Howard Mandel likes to think of himself as a "professional listener."
"I listen hard, and I listen carefully, and I try to provide a balanced view of what I hear," he says. In his office in New York City, he's surrounded by some 8,000 jazz CDs, a fraction of his collection--the "essentials," he calls them--skyscraping 10 shelves high on the wall.
Mandel, an author and longtime freelancer for magazines such as Down Beat and JAZZIZ, is president of the Jazz Journalists Association, a group of more than 300 professional writers, editors, radio and television broadcasters, photographers and filmmakers with a passion for jazz. The JJA, launched in Chicago in 1986, serves as a catalyst for discussion and community in an otherwise scattered industry. It creates and advocates jazz education both within and outside the profession and promotes excellence in jazz criticism.
The association's membership is based primarily in the United States, though some members hail from South America, England, Mexico, Russia and South Africa. Annual meetings, often coinciding with major jazz festivals, have been held in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Montreal, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland.
Michelle Mercer, 27, is one of the youngest members of the JJA. She discovered her calling for jazz writing while working in New York in book publishing. Mercer found herself e-mailing friends detailed reviews of her nightly jazz outings. Her friends encouraged her to turn her impassioned pastime into a job, but she didn't know how to go about it. She typed "jazz journalism" into an Internet search engine and found the JJA Web site, www.jazzhouse.org.
An e-mail to Mandel and a visit to his office got her started. "The JJA helped cement the idea that that's what I wanted to do in the first place," she says.
Now that Mercer has entered the field as a freelance writer, also for Down Beat and Jazziz magazines, she finds that the organization fills a professional void. "It's a very specific focus that I can't get from just following the jazz industry or just hanging out with other writers," she says. "I think if anything, it's made me feel more comfortable working" in jazz.
The association not only reaches out to those analyzing jazz, but those who play it, hoping to improve communication with jazz musicians. Mandel says he wishes to dispel the notion that jazz journalists are "parasites just living off the back" of musicians.
Between national meetings, the JJA newsletter Jazz Notes and the Web site keep members posted on the daily happenings in the organization and the business. New online discussions range from jazz fiction writing to Duke Ellington.
In January, the group's members gathered in New Orleans at their annual meeting, which coincided with the International Association of Jazz Educators Convention. It was a good time, says Mercer. Trade secrets were shared and education was the priority.
"Anytime we can get together in great numbers," she says, "it's going to be empowering."