An Appreciation: Joseph Gober Nazel Jr. (1944-2006)
Joseph Nazel kept a pistol tucked in his desk, but he seldom showed it. He preferred to fight his battles--and, trust me, there were lots of them--with rhetoric, invective and a withering wit.
Joe, who died in late August of brain cancer at age 62, was an editor and author of incalculable importance to L.A.'s African American community, particularly to the readers, artists and writers he championed and served throughout his career. He was quick to clash and difficult to know, but easy to love once he let you into his circle of intimates.
He was a Vietnam vet embittered by the futility of war. He was a writer with an abiding respect for the cultural diversity and authority of the country’s literary canon who, nevertheless, chose to be what in the 1930s was called “a race man,” devoting himself to a single aspect of American life: the plight of the black community and the responsibilities of the Negro writer to that community.
He bore, discreetly but proudly, the scar from a bullet that passed through his neck in combat. The philosophical and emotional wounds he routinely sustained throughout his tumultuous stints as an editor of our city’s most important black publications--the Wave, the Sentinel, the Watts Times and Players magazine--troubled him far more than bullets. His public feuds and violent spats with publishers, editors and other writers, both famous and obscure, are legend throughout the newsrooms of South L.A.
To the day of his death, he held fast to the social justice ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. and to the Enlightenment ideals of high art, high culture and civility that in our current climate of brutality and war seem quaint and unattainable. His heroes were few: Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, Frederick Douglass, Chester Himes and the little-known Negro poet Henry Dumas.
A visit to any one of Joe’s apartments--all of them in traditional African American neighborhoods, in Watts, in the Crenshaw District and in Inglewood--was like stepping into the atelier of a hard-boiled pulp writer from the 1950s. Copies of Jet, Negro Digest and Crisis magazines listed in enormous stacks. Joe’s desk, veiled in a cone of light, was dominated by a typewriter, a laptop and an ever-present quart of Jack Daniels. A cigarette dispelled silver spools of smoke across the room. Few photographs graced the walls; in their place, Joe had framed cover art from his books.
Rail-thin and chocolate brown, with a ‘60s-style pompom Afro, Joe nervously paced around clutching a yellow legal pad and holding forth on all those things that inspired and tormented him: the veniality, ineptitude and corruption of black leadership in contemporary America, the inaccuracy and expediency of the black press, American racism and the failure of the nation’s institutions to protect its most aggrieved citizens.
Joseph could write a novel--some of them glorious, some of them god-awful, some under his own name, some under one of his dozen or so pseudonyms--in six weeks flat. And he did it while he was working full time as an (underpaid) editor, penning letters and writing news stories.
Most of Joe’s novels were put out by Holloway House, which bills itself as “the world’s largest publisher of black experience paperbacks.” Holloway House has also released my work--two forgettable potboilers. Joe, by contrast, wrote more than 60 books, covering a gamut of genres: thrillers, biographies, histories and sappy romance.
Although I and others urged Joe to submit his work to “mainstream” publishers--white establishment publications such as the L.A. Times or the Atlantic Monthly--I am not aware of a single instance in which he seriously pondered this as an option.
He was always working on a new novel about black life, or tracking down some fresh outrage he’d divined beneath the surface of the Los Angeles streets that he loved so deeply and knew so well. I’d run into a scowling Joe Nazel at all sorts of events: the funeral of Stepin Fetchit, a City Council meeting in Compton, the ’92 riots--a camera slung across his shoulder, a notepad in his hand, attentive only to the details of the unfolding drama. Yet after you called out to him, breaking through his mask of seriousness, his sunny smile emerged and his laughter rolled out in lusty, percussive bursts, like riffs in a Max Roach solo.
Joe was a meticulous editor. Working with writers such as Stanley Crouch, the jazz critic at Players magazine, was akin to sifting through a bucket of uncut diamonds. Crouch would breathlessly deliver his voluminous, single-spaced texts on American culture, politics and humor just moments before deadline. The effort required to polish all that prose would have cowed someone with lesser capacity, as I discovered the few times the task fell to me. But the challenge put Joe at ease, leaving him in his most natural element: as a master editor, as the Maxwell Perkins of Melrose Avenue.
Joe never got the recognition he so longed for and deserved. Yet he was instrumental in the careers of scores of African American artists--folks he discovered, mentored, edited, promoted and published. A short list would include not only Crouch, but writer-editor H.L. Sorrell, graphic artist Bob Smith, the late music writer Walter Burrell, writer Everett Hoagland, photographer James Jeffrey and the expatriate diarist Ollie Stewart.
He published my first works of fiction and nonfiction and hired me right off the streets, a guy he’d only just met, as the first associate editor of Players. It was 1975. I had burst into his offices on Melrose demanding that he allow me to search the premises for a short story (a fictional work of unparalleled excellence and virtuosity, I was convinced) that I’d written. Because he hadn’t sent me a check, I was certain he’d lost it.
Self-absorbed, I didn’t think it odd that he welcomed me back to his cluttered workspace and invited me to tear the place apart as he sat amused, interrogating me about American literature, art and politics.
It was only three months earlier that I had been a truck driver for the Salvation Army on skid row. But on this day, without question and without pause, Joe Nazel transformed me into a professional writer and editor, putting me on a path that--with all its attendant virtues and woes--I’ve followed ever since.
His was an act of faith, generosity and kindness to an unknown he suspected had talent; it was a gesture both crazy and grand. And it was typical of the brilliant, underappreciated, misunderstood, difficult man I called “my big brother.”