Jazz is full of people who burn brilliantly for only a short time. Then there are heroic figures who keep on keeping on for decades, selflessly giving.
Leslie Johnson has been the editor and publisher of THE MISSISSIPPI RAG since 1973. Today I received an email from Leslie saying that she could no longer go on in those demanding roles because of her illness: she’s been fighting cancer for three and a half years. You can read her farewell at www.mississippirag.com., but I just wanted to add a few words that perhaps Leslie herself would read.
I started to write reviews for the RAG in 2000, and became the paper’s New York correspondent in 2007. In the early days, I often picked up the phone and called Leslie when I had a question — because it was such a pleasure to talk to her, and because she worked such long hours putting out the paper that she didn’t always get to her hundreds of emails. She was fervent, cheerful, determined, and genuine. And I think she worked the longest hours of anyone I’ve ever encountered. For thirty-five years, mind you. It wasn’t for the money: operating a traditional jazz paper is not the Way to Wealth that Benjamin Franklin had in mind. It was because she loved the music, believed in it, and believed in the people who played it, those who produced the CDs, put on festivals, and wrote about it.
She believed in jazz in a practical way. And this came through in the first conversation I had with her about the house style, or what she expected from reviewers. I don’t remember exactly how she said it, but she made it clear that hers was not a paper that delighted in putting artists down. To her, traditional jazz was having a hard enough time. Her paper’s mission was to celebrate and praise rather than to carp about faults. Fair enough, I remember saying, “But what if I think a CD is really an inferior piece of work?” Well, she said, she would return it to the musicians and say that she didn’t think the CD was up to their usual standard and the RAG would rather not review it. That was Leslie’s tough-minded kindness all out — and readers of the paper will note we reviewers were encouraged to tell the truth, but to check our razors at the door.
Our phone conversations were also delightful for me — a born-and-bred New Yorker — because Leslie spoke what I think of as pure Minnesotan. I remember (and I can hear her voice now) responding to some statement of mine that she seconded, “That’s for darn sure!” It’s not a typical Manhattan form of agreement, and it gave and gives me great pleasure.
I said above that Leslie believed in jazz. Many people I know would make the same statement of themselves, but their belief takes shape as pure enjoyment: “I believe in jazz, therefore I listen to _________ every night when I get home.” Leslie’s belief went beyond a set of speakers out of which music came, although she loved to listen to the music. It wasn’t an abstact reaction to jazz, either. She worked for thirty-five years FOR jazz, and the RAG has been the result, month after month.
It’s been a privilege, and honor, and an education to work with and for Leslie Johnson — a true jazz hero.