Monday, February 27, 2012

Millionaires in a Recession - Jazz Music's Revival and Our Place In It

On the same evening as one of the film industry's biggest nights (The 84th Annual Academy Awards, aka "Oscar Night", February 26, 2012), vocalist Dianne Reeves and her band took the stage in the beautiful East Room of the White House to entertain a room full of heads of State and, presumably, jazz enthusiasts.  Through the magic of Twitter, her staff posted a new picture on Monday morning of the event, at!/iampetermartin/status/174157907280142336/photo/1

For those that do not have Twitter, permit me to set the scene of the photo.  Imagine a large, yet intimately seated, white paneled, colonial room where soft and low light emanates from several gorgeous, multi-tiered crystal chandeliers hanging overhead. The audience is dressed impeccably in tasteful and conservative evening gowns and tuxedos.  Dianne herself is beautiful in a periwinkle blue flowing gown, the sapphire jewel in a sea of pure black and white dress-settings. The room itself is as stately as always.  A painted portrait of first President George Washington, hangs behind the stage and has exclusive front-row access to Dianne's vocals, as well as to the sounds of her quartet on piano, bass, drums, and guitar. 

Take all of this in stark contrast to everything that we learn about jazz's early roots. Backwater.  Poor.  Church-based.  And later, found in brothels.  Red-light districts.  Seedy locales.  Speakeasies.  Called "jungle music", amongst other horrible racial and cultural slurs.  Marvel again at its evolution, celebrate its revolution, as well as its deep and subtle impact to popular music today, and realize that this is a music that has grown up in the space of only about 100 years. Within that time, jazz's image has amazingly gone from a poor man's spiritual music all the way up to entertaining the realm of the elite.

Now focus this wide camera shot in tighter, to the point of today's thought.  Each week on sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and various Internet blogs, I constantly see music lovers reaching out to the global online community, asking for help on what to listen to in order to better appreciate jazz. 
And each week, while the majority of people are helpful and positive, without fail, there is at least one snooty jerk on every site that replies back to these innocent jazz potential proselytes with a blistering admonishment to buy a book on the subject, "go look it up", and by the way, what these newbies think is jazz "isn't really jazz."  Conversation abruptly ends, feelings are hurt. 

Times like these offer the greatest opportunity for these jazz snobs to offer guidance on their favorite artists for review, but instead, the impact is negative; it no doubt just pushed the listener away from ever pursuing jazz again as an interest and once again tarnished jazz's already unfairly-presented  subculture.  At another level, I continue to observe fellow musicians and critics online woefully mourn why jazz fails to attract and retain as large of a worldwide following as rock and roll or blues.  This should never have been jazz's fate, but in America, it has been so for the past sixty years. 
Stanley Crouch, a major contributing journalist for jazz magazines such as Jazz Times, said it best when interviewed on Ken Burns' "JAZZ", and I will paraphrase it here: Jazz is a welcoming music, it says, "come on in."  I agree fully with that, but I am also a jazz lover, so I already embrace that understanding.  But for the jazz "newbie", even though the music may say, "come on in", some of jazz's presentation may have unintentionally implied, "stay the hell out."

Most people cannot relate to White House Black-Tie affairs, the Oscars, and, as Billy Crystal joked on Sunday night about the film industry, to "millionaires in a recession giving themselves golden statues."  I wager that most people would probably agree with Dizzy Gillespie when he remarked in the 1950s that audiences wouldn't "care if we played a flatted 5th or a ruptured 129th."  And sadly, this old joke rings true:  "What's the difference between a blues musician and a jazz musician?:  The blues musician plays 3 chords a night for 1,000 people.  The jazz musician plays 1,000 chords a night for 3 people. "

But that's what people may experience with a limited understanding of jazz today -- it is often shown in movies and in other media as background music for a very elite party.  It is swarmy, out-of-date, boring filler for the Oscars, Emmies, and Golden Globes.  It is strictly a high-class, sleek black-tie affair at Lincoln Center.  It is utterly unapproachable at Carnegie Hall; and finally, it is only for the most powerful in the White House East Room.  Ergo, "Snobby Rich Music For Snobby Rich People."
What an irony!  How did this happen to a musical tradition that started out as a healing salve amongst poor, itinerant workers in the South, to be seen as Snobby Rich Music?  And more importantly, how do we return jazz to its rightful status as a "welcoming music" that most feel so estranged from?
One idea would be for these jazz snobs to stop pushing people at books and academia and telling them to go look things up on Google.   That's like telling someone whose car just broke down to just fix it, based on a mechanic's manual that one can find on the Internet.  If you don't know where to begin, how do you research the subject meaningfully?

Another idea could be that those snobs out there stop berating a jazz "newbie" for not having the entire history of jazz internalized by now, because it's still a young and evolving art form, and in truth, they are unseasoned music lovers that are asking for collective assistance from more experienced jazz fans.  In that, we (if I may include myself as a non-snobby jazz ambassador!) are in the unique position to act as mentors to place new jazz listeners, musicians, even composers -- on the road to the same joy that we revel in as self-appointed aficionados. 

To complete the analogy, as in the film industry, by broadening the jazz fan base and returning jazz to its rightful place as a welcoming music, we collectively stop representing those "millionaires in a recession that award ourselves golden statues" and instead bring in a new following.  Admittedly, in this case, a "statue" is neither a Grammy nor Oscar; it is a metaphor for the music itself, to which less than 5% of the world actively listens, and with our gentle enthusiasm and support to a new generation of fans, could easily grow.

It might not even hurt us to play a jazz gig in jeans from time to time (such as in this clip, copyright CBS, 2008: --- and by the way, if you read some of the comments below the video, you will find hateful little snipes about her music.) It is this pompous, pretentious attitude that has no place in a welcoming music such as jazz, and that's what's keeping this art from reaching more people. 

I don't mean to sound so gloom and doom; there are plenty of everyday jazz ambassadors out there, helping new fans to learn about this incredible art form, both on and off the stage.  For example, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding is doing a tremendous job of mixing her personal style (the hair, the voice, the bass!) with her immense talent, and turned on a new group of fans to jazz influences when she topped Justin Bieber as a Grammy winner overall (Best New Artist) and again in her category (Best Jazz Artist).  English songstress Adele, while not an jazz artist, is still mixing blues and jazz influences into her original music, and therefore slowly pulling people to discover where that all came from.  Ken Burns' documentary series 'Jazz' has been shown in several schools around the United States over the past decade to spark an interest in this American art form, and the revolution is slowly catching on.  And of course, veteran vocalists and talented jazz musicians such as Patti Austin, Tierney Sutton, Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall, Michael BublĂ©, Harry Connick, Jr, Herbie Hancock, and even Tony Bennett (still doing it in his eighties!) continue to bring people into the jazz listening world through their collaborations with pop and rock stars.  As a result, jazz is likely as popular as a choice in American music as it has ever been in recent years.

Now jazz just needs us to continue to support these efforts - musicians, fellow listeners, composers, writers, educators.  We have the power to keep the fires burning, to truly embrace the "welcoming" spirit of jazz, and to melt that immobile statue down into a warm and joyous gift for all.

Best always,
Kathryn Ballard Shut
TIMKAT Entertainment
Denver, CO, USA
Twitter: @twitter

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