Saturday, June 26, 2010

Is Jazz Relevant?

Is jazz relevant in 2010? Absurd question, or fair one? How does one define relevance? Is it recognition by the majority of the public, or only to the true fans and musicians?
Certainly, to folks like Melvin Grier, Greg Turner, Ron Gable, Bob and Nancy Conner, Keith and Daryl Melvin, and others who are true fans and supporters, the answer is obvious. Similarly, to musicians like Mike Wade, Jeremy Pelt, Randy Villars, Wade Baker, King Reeves, Jae Sinnett, Phil DeGreg, and a host of others, this is indeed a question with an obvious answer.
And yet...every day there is evidence that jazz has lost its relevance in the general population.
One only needs to pick up a newspaper and see how many feature articles, if any, are written about jazz music and musicians.
To wit: Dateline June 6, 2010 Sunday Cincinnati Enquirer Arts and Entertainment Section.
The articles about music were as follows:

1) Bootsy Collins Funk University;
2) Classical music article about a violin player.
3) Door County Music Festival

In the "Next 7 Days" highlighted section, the music listings were as follows:

Sunday: Brad Paisley, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra
Tuesday: LPK Acoustic Lunch Series; PNC Southern Sounds with Stagger Lee
Wednesday: Corey Smith at Bogarts; PNC Reggae Wednesday, The Ohms; Wednesdays on The
Green Clifton Cultural Arts Center SoCalyptics Steel Drum Band
Thursday: After Hours on The Square, Union Township: Naked Karate Girls; Madison Theater, Les Claypool
Friday: "Ellery", Carnagie Visual Arts Center; PNC MidPoint Indie Summer, Neon Indian, Wild Nothing, Minor Leagues, and For Algernon
Saturday: Harry Connick Jr, Riverbend; Landon Pigg, Southgate House.

This is fairly typical of the Enquirer. The vast majority of non-jazz acts are just local musicians; and yet these events are highlighted. It is very similar with the two weekly's, CityBeat and Metromix. CityBeat will occasionally highlight jazz artists at The Blue Wisp, however Metromix to my knowledge has never highlighted a jazz musician, local or national.

Why is that? Well, several factors. It goes back to perceived relevance.
I have always said, (and I believe this is a general consensus), that the only difference between the jazz musicians in Cincinnati and those in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles is the zip code. The musicians here are among the most talented in the world. Save for the classical music group here, the same cannot be said for other genres of music in Cincinnati.
The talent of the musicians certainly makes this music relevant.
The typical jazz musician in this town have finished a music school or college, (CCM, NKU or others), or have toured and played with the best musicians for years. The same cannot be said for the typical musician in this city from other genres. And yet, the other genres are routinely recognized; not jazz.
So, if its not a talent disparity, then what is the reason why jazz music in general and the local jazz musicians do not get the notoriety by the local press? Press releases and other notifications often are met with a general indifference.
(I suspect that if one of our local jazz musicians robbed a bank, then they would receive a huge amount of press, complete with the acknowledgment of the jazz musician's occupation!)

In fairness, I can't just single out Cincinnati. In Norfolk Virginia, there is no jazz to speak of on a continual basis, either live or in the press. This weekend, the Hampton "Jazz" Festival is occurring. The artists? Gladys Knight, Teena Marie, Maze, Dave Koz, Charlie Wilson (the singer), etc. etc. So there's no jazz in Virginia either.

So...what is the reason?
The press operates on the principle of perceived popularity. If the music group or venue is perceived to be popular, then that is the group or venue that will receive the notice. Conversely, if the press has the preconceived notion that the music venue or group is not popular, chances are there won't be a feature article about it.
The press cannot be faulted for this; it is their job to sell papers. You sell more papers featuring things that are perceived to be popular; or to peak interest. It doesn't matter if the John Coltrane Quartet were featured live at The Redmoor; if the perception is that there is not enough interest, or the concert is not RELEVANT, then chances are that the concert will receive no press.
On the other hand, Jimmy Buffett comes here every year; he's been doing the same show for years. Essentially redundant, old music. He routinely receives TV and newsprint coverage in abundance.

RELEVANCE. What makes jazz relevant? Well, it is America's only original art form,
originating in the African American community. While important, does this fact alone make it relevant for 2010?
Does a large audience make it relevant? Well, it's no secret that jazz in this city could be better supported; ironically I am constantly barraged with the common refrain: "you got to get the word out!" Perhaps; but part of getting the word out is having the people who attend telling other people about the music events. It would be great if I could notify all 3.5 million people in Hamilton County every week about the world class jazz we have in this town; perhaps soon it will be possible. Until then, however, the relevance of jazz begins and ends with each one of us.

Does jazz have a chance for a larger audience, and thus be "relevant" to the local community? Of course. It is a daunting task, but we have to prove relevance ourselves. We cannot depend on the local press to "get it". I will continue to send press releases/announcements, even if they are ignored. As a promoter, I must exhaust all avenues, even if those avenues are routinely met with no interest. But we all must play a part in making jazz relevant.

I firmly believe jazz is relevant today, in 2010. If you have taken the time to listen to what passes for music these days, you'll easily find that today's true jazz is one of the few genres that is actually real legitimate music. (Ironically, some of the older rock groups in interviews have bemoaned today's rock musicians as being devoid of talent. MTV creations versus real musicians so to speak.)

True jazz, not the "smooth" variety, is a vibrant living music; constantly changing and evolving. It can and will "regain" its "relevance" to the general population with exposure. So if you love this music, take the time to tell one person a week about it; encourage your friends to see live music again.
Ultimately, the fate of jazz, and it's relevance, will be determined by those of us who care.