By the next day, NYT reporter Corey Kilgannon had talked his way into Jones's room in an Upper West Side apartment. On Tuesday, Kilgannon (sharing a byline with City Room editor Andy Newman) posted a piece on the City Room blog that portrayed Jones as a lonely old man in a messy studio -- setting off a firestorm of complaints from Jones's family and friends that he'd invaded Jones's privacy, and besmirched his legacy.
We'd say the complainers are right on both counts. Intentionally or not, the City Room post reads like an attempt to make Jones's life look lonely and sad, made even worse by the reporter's brazen disregard for Jones's privacy by snapping -- and publishing -- a photo from inside his room.
Kilgannon has always been one of our favorite NYT reporters. He writes eloquently about New Yorkers on the fringe of society, and provides a needed balance to a newspaper that actually thinks we want to know how rich people spend their Sundays. He joined the reporting staff in 2000, after graduating with an English degree from Columbia and working his way up from copy boy. Recently he wrote a memorable profile of Frank Serpico, the former cop now living upstate.
But Kilgannon's post on the jazz icon lacked his usual perfect pitch. He portrayed Jones as living in "near isolation in a 12-by-12-foot room at 108th Street and Broadway, ordering in three meals a day from the diner downstairs and practicing incessantly on an electric keyboard plugged into headphones." He described "suitcases, sheet music and jazz awards cluttered around an unmade bed." He mentioned CDs "scattered about" and referenced an unopened bottle of champagne.
Not getting the picture? Kilgannon provided one with the post -- a photograph of Jones's roommate and landlord, Manny Ramirez, in the apartment.
It doesn't look that messy to us!
Right after the story and photo got posted, commenters weighed in with their objections. The complainers included family members, friends, and business associates.
What next?" asked Miles Morimoto, who took of a portrait of Jones that appeared in the NPR website in 2007. "Will the Times go into Lena Horne’s closet and tell us how neat or messy she was?"
Jazz bassist Charlie Haden and his wife, Ruth Cameron, wrote a lengthier attack on the article, speculating (as others did) on the legality of breaking into Jones's apartment without family permission, and removing its contents.
"Taking photos less than 24 hours after Hank died," the couple wrote. "That is just as outrageous and seems opportunistic and exploitive at best." Comments followed from Jones's manager and some family members, all making clear that Kilgannon's story misrepresented the pianist's existence in his final weeks.
Several commenters noted that Jones wasn't frugal when he traveled -- often staying in first-class hotels -- but that he chose to live within limited means in New York City, to be near his friends, even though he owned a farm upstate.
By the next afternoon, Kilgannon felt it necessary to respond to the complaints. In a blog comment, he explained that he lived across the street from Jones and had called Ramirez after the obituary appeared. Ramirez told Kilgannon that he'd gotten permission from Jones's family and lawyer to break into the apartment with a sledgehammer and pack up his belongings.
Kilgannon defended his portrayal of Jones, saying that he wanted to "augment" the obituary, and arguing that he didn't intend to show him as destitute.
"I found it touching that Mr. Jones chose such an isolated life, towards the end," Kilgannon wrote, "and I probably could have been better at describing that it seemed by-choice, out of passion for his art, not out of depression or some sense of shame."
He went on: "This was not intended to define Mr. Jones and his legacy by the condition of his room, but rather to attempt to glimpse him as a human, to add to the official and public image we already have of him. If he lived in a mansion, I would have been just as eager to visit and write about that."
We don't doubt Kilgannon's motives; he's a sensitive guy. But we don't think much of NYT reporters looking over and photographing the private belongings of dead people in the first hours after their death -- in a mansion or a hovel -- without direct permission from a family member or lawyer. It just doesn't feel right to us.
By the way, if you've never heard Hank Jones play the piano, listen to this.