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.

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.

Listening To Rap With Robert Glasper

Below is a link to a great posting from NPR’s “A Blog Supreme” jazz blog written by Patrick Jarenwattananon on August 26th.

Patrick does a wonderful interview with rising star pianist Robert Glasper, who on his latest CD Double Booked shows two sides: his acoustic trio and his love for hip-hop and rap elements.They have a great discussion about Glasper taking on both genres at the same time.

Click here to read the entire interview:

Listening To Rap With Robert Glasper

August 26, 2010 by Patrick Jarenwattananon

Robert Glasper

Album Review: Double-Booked by Robert Glasper

Double-Booked by Robert Glasper

Release Date: August 25, 2009, Blue Note

robert glasperThe title of pianist Robert Glasper’s new album is a play on words in a couple of ways. The first is a reference to the album splitting time between Glasper’s two bands: his trio and The Robert Glasper Experiment. The second reference to the title, whether it be true or not, is revealed in the opening seconds of the first track. Trumpeter Terrance Blanchard is heard leaving Glasper a voicemail, suggesting that there is a rumor going around that Glaspar booked his “Experiment” band to play at one club, while his trio was scheduled to play at Blanchard’s new club on the exact same night.

Admittedly, Glasper’s previous release In My Element, while demonstrating a wonderful talent, did not personally leave me waiting in great anticipation for this new release. Double-Booked, however, is ultimately enjoyable from the opening track to the final note.

With Double-Booked, Robert Glasper is destined to put himself on the top of the list of young, hip jazz pianists (alongside Eldar and Taylor Eigsti). What gets him to be a part of this list is not simply talent, but the ability to demonstrate a wonderful creativity in different settings. Double-Booked not only shows versatility, but the ability to have a well-rounded understanding of what sounds will be leading edge, in either a acoustic trio or a more intense, hip sounding edgy “Experiment”.

The first six tracks are from the Robert Glasper Trio. I will say that if you like the opening track, No Worries, then you will like the rest of the acoustic set. I don’t say that because they all sound the same, because they don’t. I say that because the set list was well thought out with seamless transitions. The Thelonious Monk tune, Think of One, is also a highlight of the acoustic set, closing it out. It has become popular as of late for musicians to make their own recording of this tune, but Glasper makes it his own without sounding like he is trying too hard to recreate it.

The second half of the album begins with a second voicemail left by ?uestlove, the drummer for The Roots (and no, that is not a misspelling, his professional name is spelled ?-u-e-s-t-l-o-v-e, sometimes spelled Questlove). The message suggest the reverse of Blanchard’s message, suggesting that he heard the trio was already booked, but that Glasper should bring The Experiment for a jam session with Mos Def and company.

This is a lead in to The Experiment’s half of the album, which takes an edgier look at things, mixing jazz with a hip-hop attitude. Rapper Mos Def is immediately heard rapping on the second half, almost as a suggestion to the listener that this kind of hip attitude is exactly what the listener would be getting into for the next six tracks.

Sax, vocoder, turntables, electric bass, and Rhodes all make themselves entirely audible during The Experiment’s portion of the album, which is just as entertaining, well produced and performed as the first half. Vocalist Bilal adds a nice touch to the final two tracks, All Matter and Open Mind.

Double-Booked should dwarf the success that In My Element had. For those who still fear the mixing of hip-hop sounds with jazz – give it a good listen. This is how it is done right. And if that combination still scares you, stick to the first half of the album. Double-Booked, in one way or another, takes care of every listener.