Saturday, February 28, 2009

An Obligation to Jazz

Is there an obligation to jazz? That is, is there an obligation among today's performers and promoters (and fans for that matter) to reach out to newcomers to the music; to help the music grow?
Interesting question. First some background.
This past Friday night I had the opportunity to visit a friend's house for an evening of jazz video viewing and single malt scotch tasting. He and his wife are avid jazz fans, and have done much over the years to promote jazz.
We were watching videos from the "Jazz Icons" series produced by Quincy Jones . The first was a video of John Coltrane from three performance dates in Europe. The second was a wonderful video of Sarah Vaughn (the host's favorite). The last was an absolutely wonderful 59 minutes of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers featuring Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merritt. In between that was a great CD by the late great Jimmy McGary called "Palidrome".
During the discussion of the music, the subject of National jazz performers came up. Specifically, in the past national recording artists like Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Milt Jackson, Charlie Parker and others would routinely tour through the smaller towns and venues; allowing local jazz musicians and fans to have the benefit of their talents in the form of local concerts and late night jam sessions. With today's "stars", that rarely happens. In fact, the vast majority of today's "stars" spend their time at festivals and other mostly underwritten events; rather than playing in smaller venues around the country. The net effect has been the slow erosion of the fan base, loss of radio outlets, and an overall decrease in new RELEVANT younger artists coming up.
My friend made the rather impassioned argument that today's "stars" owe nothing to the up and coming musicians; in fact they are making a living and competing for an ever shrinking audience. Therefore the "stars" should remain as status quo; only doing the occasional educational gig for the local college music program (for an additional payday, of course), and not worry about anything else.
Well, I submit that precisely this approach has caused the overall decrease in opportunities for everyone associated with jazz, and in fact has led to the marginalization of the music in the public's perception. Yes, those chosen few will do well, but the music overall will not.
When there is a jazz "scene" in a city; that is, when there are vibrant outlets where people can go and hear innovative music routinely, then the music will flourish. The history of the music is evolution, not stagnation. The music evolved from New Orleans jazz to big band swing, to be-bop,hard bop, modal, and free by the sharing of ideas. Not by musicians only playing retrospectives at the various NY or Chicago festivals.
If every city maintains a jazz "scene" then there is an opportunity to grow the music exponentially.
Which brings me back to obligation. Lee Morgan started in Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and played in the aforementioned Art Blakey's group. Lee Morgan in turn, had Billy Harper, Bobbie Humphrey, and Bennie Maupin to name a few in his succeeding groups.
Miles Davis was legendary in reformulating core quintets and sextets. Some of the graduates of Miles' efforts include Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Gary Bartz, Keith Jarret, Wayne Shorter, among many more.
If Lee Morgan or Miles had the same attitude about the obligation to the music that some of these new "stars" have, then there would be no more jazz today.

We are indeed at a crossroads in jazz. I am 100% convinced that jazz continues to be a vibrant ever-evolving music that will continue to see new and relevant different changes and enhancements; while maintaining the core values of improvisation, swing, feeling, and "soul". There are many exceedingly gifted performers in the world today locally and nationally that must share their gift with future generations of musicians on a local level. Either with after hour or pre-arranged jam sessions, shared ideas through various communications (emails, etc) or just by being there for the music. Some sadly choose not to.

Several years ago, Clark Terry came to Cincinnati for a concert I was promoting. Mr Terry is such and elegant, gifted and caring individual; during the pre concert warm up, I witnessed Mr Terry giving an impromptu lesson to two of the young trumpeters on the date. There was Mr Terry, sitting on a couch, teaching these two up and coming stars. Priceless. Mr Terry gets it.
As I write this blog, a couple of musicians from here are in Cleveland recording with Benny Golson. These musicians describe Mr Golson in the same way. Mr Golson gets it.
As stewards of the music, Mr Terry and Mr Golson epitomize what is the best part of this music called jazz. They are willing to impart with knowledge that cannot be obtained in any music school whether the local school or Berklee, or Julliard.

Obligation to the music is mandatory in my opinion, if you have been blessed with talent, opportunity, and an outlet to perform. That obligation means that you do everything you can to help the music grow and flourish. Yes, I understand the bad economy, the need to "make income while you're hot", etc. etc. This does not absolve you from the responsibility of being a caretaker of the music which was passed down from King Oliver to Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet; to Duke Ellington and Count Basie; to Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins; to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; to Miles and Trane, to Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and Art Blakey; to Woody Shaw, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett.
Now that the newer generation is here, is this where the legacy and innovation ends? Or do the new generation "stars" finally continue the evolution of the music like the forefathers of the past.

I am interested in feedback; whether you agree or disagree with the obligation to the music. In any event, don't stay on the sidelines if you love this music.


Bart Broadnax said...

As a fellow musician and educator, and furthermore as a Christian, I believe that God blessed us all with specific talents. I also believe that God wants us to prosper, and will provide for us as we share our talents according to His plan. So it benefits us to be generous in our sharing of our knowledge, which in turn benefits the recipient of that knowledge. And who knows? That recipient may end up hiring you for one of his/her gigs. Somehow, kindness and generosity always come full circle in one form or another. For me as an educator, the payoff is in seeing the delight in the student's face when they "get it," and it brings about an eagerness to learn more. I quietly say to myself, "Well done, Student, and well done, Teacher. And thank you, God." And the world is better for that.

Doc B said...

Could not agree more! If all musicians felt like you...