Sunday, January 18, 2009

Kids: The Future of Jazz

There is a question about the future of live music, especially jazz. In the face of so many new distractions vying for the public's attention, like multiple satellite TV channels, video computer games, and a numbing array of musical choices on TV and radio, it is easy to see how jazz could be shuttled to the background.
Indeed, it is increasingly hard to find jazz on the radio, TV or performed live. There are many reasons for this; not the least of which is the systematic consolidation of the radio broadcast industry, resulting in few of any true jazz music outlets. And the few"jazz" stations that are left program a variant called "smooth" jazz; a very bland distant cousin of the real thing. Put on top of that the record labels are complicit in relegating real jazz to the back burner, and it is clear there has been a concerted effort to diminish the true impact of real jazz.
So not surprisingly, the audience for real jazz is dwindling. Is it because the music is dying? No, of course not. The music is as vibrant as ever. It is just that the conglomerates that control access to the music rather push other, more intellectually bankrupt forms of music in the name of profit. A lot of these popular music forms don't even require true musicianship; just a turntable or guitar, and a catchy beat or two. Some pop "musicians" actually don't perform at all; they pantomine to pre-recorded tracks during their shows.

History teaches that in the past, some totalitarian governments sought to control their populations more easily by limiting access to higher art forms.

So...what can we, as jazz fans, do about this state of affairs? One direct way to affect the future of music is to pass on the knowledge we possess to our most valuable resource, our kids.
Well, how can that be accomplished? The standard answer is to develop yet another school or teaching program to introduce the music to schoolkids. Perhaps they will learn in school; more likely the kids will compartmentalize jazz as a part of education, not continuing entertainment. While there is merit in jazz education, the kids trained in this musical approach don't really learn the essence of the music. Besides, not every jazz fan is a music educator; and would not have access to the didactic music education approach for kids.

This evening, I had an opportunity to see perhaps the best way to affect the health and well-being of jazz. I had a chance to attend a jam session. Not just any jazz jam session, however. The jam session at the Ballet Tech Cincinnati on Montgomery Road, here in Cincinnati which occurred this Sunday, the third Sunday in January. Marvel Gentry, the Executive Director of Ballet Tech, along with lead musicians Willie Smart (drums), Eddie Brookshire (bass), Michael Goecke (trombone), and Ryan Wells (alto sax), hosted what Mr Smart describes as a "kinder, gentler jam session".
First, some explanations. In the past, jam sessions were opportunities for younger musicians to play with more seasoned veterans in a informal but intense stage experience. The youthful musicians would learn how to play from the seasoned vets; not just the notes, but how to PLAY. This was common in the 50's and 60's; not so much today. Today's jazz professionals in some cases, do not stop to reach back and help the young ones in an informal setting. The big "stars" are great in going to academic music clinics in the various towns and cities where they tour; but they by and large do not participate in the jam sessions with younger musicians. Typically, among the modern stars, it is no longer about the music; it is about "getting paid". No one begrudges a musician for getting fair compensation for a live musical performance; however as stewards of the music, there should be a natural enthusiasm in sharing the music with the younger kids.
That was what was so refreshing about tonight's jam session. First of all, there were kids there listening to and enjoying the music. Second, the musical leaders on stage were greatly encouraging and nurturing of the kids; exactly the way the early sessions were back in the 50's and 60's. It was refreshing, even inspiring, to see so many kids taking the stage and playing. Equally inspiring was the way the seasoned vets interacted with the kids. On the last selection, Maiden Voyage, there was a prime example of this experience. Eddie Brookshire, the bass player, noted that the youthful keybordist didn't feel comfortable with playing the song. This young man was exceedingly talented; he had not been exposed to this song in his past education. Mr Brookshire gently guided the young musician through the various chord progressions while on stage playing the song. The young man was so adept at learning that he performed a quite credible solo on the song! The same thing happened during the song when Mr Goecke, the trombonist, performed the same function for the young guitarist who also sat in. These kids could not have been older than 15 or 16; they had the opportunity to really learn how to play the music, from vets who excelled in sharing the knowledge and history of the music.
In the audience, there were a number of kids, non-musicians, who also enjoyed the music. I have always contended that the music is alive and vibrant; just under exposed. Tonight was further validation of this concept.
This jam session occurs every third Sunday evening from 6 to 9pm. It is perfect for kids to attend; kids are welcome. For further info, the website is: http://www.ballettechcincinnati.org

We can conquer this so-called death of jazz one kid at a time. Take the time to expose the kids in your life to live jazz; kids are ALWAYS welcome at Thursday Jazz at The Redmoor. You can also expose kids to jazz CD's; trust me, they will listen if you start early enough.
Jazz music is fun, energetic, and alive. It doesn't need to be "smoothed out" or dumbed down to be palatable. It needs to be portrayed as fun music; because it is! We can show our kids how fun the music is, if we want the music to survive.

1 comment:

Marvel Gentry said...

Thanks for your strong endorsement of the Jazz Jam Sessions at ballet tech cincinnati! It's great to hear that positive feedback about the work we are doing to keep jazz alive by presenting the art form in a family friendly environment that encourages young musicians to gain performance experience with seasoned musicians. The next Jazz Jam Session at ballet tech cincinnati will be the 3rd Sunday, February 15th at 6PM www.ballettechcincinnati.org