't ask for a better career."
- Sheldon Meyer as told to Gary Giddins

“I have a huge library of books on jazz and popular music. Probably half of them were published by Sheldon and Oxford. To contemplate the condition in which the documentation of jazz and American popular culture would be in had Sheldon Meyer never lived is a gloomy act indeed. …

It is in this light that the great body of Sheldon Meyer's work must be seen. And no one has ever more fully embodied the dictum that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man than Sheldon Meyer. What the world of jazz owes him is beyond estimate, and most of its denizens don't even know his name.”
Gene Lees, Jazz author

It is tremendously limiting and very unfair of me to refer to the late, Sheldon Meyer solely as a “Jazz Editor,” but I like to think of him that way, that is when I’m not thinking of him as “Sheldon Meyer – Baseball Editor” [another of my favorite subjects].

While doing some research for an upcoming book review of Alyn Shipton’s “Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway” [published by Oxford University Press in 2010 and now available in paperback], I came across the following piece about Mr. Meyer which the late, author Gene Lees issued in the March, 1998 edition of his Jazzletter.

I thought perhaps that readers of the blog might be interested in the following excerpts from Gene’s view of Mr. Meyer’s significance to Jazz publications during the second half of the 20th century.

Few have placed a larger footprint on the written documentation of and opinions about Jazz than Mr. Meyer.  Not surprisingly, it was he who suggested that Mr. Shipton write the biography of Cab Calloway for Oxford University Press.

If you stay with Gene’s essay to the end, not only will you have learned more about a great man – Mr. Sheldon Meyer – but you may also find yourself shedding a tear or two about the current and future state of Jazz research and documentation. 

© -  Gene Lees/Jazzletter, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

A Lengthened Shadow

“Something catastrophic for jazz has happened in New York. I refer to the retirement at the age of seventy of Sheldon Meyer.

Sheldon Meyer, until recently senior vice president of Oxford University Press, is one of the most important men in jazz history, and if in fifty years various persons are researching this music in this time, they will be deeply in debt to him; and probably they will never have heard of him. He is a tall, indeed imposing, man with a round face, remarkably smooth and youthful skin, and equally youthful manner and bearing. He has a droll sense of humor, a quick laugh, and a remarkable lack of pretension for one whose career has been so creative and important.

Gary Giddins recently wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "'Midlist' is an industry euphemism for those writers who do not scale best-seller charts.

"Until the recent spate of articles about the woes of publishing, it never would have occurred to me that I was a midlist author. I write books about jazz, and from where I sit, midlist sounds like a promotion. Yet, along with several colleagues, I have never felt professionally marginalized in the publishing world, and for that we have one man to thank. On the occasion of his retiring from Oxford University Press, Sheldon Meyer merits, at the very least, a flourish of saxophones, a melody by Jerome Kern and a high-kicking chorus line salute. Over the past forty years, Meyer turned the world's oldest and most staid publishing house into the leading chronicler of jazz, Broadway musicals, popular-song writers, broadcasting, and black cultural history. And he and his masters made money at it."

A small number of editors have achieved great prominence, among them Harold Ross of the New Yorker and Maxwell Perkins, who brought to the world Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and others of that stature in the time when fiction still held sway as the major literary act. I think Sheldon's name, in the non-fiction area, belongs at that level.

Sheldon spent the first few years of his career at Funk and Wagnall's, joining Oxford in 1956. Funk and Wagnall's had published Marshall Stearns' pioneering The Story of Jazz. Through Stearns, Sheldon met Martin Williams, who was to become a friend and adviser, as well as writing a number of books published by Oxford. At Oxford Sheldon published Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz, which, as Gary Giddins points out, "remains the most important musicological statement on jazz's infancy."

I came to know Sheldon through James Lincoln Collier, whom I also did not know at the time. Writers about jazz are often notable for an ill-concealed jealousy and a sullen conviction that they alone know anything about the subject, that it is or should be their exclusive domain. Collier proved to be an outstanding exception. He had read some of the Jazzletters and told Sheldon about me, saying, "You should be publishing this guy." Then he wrote me a letter saying he thought Sheldon Meyer at Oxford University Press would be receptive to a collection of my essays. It was an act of generosity that would change my life.

I wrote to Sheldon Meyer, who had published several collections of the exquisite word portraits of Whitney Balliett. Quite timidly, I began by saying, "I am well aware that collections of essays don't sell." And I got back a letter saying, somewhat testily, "Mine do." He said he would very much like to consider a collection of my pieces. After reading a number of them, he told me on the telephone, "You have a reputation as a songwriter and as an expert on singing. I think our first collection — " and I nearly choked on that word first " — should be about songwriting and singers." It became Singers and the Song (a title he gave it) and it would win the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. So would another collection of my work that Sheldon would publish, Waiting for Dizzy. (I've won it three times. Gary Giddins has the record: he's won it five times.)

In addition, Sheldon published my Meet Me at Jim and Andy’sCats of Any Color, and Leader of the Band: The Life of Woody Herman, and Singers and the Song II, due out in June — an expanded and altered version of the first book. He published Jim Collier's biographies of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington. He published Ted Gioia's West Coast Jazz and, more recently, The History of Jazz, and two books by bassist Bill CrowJazz Anecdotes and From Birdland to Broadway, after reading some of Bill's delightful pieces is the Jazzletter.

Sheldon published Reid Badger's A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe', King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era by Edward A. Berlin; Philip Furia's The Poets of Tin Pan Alley (the best book on lyrics and lyricists I've ever read) and Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist; Joseph P. Swain's The Broadway Musical; Mark Tucker's The Duke Ellington ReaderThe Jazz Scene by W. Royal Stokes; Arnold Shaw's The Jazz Age; Gene Santoro's Dancing in Your Head and Stir It UpThe Frank Sinatra Reader by Steven Petkov and Leonard Mustazz; Bebop by Thomas Owens; The Jazz Revolution by Kathy I. Ogren; Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum, by James Lester; Ira Gitler's Swing to Bop; Leslie Course's Contemporary Women Instrumentalists, and many more, including a new encyclo­pedia of jazz, on which Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler were working when Leonard died. Ira is completing it.

And Sheldon commissioned and published American Popular Song by Alec Wilder and James Maher, one of the most important books in American musical history.

I have a huge library of books on jazz and popular music. Probably half of them were published by Sheldon and Oxford. To contemplate the condition in which the documentation of jazz and American popular culture would be in had Sheldon Meyer never lived is a gloomy act indeed. Most of those books would not have found an outlet without him.

And aside from the jazz books, Sheldon published Lawrence W. Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Albert J. Raboteau's Slave Religion, John Blassingame's Slave Community, Robert C. Toll's Blacking Up, Nathan Irvin Huggins' Harlem Renaissance, A. Leon Higginbotham' Jr.'s In the Matter of Color, Thomas Cripps' Slow Fade to Black, Richard C. Wade's Slavery in the Cities, and a two-volume biography of Booker T. Washing­ton by Louis R. Harlan's.

It is highly unlikely that the standard "commercial" publishing houses would have risked publishing such works, certainly the jazz books.

I once asked who actually headed Oxford, and was told that it was a group of anonymous dons at the university in England. I thought this was a joke; I learned that while the statement may have been hyperbolic, it was not exactly untrue. There is a certain amorphous quality about the upper level of Oxford University Press, but Sheldon Meyer lent to his division dignity, direction, and decision. When he started publishing books on jazz, his "masters," as Gary Giddins called them, questioned him. As Sheldon told Gary:

"I had some problems in the mid-60s. The head of the press in England said he had begun to notice some odd books appearing in the Oxford list, and I said, well, I'm responsible for them. Since he was a papyrologist — a guy working with old documents, old rolls of paper — he didn't have much connection with this world, to say the least. So I said to him, 'Well, look, as long as these books are authoritative and make money, it seems to me they're appropriate for the press to publish.' Fortunately for the future of my career, that turned out to be correct."

Read between the lines of that and you'll realize that Sheldon laid his career on the line to publish books about jazz. Thus it came to be that probably the oldest publishing house in England became the premiere publishing house on contemporary American culture.

As he told Gary Giddins, "I had an advantage in staying at one place for forty years. I never could have done the jazz list if I was moving around to three or four publishers during that period. It is kind of an extreme irony that the greatest university press in the world, with these high standards, should become the major publisher of jazz, broadcasting, popular music, all these areas. But I was there at the right time and I had a group of people at the press who had enough flexibility and understanding to let it go forward. Now everybody is enormously proud of this whole thing. I couldn't ask for a better career."

Sheldon Meyer has been an editor of brilliance, and if there is such a thing in editing, even of genius. I began to get a bad feeling a couple of years ago when his close friend and long-time professional associate, Leona Capeless, one of the finest copy editors I've ever known, retired from Oxford. And now that Sheldon too has retired, my unhappy capacity to reach conclusions I don't like tells me that much chronicling of American cultural history is never going to get done. The loss to America and to the world is inestimable.

In the past few years, I have been only too aware that primary sources of jazz history, and popular-music history, are being lost to us. The great masters, the men who were there, are slowly leaving us. I do not know who said, "Whenever anyone dies, a library burns." But it is true: almost anyone's experience is worth recording, even that of the most "ordinary" person. For the great unknown terrain of human history is not what the kings and famous men did — for much, though by no means all, of this was recorded, no matter how imperfectly — but how the "common" people lived.

When Leonard Feather first came to the United States from England in the late 1930s, he was able to know most of his musical heroes, including Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. By the end of the 1940s, Leonard knew everybody of significance in jazz from the founding figures to the young iconoclasts. And when I became actively involved in the jazz world in 1959, as editor of Down Beat, most of them were still there. I met most of them, and became friends with many, especially the young Turks more or less of my own age. I have lived to see them grow old (and sometimes not grow old), and die, their voices stilled forever. And so, in recent years, I have felt impelled to do what I can to get their memories down before they are lost, leading me to write what I think of as mini-biographies of these people. This has been the central task of the Jazzletter. And always underlying my efforts in the past ten years has been the quiet confidence that, thanks to Sheldon, these works would end up between hard covers on library shelves for the use of future music historians. That is no longer so.

When I wanted to know something about one aspect or another of music history in the 1960s, I could pick up the telephone and call these older mentors, such as Alec Wilder or my special friend Johnny Mercer, or Robert Offergeld, music editor of Stereo Review when I wrote for it and one of the greatest scholars I have ever known. If I wanted to know something about the history or the technique of film composition, I could telephone my dear, dear friend Hugo Friedhofer, who wrote his first film music in 1929. There was nothing worth knowing about film music that Hugo didn't know; and not much for that matter about the history of all music. I can't call Hugo any more. Or Dizzy. I can't call Glenn Gould either. Gerry Mulligan was ten months older than I. Shorty Rogers died while I was researching the Woody Herman biogra­phy; I was to interview him in a week or two.

Now, when my generation is gone, there will be no one much left who knew Duke Ellington and Woody Herman and Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. All future writers will be dependent not on primary sources, which all of these people were for me, but on secondary sources, which is to say documents. And earlier writings. And I have found much of the earlier writing on jazz, such as that of John Hammond and Ralph J. Gleason, to be unreliable — sloppy in research, gullible in comprehension, and too often driven by personal and even political agendas. Errors — and lies — reproduce themselves in future writings.

It is in this light that the great body of Sheldon Meyer's work must be seen. And no one has ever more fully embodied the dictum that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man than Sheldon Meyer. What the world of jazz owes him is beyond estimate, and most of its denizens don't even know his name.

Sheldon continues as a consultant to Oxford, completing projects he initiated. But no writer who has dealt with him thinks Oxford will continue developing these hugely significant projects. And therefore much of jazz and popular-music history is going to go unrecorded, lost forever. We are fortunate, however, that Sheldon Meyer managed to get as much of it preserved as he did.

Salud, Sheldon. We all owe you.”

Salud, Gene, We all owe you, too.

[Mr. Lees passed away on April 22, 2010]



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