Resolutions for jazz in the new year

As we head into the new year, I decided to take a look back at some of the things I saw dominate discussion as it relates to jazz over the last year, and I must say, I have no issue with many of them never being discussed again.

I know that the topic of finding a way to revitalize the commercial success and popularity of jazz is certainly nothing new. However in 2012, it seemed that many found it necessary to anoint two musicians as saviors for jazz in the mainstream. Bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding beat out pop child Justin Bieber for the 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist (much to the chagrin of 9 year old girls everywhere), and keyboardist Robert Glasper made a musical appearance on David Letterman. Following this, jazz bloggers and writers seemed to suggest that these two young musicians could attract the attention of more than just hardcore jazzheads, and in turn it would/could result in an increase in record sales, concert attendance, and overall acclaim for the jazz industry.

There are so many different things I want to say about this that I hardly even know where to start, but I will try my best.

For starters, I vaguely remember the same sort of suggestions being made when Norah Jones exploded on to the scene with her mega-hit Blue Note album Come Away With Me. I also remember the Herbie Hancock album River: The Joni Letters  winning the 2008 Grammy for Album of the Year, only the second jazz album ever to receive that honor, and writers suggesting that this would launch jazz back into the mainstream.

The recognition that Norah Jones and Herbie Hancock received benefited two musicians: Norah Jones and Herbie Hancock. I have yet to see any evidence that those who ended up purchasing their albums or hearing their music all of a sudden made a huge genre switch in their listening patterns, or sought out other musicians from the jazz genre. In fact (and I have no evidence to support this, only a very strong gut feeling), I would be willing to bet that if you took a poll of 100 jazz musicians, 99 of them would say, without hesitation, that the attention Norah and Herbie received did literally nothing to increase the work or sales for the rest of the musicians in the jazz industry.

Now, somehow, Spalding and Glasper are the fresh faces, and once again, writers are holding them up on high. These two musicians appealed to the mainstream because they produced music with crossover appeal (not to mention that they are young, attractive, and hip). Many jazz musicians (in fact, I would say the majority), either have no interest in producing “crossover” music that appeals to those that might not particularly be attracted to mainstream jazz, or have struggled for years to find out exactly how to create that appealing crossover sound.

What we need to do is be honest. People that have listened to rap, rock and country don’t just wake up one day and decide that today is the day they start listening to jazz. And there isn’t a young, attractive crossover musician that can appear on a late night talk show that will make them do that. While I share the concern with others about jazz radio stations disappearing, record labels dropping their jazz musicians, and jazz musicians in general struggling to get work, trying to attract people through Esperanza and Glasper is not the way to go.

There is no magic bean to make jazz commercially successful again. Those who are going to enjoy it will enjoy it, and those who wont enjoy it wont. But if that is your concern, bloggers, writers, and critics, then there are a few things you can always do to help.

For starters, try taking a friend (or six) to a show. And then another show, and then another show. These shows can be cheap, yet you kill two birds with one stone. You are still financially supporting these musicians with your cover charge, and you are exposing others to their music. Try purchasing albums (especially by jazz musicians who are still living) rather than having your jazz collection be made up entirely of records sent to you for free by labels for review or airplay.

Regardless, I would love this year for writers to be more focused on good, quality music rather than discussions on what pretty face is going to save jazz this year.

On a different note…

I was more or less over reading the writings and Twitter posts of Nicholas Payton, but I was way more over reading the thoughts and responses to Nicholas Payton by everybody else. I may not care for or agree with all of the stuff Payton wrote over the last year, but it is crazy how much people tried to analyze it dissect it. The worst part about it was people deciding on their own exactly why he was writing it. Who cares? Maybe his is mad, maybe he isn’t. But with all the crap that people write on the internet, why does a trumpeter get so much attention and is so scrutinized for it? Politicians and professional athletes barely have their “controversial” public thoughts and comments gone over with such a fine tooth comb.

I will say that one of the best things that Payton wrote this last year was An Open Letter to Branford Marsalis. I didn’t just like this post because he took Branford to task, but because he supported his ideas academically. His arguments were well thought out, his tone was calm, and he used great quotes to support his opinion. Whether you agree with a person or not, this is a great example of how someone should present their side in an argument. Just like in any real life debate, people respond much better to logic and facts rather than anger and yelling.

There are plenty of other things for me to rant about (like how I am convinced that one major jazz blogger is insistent on creating a “best of” list at the end of each year, this year no exception, filled with albums based on how obscure they are rather than if he really enjoys them). Instead, rather than focusing even more on the things I didn’t like about the jazz world from last year, I’m going to open up a new CD and focus on enjoying the jazz world more this year. Hopefully this year we can all focus less on the politics of the music, and focus more on the music itself.

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, 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.

Building a “Trendy” Dream Big Band Part 1 of 2

I recently made a post talking about trendiness in jazz, and in previous posts I constructed my own personal dream big band, consisting of my favorites of all time, living or deceased.

I’ve decided to mix the two. I’ve created a big band that consists of living musicians that I consider to be some of the trendiest or hippest or most visible musicians today. Just like my original dream big band posts, this is purely my opinion, and no doubt every person out there might construct something different (which is why I always ask for you to post yours).

That being said, enjoy (or hate) this grouping of musicians that I think are doing what it takes to keep jazz entertaining, edgy, fun, exciting, trendy, hip, etc., etc., etc. In part 1, the trumpets and saxes!

The Trumpets

Lead Trumpet: Arturo Sandoval

Arturo is still the big name these days in screaming trumpet players. It is rare to attend a show of his and not be a part of a excited, roaring audience.

Watch Arturo Sandoval play Groovin’ High:

Second Trumpet: Wynton Marsalis

I don’t know if it helped or hurt his “trendiness rating” by recording with Willie Nelson recently, but appearances on shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report still make him the most visible jazz musician alive.

Wynton’s trendiness shown in an IPod ad:

Third Trumpet: Roy Hargrove

Roy represented all trumpeters in 2008 with an album that was likely the best jazz album of the year. Always with a hip band and getting better all the time.

Hargrove’s solo on Impressions with Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker:

Fourth Trumpet: Terence Blanchard

This guy oozes cool. Someone who absorbed every minute he spent with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and made his trendiness known by writing and recording scores for multiple Spike Lee films.

Terence in Tokyo 2005:

Fifth Trumpet: Nicholas Payton

He has a tendency to become your favorite trumpet player after you see him perform live. He is extremely versatile and his recordings show a wide range of talents.

Watch Nicholas Payton play Bags Groove:

The Saxes:

1st Alto: Kenny Garrett

Whatever it was that he picked up from working with Miles Davis, I’m happy he did. He is extremely inventive and entertaining, and has managed to soak up some of that edginess from Miles in the 80’s.

Kenny playing Wayne’s Thing:

2nd Alto: Maceo Parker

So what if he advertises himself at 98% funk and 2% jazz? Every band needs some funkiness (Just ask James Brown when Maceo was his music director). His shows are as entertaining as it gets.

Watch Maceo Parker perform Pass the Peas:

1st Tenor: Branford Marsalis

Although he might have been considered a little bit dry during his short run as Jay Leno’s band leader on the Tonight Show, it was network exposure of a great jazz musician, earning him trendy points. He also continues to produce some of the most artistic albums in modern jazz.

Branford shows off his trendiness playing Roxanne with Sting:

2nd Tenor: Joshua Redman

The coolest man holding a sax these days, and maybe the smartest. The Ivy League grad has put out some of the coolest recordings in the last decade.

Joshua Redman and Stevie Wonder pay tribute to Duke Ellington:

Baritone Sax: Ronnie Cuber

A ton of power and energy. No wimps in this all star band!

Ronnie plays Filthy McNasty:

The rest of the band next time!!!