Monday, November 15, 2010

Blame It On My Youth

I occasionally experienced anxiety attacks night terrors as a child. The room spun and a sonic whirlpool rushed through my head. I'd suppressed forgotten these incidents until I first saw Mark Southerland twirl a hose connected to a saxophone during a Snuff Jazz performance. The effect recreated the nightmarish sound that once terrified me.

Last night's Snuff Jazz recital was doubly intense. Guest artist Brian Haas, keyboardist of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, echoed Southerland's sound effect on a melodica.

I now know how to manage the onset of vertigo, so the combined effort of Southerland and Haas hardly phased me. They did inspire, however, thoughts about the relationship between age and music, especially in terms of jazz.

I'd spend the previous night listening to the incredible Deborah Brown. (Here's the Star's review.) About 150 people caught all or part of Brown's performance. Their median age was a relatively youthful 45. The median age of the audience of four-dozen at the Record Bar on Sunday was an even more encouraging 30.

I'm constantly wringing my hands about what will become of jazz once the original fans of artists ranging from Stan Kenton to the Crusaders succumb to old age.

Kansas City is loaded with scores of promising young jazz musicians, yet it's not uncommon for them to play for small audiences consisting of people three times their age. The jazz kids even have a hard time convincing their friends and romantic interests to attend their gigs.

That's why I invest so much hope in acts like Haas' Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and in the artist I call The One. I also wholeheartedly approve of the crossover attempts of The Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer and Brad Mehldau. The efforts of Kansas City-based forward thinkers like Hermon Mehari and Mark Lowrey are even better.

If innovative projects like Black Friday don't succeed, I'm afraid that jazz faces a truly nightmarish future.

(Original image of Brian Haas and Snuff Jazz by Plastic Sax.)


Russell Thorpe said...


you should've heard the conversation I had with Harshbarger, Brad Cox, Hunter, and Peter last night after Cobra was finished. Very revealing to me. Left me feeling very positive about the musicians here that I have been lucky enough to get to play with.

It seems like there are two modes of thought operating here in KC and perhaps the larger world. But I agree, all those names you mention are people I respect and enjoy listening to. It'll work, but I see it as a thing where the jazzers need to take a page or two from the rockers, and not consider themselves above all the extra work a rock band is willing to put in to build an audience. There is a problem among young jazz musicians I think. We tend to run fairly intelligent, and as a result of that think ourselves clever.

Well, that whole smug "clever" bites one in the ass in the form of feelings of superiority because jazz is supposedly so much more intellectually rigorous than say rock. So I think a lot of young jazzers are so obsessed with being the shit on their axe that they feel all the other work needs to be done by the audience, as if there is some unheard of legion of secret uberinformed jazz listeners that no one knows about just waiting to have their minds blown cause "wow that guy can really play Coltrane changes well." Its like the whole youth entitlement culture you see on tv has warped their brains into thinking that they are a unique snowflake that everyone SHOULD listen to.

Its a package deal or nothing. I mean look at Brian Haas, he's been doing this for 20 year almost. Constantly touring, playing new things, making relationships with musicians all over the WORLD, forging his craft and reputation through sweating it out on all fronts. He knows the score, and works his ass off as a result.

Bottom Line? maybe we all just need to stop being so lazy. Sorry for the length of rant.


Anonymous said...

I think it's true that young jazz musicians don't have the same understanding of the importance of selling yourself, hustling gigs and promoting them, etc. as their rock counterparts. And we should certainly be taking notes.

I think you ought to consider that maybe it's not that some of these guys are "smug". It might be that playing jazz really well is time-intensive, it takes constant self-evaluation and self-awareness to get better, and sounding even reasonably good can be a really big mountain to climb. It might be the opposite of smug--these guys are so obsessed with "being the shit on their axe" as you say that they've become so critical of their own playing that they don't even feel worthy of being heard.

I confess that I am not in touch with the Kansas City rock scene and I'm typically indifferent about that music. But in my experience, from a purely musical standpoint, that music really IS less intellectually rigorous than jazz. That doesn't make it inferior, and it certainly doesn't have to be highbrow or complex to be good. The rock musician sees his product as more of a composite, I think, than the jazz musician; that is, he recognizes that promotional materials, stage presence, image, and overall presentation are as important and probably more important than the actual music. The really dedicated jazz musicians I know sometimes short change themselves on those fronts because they're really solely obsessed with the music. And at a certain point it becomes about time--these guys that are perfectionists aren't going to forfeit some of their practice time to work on selling their product. They probably should...but they won't.

Hermon and Mark are great examples, though, of guys that have proven that it's possible to be an extremely dedicated and versatile musician and still be shrewd in regards to networking and promotion. And--they've studied the tradition and don't think swing is lame!

Russell Thorpe said...

Good point. I agree about the whole shortchanging themselves comment in terms of time. But really if you want to be successful you have to be willing to complete all the steps in the application process.

I mean, you can walk into a job interview being the absolute most qualified person for that job but if you act like a jerk to the person interviewing you, you're not going to get the job. Especially if you approach it from the whole "you owe me this" attitude I see in lots of young kids today.

I KNOW how much practice it takes to be good and as I currently do not invest as much time as I should in my instruments I know I am inferior to many of the players on the scene today.

but that never stops me from trying. usually it makes me practice more that week (until life gets n the way and reminds me I have other commitments to fulfill first)

besides, those musicians I admire the most didn't really become big huge names (in their niche markets) until their 40s or perhaps even later.

and i never said anything about swing being lame. Swing is hard, exceedingly difficult and a constant life's work to perfect. The big problem with swing is that an 18-25 year old hears it and immediately thinks "old people=lame=i'd rather hear Lil'Wayne's new hit cause it makes me want to shake my ass"

too bad you prefer to remain anonymous, I think we could have a good conversation here.

Anonymous said...

One of the problemas with the younger cats and the musicians you have mentioned is the fact that these guys play for peanuts. $60, $75 a man and sometimes less. That is atrocious. How can you give away your years of studying and commitment for dough like that.

I lost a series of "corporate" gigs because some of the younger players were willing to put a trio together for $200. The client said, "we want you, your group comes highly recommended" oh, but so and so will do it for $200. I said go with so and so.

We need to put a higher value on our time and our music.

This is not a new problem . Clubs in KC paid $100 a man in the early 90's. The young cats are so desparate for a gig they'll devalue the pay for all musicians.

On another note, these rock guys who play these shows with 8-10 bands on the bill are making peanuts. While the club or producer makes a killing.

This is business. You all deserve better.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to imply you, personally think swing is lame--sorry if it read like that. I don't think I've met you actually.

I have a personal predisposition towards liking music that retains swing elements. It's not an elitist thing I wouldn't say, but the music that moves me, even if it doesn't "swing" per se, has that influence and that spirit. Hard to describe what I mean by that...I'm not articulate enough. What you are saying about the problem with swing being that it doesn't resonate with a younger crowd is sort of what I'm driving at in a way--I think it makes it all the more impressive when someone is able to keep that element strongly in their music and still develop a following. It might be the reality, but it's sort of sad to me that musicians feel like they have to forfeit swing in order to develop a following.

This is probably a whole other debate...I do have to say that I'm going to keep stubbornly trying to get people to like the music that I like to play....that is...mostly standards. It's an uphill battle, and maybe when I'm 30 and destitute I'll have a change of heart!

By the way--this is Michael Shults, former UMKC student, saxophonist...recently relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio. Anonymous because I'm too lazy to remember my google account and password!

Anonymous said...

As long as you are Phonologotron you are annonymous to me.
What is your name?

Russell Thorpe said...

gee, too hard to actually look it up on the internet?

my name is Russell Thorpe. I live in Kansas City and play the saxophones and Bass Clarinet.
I have a cat named Leopold and lots of friends who try to come out and support me when i play if they can.

thanks for the follow up Michael Shults. You've made me think.

as for the other anonymous,
I hear what you say about gigs and underpriced value and club owners ripping people off because said people are willing to let it stand like that. Thank god I don't harbor illusions that I can really make a living playing the bass clarinet. As long as there are people who want me to play with them I am happy to keep practicing.

But, who knows, maybe you are better than me in every single way, good for you. anonymity is for cowards who are afraid to man up to what they have to say.

Cb said...

I am personally very optimistic about both, the perpetuation of the music itself and the current state of the "jazz" scene here in Kansas City. The local Kansas City "jazz" scene on all accounts: from the journalism ( and the young artists of all musical leanings getting/making opportunities to present their work; to the various support systems in place with regard to promoting the scene and providing platforms for artists (Artists Recording Collective) all have a legitimate depth that is necessary for artists to thrive in terms of engaging music industry careers.

Peace, Cb

EricCartman said...

I think the old anonymous guy makes some good points. Unfortunately most jazz musicians under thirty don't really have any illusions about making a living off of jazz. We're just happy to play when we can and aren't really looking to make money. If we wanted money we'd play something else.

On one hand I appreciate the effort to make sure musicians make an decent wage but jazz musicians in Kansas City need to come to the terms with their own lack of economic clout.

How many people come to your shows to see you specifically, and how many people happen to hear you play while they go out for drinks and dinner?

Unless you have your own fan base you're forever at the mercy of the club owners and other musicians willing to out cheap you.