Enough with the search for a ‘Jazz Savior’

Every so often, a barrage of articles and blog posts come out claiming that jazz has found the musician or musicians that are going to “save” jazz. More often than not, these musicians are achieving some current commercial success and popularity among a broad audience outside of the typical “jazz head” community.

The newest jazz savior?

Recently, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and keyboardist Robert Glasper have been deemed the new saviors of jazz. Both are very talented instrumentalists, and it is very likely that neither of them, in their attempt to achieve as much popularity as possible, did it with motivation to save jazz from any sort of demise.

In fact, recent albums from the two that have received popularity might not even be translated as jazz to those who end up purchasing it. Spalding’s Radio Music Society might fall more under R&B, while Glasper’s Black Radio certainly demonstrates strong elements of hip-hop.

Who or what exactly are we saving jazz from?

It might be accurate to say that mainstream popularity of jazz ended when people stopped filling the halls to dance to the latest big band hits.

But, does it make sense to ask: Did bebop save jazz as the Big Band Era declined? Did then Brubeck and Getz save jazz after that? How about fusion in the ’70s?

Return to Forever certainly filled the venues. Then there was Grover Washington Jr., Bob James, and the Crusaders. How about Wynton Marsalis? Did he save jazz?

Kenny G sold 75 million albums (somehow). Was his commercial success a saving grace for jazz, even though most jazz purists can’t stand him? You might laugh at that last one, but in a 2010 article in the Pittsburgh Courier, the author actually asked if smooth jazz was the savior of traditional jazz.

Is it ‘real jazz’? Does it even make sense to ask?

I honestly can’t come up with a better idea of what saving jazz means other than commercial success by a current artist appealing to a broad audience. It certainly doesn’t hurt if that audience is young and trendy and is happy buying albums in mass quantity. If so, then it appears that popularity is the road to saving jazz, regardless of the actual music.

I’m not going to get into whether or not the current works of Glasper and Spalding qualify as “real jazz” or not, because frankly, it isn’t all that important. I will include, however, a segment from a very well written post on the blog Mostly Music. It addresses the same topic, and this particular segment from the posts references Robert Glasper’s recent appearance on Letterman:

“There is no way that Robert Glasper’s more mainstream piano trio would ever have been invited onto Letterman. It is precisely because the music he plays with his Experiment band is NOT jazz that it can have mainstream appeal.”

While I agree that Glasper’s trio wouldn’t have ever been invited to do The Late Show but a band featuring a rap vocalist with Glasper at the keys would because of mainstream appeal, I don’t particularly care what label you put on it. Nor do I feel that a professional musician who happens to record jazz needs to be deemed a savior of jazz simply because traditional jazz records don’t sell all that well anymore.

No savior necessary

I remember a line from The Blues Brothers movie when the band arrives at the bar for a performance and they ask what kind of music is played at that bar. The bar owner says:

We have both kinds of music: Country and Western.

While country music is the one genre of music that I overwhelmingly despise, it is a perfect example of a genre that handled change throughout time well. Sure, fans of old country music might hate modern country, and vice versa. But to the best of my knowledge, no musician was ever called upon to save the genre.

That should be the case here.

There doesn’t need to be conversations about jazz being saved, when it is difficult to explain what it even needs to be saved from. There doesn’t need to be ongoing debates about whether or not Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper truly are or are not actual jazz musicians.

What I believe allows a genre of music to continue to be produced (as I’ve said many times before) is quality and entertainment. If it is good and enjoyable, people will listen. If it isn’t, then they wont. No savior necessary. No appearances on Letterman required. That is, of course, as long as jazz musicians continue to produce quality, enjoyable music.

To suggest or believe that the “saving” of jazz will be a result of large-scale commercial album sales is to suggest that every genre of music needs to be saved since album sales overall continue to decline.

A jazz declaration

Jazz will not disappear because of lagging sales. Musicians, starting at a young age, will continue to learn it and perform it. Until the last talented jazz musician on earth decides to give up the craft, mainstream commercial album sales – and musicians who may or may not actually be playing jazz – do not need to be looked to to save anything.

How Marilyn Monroe changed Ella Fitzgerald’s life

If asked “Who  played an important role in the musical career of Ella Fitzgerald?” you might respond with names like Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong, Norman Granz, and Dizzy Gillespie.

The name Marilyn Monroe (who passed away 50 years ago this August), however, might not come to mind.

While touring in the ’50s under the management of Norman Granz, Ella, like many African-American musicians at the time, faced significant adversity because of her race, especially in the Jim Crow states. Granz was a huge proponent of civil rights, and insisted that all of his musicians be treated equally at hotels and venues, regardless of race.

Despite his efforts, there were many roadblocks and hurdles put in to place, especially for some of the more popular African-American artists. Here is one story of Ella’s struggles (as written in chicagojazz.com):

Once, while in Dallas touring for the Philharmonic, a police squad irritated by Norman’s principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They came into Ella’s dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were shooting dice, and arrested everyone. “They took us down,” Ella later recalled, “and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”

Across the country, black musicians, regardless of popularity, were often limited to small nightclubs, having to enter through the back of the house. Similar treatment was common at restaurants and hotels.

Enter Marilyn Monroe

During the ’50s, one of the most popular venues was Mocambo in Hollywood. Frank Sinatra made his Los Angeles debut at Mocambo in 1943, and it was frequented by the likes of Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Lana Turner.

Ella Fitzgerald was not allowed to play at Mocambo because of her race. Then, one of Ella’s biggest fans made a telephone call that quite possibly changed the path of her career for good. Here, Ella tells the story of how Marilyn Monroe changed her life:

I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt … she personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.

Learning from Ella

Ella had an influence on Marilyn as well. Monroe’s singing had a tendency to be overshadowed by dress-lifting gusts of wind and the flirtatious “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” not to mentions her movies and marriage to Joe DiMaggio. But years prior to the Mocambo phone call, Monroe was studying the recordings of Ella.

In fact, it was rumored that a vocal coach of Monroe instructed her to purchase Fitzgerald’s recordings of Gershwin music, and listen to it 100 times in a row.

Continued study of Ella actually turned Marilyn into a relatively solid singer for about a decade, but again became overlooked as her famous birthday tribute song to JFK in 1962 ends up being the vocal performance that is widely remembered.

Other Posts You Might Enjoy:

The FBI Files of Billie Holiday

The Most Famous Murder in Jazz

Jaki Byard Calls BS – A jazz reminiscence by Dick Stein

Jazz and Presidents

Presidents Day is today, so I thought I would take a look at some photos and videos of Presidents and jazz (the Nixon video might not be jazz, but I found it fun).

Cab Calloway and Lyndon Johnson

Jimmy Carter, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach

Richard Nixon and Duke Ellington

George Bush and Lionel Hampton

Ronald Reagan and Ray Charles



What to make of Nicholas Payton and the ‘J Word’

“Nicholas (Payton) is a force to be reckoned with. The most powerful thing he can do is just keep playing that horn.” – Bobby Watson from an article in the Kansas City Star

I’ve had a pretty difficult week as a writer. I’ve been pulling my hair out trying to figure out not only how to respond to trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s blog post On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore, and the primary reason is because I honestly can’t come up with a concluding thought on the issue in the slightest.

Well, that isn’t entirely true. I have a few thoughts, but I have yet to figure out if Payton is right, wrong, both, neither, or anything in between.

While I invite you to read Payton’s post (at your own risk, as some of the language could be considered controversial), my best effort to summarize it by saying that Payton suggests that the word “jazz” is racist (he mentions that here, among other places), that jazz died in 1959, and “Jazz is a marketing ploy that serves an elite few. The elite make all the money while they tell the true artists it’s cool to be broke.”

Since then, Payton has decided to take a 90-day sabbatical from using the word jazz. And he isn’t the only musician with similar opinions. Payton recently moderated a discussion held at Birdland in New York (which is ironic, since Birdland is called “the jazz corner of the world”), with musicians Gary Bartz, Marcus Strickland, Ben Wolfe, Orrin Evans, and Touré. In a review of the evening from an article in the villagevoice.com, a few quotes were shared:

Nicholas Payton: “If we look back, [jazz] was a white characterization of black music, and there was a blackface version of the serious black art of guys like King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Keppard, Louis Armstrong.”

“Louis Armstrong was the world’s first pop star. He was the Michael Jackson of his time.”

Kind of Blue is the record that we all have to vie against for attention. If our records do well, we’ll be at No. 1 for a while, and here comes the ghost of Kind of Blue coming to kill us. We need to separate from that. Miles was not in support of this.”

Gary Bartz: “Max Roach would have a fistfight for calling it [jazz]. It’s insulting, it’s like calling it the N-Word… because there’s an image. You say, “He’s a j-musician” and people see an image: Drugs, no money…”

There have been some thoughtful reactions in blogs from the likes of Marc Rosenfeld Antunes, Nate Chinen, and Ian Carey. And yesterday, the Kansas City Star posted an article featuring thoughts from a variety of musicians who have interacted directly with Payton, who expressed surprise at Payton’s tone, but supported him in ways as well.

“I think he is very divisive with his comments. Even though I believe he means well for the music and all who play it, his stance, which he’s completely entitled to, comes across as very angry.” – Clint Ashlock, trumpeter, composer, bandleader and educator, from an article in the Kansas City Star

Even during the time I’ve spent composing this post, my opinions seem to change and continue to develop. What I can say is that Nicholas Payton is an extremely intelligent person, and an extraodinary trumpet player. I appreciate and respect his passion and dedication to the issue. I wish Nicholas Payton the best of luck with his campaign.

What I also feel is that the average person who listens to music is far less concerned about the cause and politics, and more concerned about, well, whether or not they simply like how it sounds. Does it make them smile, or cry, or dance, or think? Does it make them think about a particular person, place, or event that took place in their own life? Does it tug at the heartstrings or ignite some energy? Does it entertain?

That is not to say that what Payton is talking about is not important. In fact, I think it is. But my gut tells me that the simple fact of whether or not a listener likes the music or not will always outweigh whatever label or genre might be given to it.

Create a giant music store where CD’s are all filed alphabetically, with no designation to genre at all, for all I care. I am still going to find Payton’s Place, Gumbo Nouveau, nick@night, and Into the Blue (all Payton albums I purchased and highly recommend), just as I would find other albums that I have added to my collection by the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Notorious B.I.G., Van Cliburn, Al Green, Jewel, Michael Brecker, and Outkast. Why? Simple. I liked the music.

I’m reminded of a quote from Art Blakey from an interview conducted by Ben Sidran:

“Music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life. So they’re (the audience) is supposed to come in and enjoy themselves. So if they start feeling like they need to be educated, then it’s not interesting any more.”

It is that quote that makes me think perhaps Bobby Watson was right in the quote at the very top of this post. Nicholas Payton is in fact a force, and his most powerful weapon is his trumpet.

Upcoming visit from trumpet virtuoso looks to inspire all over again

When I sit down this Friday with trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval for a KPLU studio session, look for me to get inspired all over again.

In the fall of 1997, I entered my freshman year in college. One of the primary reasons I chose the university that I went to was because of its outstanding music school, and I was, at least for a few minutes, a very confident jazz trumpeter.

I prided myself on being able to play very high notes in high school, will little regard to tone or accuracy. I was sure that if that level of playing landed me a lead chair in my high school band, that at the very least I would land some chair, any chair, in the top band at the university.

Fast forward one week, and you would have found me three days in to practicing my audition music. I made the mistake of using the practice rooms in the music building my first day, where I heard the trumpet players that landed a full music scholarship effortlessly breezing through their audition music, and I decided that perhaps it would be best to practice in the dorm. At least that way I could struggle in an environment of non-musicians. By this third day, things hadn’t sounded any better, and my audition was approaching.

As it turned out, there was another freshman trumpet player living in my dorm, right down the hall. And as it turned out, he could hear me playing…and struggling. He knocked on the door, introduced himself (Matt Parker was his name), and asked how I was doing.

“Doesn’t it seem the the tempo we are required to play Birdlike at for our audition is faster than Freddie Hubbard’s original recording?” I asked. “Um, no. I think our audition tempo is actually a bit slower”, he replied kindly.

He saw the look of discouragement on my face, and said “Hold on. I’ve got just the thing for you.”

He went back to his dorm room and returned with a CD in his hand. “Track 4”, he said.

I put the CD in, and heard something that I had literally never heard before. The song was A Mis Abuelos by trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and it was as if in 5 minutes and 25 seconds, Sandoval had managed to record a song with literally everything a trumpet player ever wanted to do in it. A slow beginning that showed off some of the best tone I had ever heard.

Once the song picked up speed, so did Sandoval. Lightening fast fingers, unbelievable range that didn’t compromise the tone, and intense energy. Trumpeter and former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen is quoted as saying “Who in the hell is this guy?” after hearing him play.

Me (left) and Matt Parker playing together at a "coffee house" in college

The song ended on one of the most ridiculously high notes I had ever heard, I looked at Matt awestruck. I couldn’t say anything, but he understood what I was feeling. He politely picked my jaw up off of the floor for me and told me I could keep the CD as long as I needed to.

While my audition didn’t end up going so great, I still ended up making one of the bands, and had brand new inspiration from Arturo Sandoval. I was given the belief as a musician that there wasn’t a wall that couldn’t be broken through, and that legitimate, painstaking practice could lead to great things. Every time I needed a kick in the pants to get motivated, I would put on A Mis Abuelos. I moved back to Seattle after college and have seen Sandoval just about every time he has performed in town. I would bring friends who didn’t even like jazz to the show, and their minds would be blown watching this man play.

Arturo and I at Jazz Alley years ago. Do I look nervous?

This Friday (1/13 at 12:15 PM PST), I get the opportunity to host Sandoval for a studio session here at KPLU. He’ll be sitting feet from me, performing live on the air, and answering my questions. While my trumpet has collected a little dust over the last few years as my priorities have shifted from playing jazz to listening, reading, and writing about it, I have the feeling that watching this virtuoso up close and personal could be what it takes to inspire me all over again.