Gripey gripe gripe, newspaper, wikipedia, etcetera

OK, I'm super-cranky now about a Grauniad article having lifted information from Wikipedia which was wrong, and the wrongness of which ought to have been obvious.

The line in Andrew Male's article says that ‘in 1935, broke and without friends, he [James Purdy] befriended Gertrude Abercrombie, painter and “queen of the bohemian artists”, whose ruined mansion was a popular stopover for jazz artists including Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday.’

From that sentence, I think it’s pretty clearly implied that Ms. Abercrombie hosted those jazz artists in that mansion in or around the year 1935. Is that how you interpret it?


Let's start with this: Sonny Rollins is still alive. He was born in 1930; he was not hanging around Chicago salons in 1935. Percy Heath was born in 1923 and famously did not take up music until after the war. Miles was born in 1926; Bird in 1920; Dizzy in 1917 and so in theory could have been hanging around Chicago in the late 1930s, but wasn't. Billie was very much in New York in the 1930s.

What actually happened, I believe, is that (a) Mr. Purdy became friends with Ms. Abercrombie in the 1930s, and that (2) in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ms. Abercrombie’s house became a Jazz hangout, and (iii) when Mr. Purdy returned to Chicago after the war and a brief stint in academia, he found that Jazz scene. I don’t think that’s a plausible interpretation of that sentence in the Grauniad article, though.

I think the error—the conjunction of the earlier time and the later events—comes directly from Wikipedia. The entry for James Purdy contains these sentences: ‘Soon after his arrival in Chicago to attend the University of Chicago in 1935, Purdy, broke and without friends, met the painter Gertrude Abercrombie. She was nicknamed the “Queen of the Bohemian Artists”. His vast body of work includes many works inspired by his close relationship to Abercrombie and to her underground salon (which had its roots in the salon of Gertrude Stein). During the 1930s, Purdy was one of Abercrombie's closest friends. This American incarnation of the creative parlour had at the center those who were to become the jazz greats: Percy Heath, Sonny Rollins, Erroll Garner, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan.’

Note that Mr. Male isn’t technically wrong, as far as I know, but the sentence certainly implies that Abercrombie’s house was a popular stopover for those Jazz artists in 1935, when in point of fact she didn’t move in to that house until 1940. Also, my claim that Mr. Male lifted the bit of information from Wikipedia isn’t proven; it’s certainly possible he lifted it from somewhere else. What’s conspicuous to me (in addition to the egregious broke and without friends lift) is that in both sources the list of jazzmen from the 50s immediately follows the 30s dates. The Wikipedia article, by the way, cites an artist’s bio from a gallery showing some of Ms. Abercrombie’s work, which is very clear about the timeline, and also has a shorter list of musicians. If Mr. Male did, as I surmise, get his info from Wikipedia, he did not click through to the citation.

And really, this is what makes me so gripey—if the journalist writing the article knew anything about the subject, he would have not have written that sentence. If he didn’t know anything about the subject, he really ought to have done at least a little research, and not entirely through Wikipedia. And this isn’t a Wikipedia is useless gripe, either—Wikipedia is tremendously useful, and among the bits of usefulness is that it provides a researcher with a variety of quick links to follow, some of which, usually, are quite reliable. And also—look, there’s a big difference, culturally, between 1935 and 1948. A huge difference. Enough so that there is a shorthand to refer to those periods: pre-war and post-war. For Mr. Male, who is ostensibly writing an article about Mr. Purdy’s work, not to be able to place the famous bebop and post-bop players as post-war makes me doubt that he has actually read any of the work set in that scene.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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