Monday, May 24, 2010

Thriving On a Riff: Jazz's Last Chance

I'm constantly fretting about the future of jazz. It's what jazz fans do. What if Esperanza Spalding isn't "the one"? Is Brad Mehldau the answer? Who's going to be left to listen in forty years?

As has been noted elsewhere, there's no shortage of great new jazz music. But there's an increasingly limited number of people willing to consume it.

In the past ten days I've attended performances by hard rock and metal bands, Americana acts, a folk singer, honky tonk legends, a hip hop collective, an R&B group and a set by four of Kansas City's premier jazz musicians. Guess which event had the smallest audience.

Concerts by Pat Metheny and the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra are notable exceptions, but of the 111 individual live performances I've seen so far in 2010, jazz events have been the most pitifully attended. Why?

The answer might lie with my good friend, the appropriately named Concert Chris. He recently traveled to Austin, Chicago and Omaha to see his favorite artists. He's taken in 210 performances in 2010. Yet the otherwise wonderful man has a strong antipathy to jazz.

I'm inclined, consequently, to celebrate this footage. Documenting the second official installment of Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop, it was shot and edited by a Concert Chris. Matt Chalk, Brandon Draper, Shay Estes and Hermon Mehari are among the featured jazz musicians. In similar fashion, a gifted photographer normally inclined to shoot popular music also covered the show.

As I've said countless times, jazz's commercial viability won't come from someone reiterating Basie or Ellington. The music of tomorrow sounds less like "Thriving On a Riff" and more like Gang Starr. If jazz has a genuine, audience-supported future, it probably looks and sounds a lot like what went down May 15 at the Record Bar.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff as always.

Let me ask you this, Is the Symphony's commercial viability going to come from someone reiterating Mozart and Beethoven or will it be from music by Jim Mobberly and Paul Rudy. If Mozart and Beethoven are the answer to that question than why not Basie and Ellington in a concert hall.

Metheny, Basie, Ellington....timeless art!

Michael said...

You talk about the future viability of jazz hinging so much on there being on audience and I agree. I tend to think that the problem lies in jazz education. For the first time jazz is becoming an accepted part of public school music curriculum, and at many middle and high schools it's offered for course credit rather than just as an extra-curricular. This is awesome. However, the vast majority of band directors cannot think of the broader picture beyond meticulously rehearsing four tunes for months at a time so they can get a trophy at a competition. We don't necessarily need to be producing more professional musicians from these programs (the supply is already so much higher than the demand), we need to be producing more CONSUMERS from these programs. You do this by encouraging listening (and incorporating it into the classroom), by exposing the kids to a lot of repertoire, and by making sure that they are playing music by the important composers in jazz history rather than watered-down latin/rock charts composed in the past 10 years specifically for high school bands. This week I had the great privilege of spending 4 days with the Hannibal High School Studio Jazz Ensemble, giving lessons/clinics and then joining them for their performance this weekend at the Jazz Education Network conference in St. Louis. The great news is that an extremely high number of the kids had a good base knowledge in who some of the important players of their instrument are; when I told a 9th grade trombone student wearing a Pantera t-shirt he should really listen to jazz recordings to assimilate style, he reeled off names like Conrad Herwig, Paul McKee, JJ Johnson, Frank Rosolino, et al. We need to stop focusing on producing "winning" high school bands, and start focusing on producing people who become patrons in the future. The "jazzhead" demographic is going to be there regardless--they will find the music one way or the other. If we can get a larger percentage of the products of high school jazz ensembles to retain some interest in jazz as adults--maybe they buy 5 jazz albums a year, and go to 3 concerts--that makes a huge difference in sustaining the art form.

Cb said...

However, the vast majority of band directors cannot think of the broader picture beyond meticulously rehearsing four tunes for months at a time so they can get a trophy at a competition.

@Michael - you hit the point directly here. What makes this so significant (IMHO) is that not many other genres besides classical music are taught formally in schools. The genres that are NOT taught in schools seem to be easily converted into consumer-friendly commercial products, easy to produce, easy to learn, and easy to consume. This type of music is generally unregulated by academia to a very large degree. Therefore, the inherent nature of the music is still "street music", as jazz once was.

However, most jazz now belongs in a concert venue setting, and rightfully so. It is the music of the aristocracy of America - if not financially, then at least intellectually. A primary complication to the viability of the music as a product is that our jazz economy is still geared toward trying to present the music as if it were still a music of the "common folks" and as the "street music" it once was.

Our jazz industry "gatekeepers" (venue managers/owners, educators, promoters, festival organizers, union officials and presenters - etc) need to upgrade their mental hard drives to the 21st Century... ;)

P.S. - congratulations on your work with the Hannibal group. Mr. Buck has had a great program for years. I met him several times when I was based in that region.

@HIB - I keep trying to convince you that the future of jazz is secure, it is already here. :)

bgo said...

As I take a moment from my remedial jazz education I must note that if Gang Starr is representative of the future of the music then its death knell has already sounded.

ericcartman said...

The future of jazz is jazz musicians playing hip hop?

Why is it that whenever jazz musicians play anything it's called jazz. They're not playing jazz, they're playing hip hop. Just because someone is improvising doesn't make it jazz. It almost seems like "jazz" is some kind of disease that musicians contract and then whatever they play gets the label. It does the musicians a disservice to call everything they do jazz.

Jazz is just jazz and the notion that the future of it sounds like some other, more popular genre of music, is tiresome. But it is certainly true that if you water it down enough, people are more likely to like it.

Anonymous said...

Great comments from everybody. I agree with all of you except that all high school jazz bands around Kansas City are very weak with a few exceptions.

Having been raised in a highly competitive high school jazz band and attending multiple universities studying jazz I can offer you this.

Most high school kids I come across (as I give clinics around the country)do not have a concept of what "perfecting" a piece of music is all about. There are HS jazz bands in KC that have lots of charts in the jazz band book but unfortunately sound bad to mediocre on all of them and they do year after year.

Is the musical value in playing lots of music half ass like my college experience, or is it executing jazz band repertoire with precision, soul and finesse?
Our high school group could carve most college bands in this area.
The only way to play at that level is to have the entire band listening and studying the music and we did. Litening parties on Friday nights and eating pizza. Even the tighter ensemble in the KC area have very remedial soloists. Competition brings out excellence. In our society we cater to the lowest warm fuzzy common denominator. We are cheating the elite kids from a first class experience.

The fact is, there are very few jazz competitions in the area. Kansas is a no-compete state if I'm not mistaken. Many of the greats of today...Roy Hargrove, Josh Redman, Ryan Kisor and dozens more were products of committed and dedicated jazz programs that competed and playes their butts off in every chair of the ensemble.

Lastly, If you really want to improve the quality of a music program schools need to cut out Marching Bands. A collossal (sp) waste of time. 80 people getting together blowing their brains out with no nuance whatsoever. Marching Band has so little to do with music...speaking from experience.

Cb said...

I don't think that hip hop is jazz today or vice versa...

However, I do think that jazz has moved from the perpetual repertory state that most attempt to relegate the music to in a sad histrionic patronization of the art...

There are those of us out here playing what jazz is now too...