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October 16, 2022 1:12 pm

Jewish Jazz-Band Leader Assailed as ‘Vile’ Blood Sucker in New York Times Article

avatar by Ira Stoll


A taxi passes by in front of The New York Times head office, Feb. 7, 2013. Photo: Reuters / Carlo Allegri / File.

Is the Jewish owner-operator of the New Orleans jazz venue Preservation Hall a bloodsucker exploiting black musicians for profit?

The New York Times devotes more than 7,000 words to an article exploring that question. Toward the very beginning of an article is a scene of the jazz hall’s owner and creative director, Ben Jaffe, visiting the “Jewish cemetery” where his parents are buried.

Later on, the article quotes a 2010 blog post by a trumpeter, Nicholas Payton. The Times reports:

Payton’s screed was colored by grief and what seemed like personal animus; he and Jaffe (whom Payton pointedly called by his childhood nickname, Benji) had known each other since elementary school. Nevertheless, it encapsulated many of the critiques one still hears: that Jaffe can be perceived as a disrespectful and imperious boss. That he puts the interests of himself and the hall above those of the men who play there. That he pays musicians too little while the hall grows rich. Such behavior was “endemic of those who have controlled things in the music industry since its inception,” Payton wrote. “From my vantage point, he’s nothing but a vile predator who sucks the life blood out of the artists whom he uses to help maintain his wealth and status. None of whom receive a fair percentage of the wages which they work so tirelessly to earn.”

If portraying a Jewish owner as a bloodsucker strikes you as antisemitic, well, you are not alone. One Times reader-commenter online noted, “It’s sad that everything is viewed from a mildly antisemitic and completely racial viewpoint. Without the Jaffes there would be no culture of jazz left in New Orleans.”

The Times frames the “screed” as “colored by grief and what seemed like personal animus,” but it could also have said that it echoed classical antisemitic tropes. Instead, the paper treated the underlying charges seriously, as worthy of lengthy exploration.

Payton has a troubling track record on this issue. In a 2020 Twitter thread, Payton defended a social media post of his of a video describing Jews as a “synagogue of Satan” and describing Jews as obsessed with blood. “I hate no one. And I posted nothing but fact,” Payton wrote then. “None of you can say where I’m wrong. Only that you don’t like it. The ‘lots of people had slaves, including Africans’ trope doesn’t absolve Jews for their participation in the enslavement of my people.”

In a 2013 interview with Haaretz in advance of a performance in Israel, Payton explained why he prefers to use the term Black American Music, not jazz. “Blacks don’t control the economy of jazz, and when you don’t control the economy you have no power. Festivals, clubs, recording companies, magazines − they’re all dominated by whites, and they are the ones who decide how music is played and how it is received. Blacks are even a minority of the audience. Jazz is a white invention, which took over black music and controlled it.”

A 2011 article in Tablet says that Nicholas Payton’s father, Walter Payton, converted to Judaism late in life.

How explicit to be in pointing out racism or antisemitism to readers is a current controversy in journalism. Go too far in doing it, and it can come off as excessively heavy-handed or censorious; fail to do it at all, and it can seem like the newspaper is spreading the hate rather than reporting on it.

The Times navigated some similar issues in a 2018 question-and-answer format interview with Alice Walker. Then, in response to a reader who faulted the Times for giving Walker “a forum to disseminate hate,” a Times editor replied, “Our readers are intelligent and discerning. We trust them to sift through something that someone says in an interview, whether it’s the president or a musician or a person accused of sexual harassment, and to judge for themselves: Do I agree with this person?”

I asked the author of the Times article, Brett Martin, “What was your thinking in terms of whether to explicitly mention or point out to readers that bloodsucking Jews is a classical antisemitic trope? Did you consider doing that and reject it and if so, why?”

He declined to respond.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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