Is jazz growing increasingly tedious? And if so, why? Often when I go out to hear music—as I did last week—I often find I'm disappointed and bored by what I hear. In many cases, there doesn't seem to be much advance planning on the part of the musicians, and engaging audiences no longer seems to be on the agenda. [Pictured: Blues in Green by Bill Matthews]
As I've argued in the past, part of the blame for jazz's slide away from cultural relevancy rests in large part with the universities, where many professors teach students not to worry about what audiences think and encourage them to "just do your own thing." I strongly doubt that there's a single course offered today that addresses strategies for winning over and holding onto audiences.
The other problem is the large number of graduating musicians who have been deluded into thinking that doing your own thing leads to a decent living and that jazz is somehow superior to all other music forms. I increasingly hear jazz musicians complaining about everything from record companies and club owners to an inability to find work, the low values of our culture, and even the validity of the word "jazz."
Much of their beefs and resentment, I suppose, stems from a general frustration over jazz's diminishing popularity and the sub-minimum wage now paid out for playing it. There's also a superiority complex that generally implies that seats are filled with saps and more commercial forms of music are worthless. For example...
Jazz shouldn't be viewed as a crusade—as some noble fight to convert the heathen masses. As much as I wish everyone listened to jazz and loved it the way I do, jazz is never going to be the nation's music. It is and always will be underground music played by exceptionally talented people and appreciated by a relatively small group of fans, many of whom have spent years listening to all jazz forms and have a full understanding of the language.
Jazz is a life you choose for yourself because you love playing it (or writing about it). If the form of jazz you play is that style known as "your own thing," don't be shocked when the audience for your music remains small or shrinks. I'm not advocating that musicians sell out or play corporate events (many do). I'm just asking that they think a little more about their audiences as listeners with eclectic tastes, not judgmental hipsters or low-culture dummies who need to be rehabilitated or transformed.
Despite what professors tell young musicians today, your "own thing" should be about loving your audiences and entertaining them with art, giving them a chance to stop thinking for an evening and feel their hearts. Noise isn't art. And as many jazz musicians are discovering, noise doesn't tend to pay well either.
Clare Fischer (1928-2012), one of the most eclectic and efficient pianist-arrangers whose body of work not only included 50 albums under his own name but who also worked as a sideman on dozens and arranged albums by pop, rock and Latin artists, died on January 26. He was 83.
Over the years, Fischer was able to move hearts and minds with arrangements that avoided commercial gimmickry typically found in movie scores. Rather, he became the ultimate fusion musician—distilling all forms into large, orchestral works that resonated with both jazz-wise audiences and those less familiar with the form. Fischer also recorded extensively on piano with dozens of jazz artists from 1946 on. Along the way he won two Grammy awards (one for a Latin album) and arranged for pop stars, including Prince's film After the Rain.
Among my favorite Fischer albums:
- Cal Tjader—West Side Story (1960)
- Bud Shank—Bossa Nova Jazz Samba (1962)
- Bud Shank—Brasamba (1962)
- Clare Fischer—First Time Out (1962)
- Clare Fischer—Surging Ahead (1963)
- The Hi-Los—Happen to Bossa Nova (1966)
- Clare Fischer—America the Beautiful (2003)
Kris Bowers, live. Kris Bowers, winner of the 2011 Thelonious Monk Competition, will be performing in New York tonight (Saturday) at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. General admission tickets are $25 each. Show time is 7 p.m. For more information, go here. Or call (212) 220-1460.
Sonny Rollins in D.C. Blogger Tom Reney with an interesting take on Sonny Rollins' Kennedy Center tribute in December—and why the tenor saxophonist seemed to so many viewers like a stranger in a room filled with strangers. Go here.
Roy Eldridge radio. On Monday, WKCR-FM in New York will feature its annual Roy Eldridge Birthday Broadcast, playing the music of Little Jazz through the years for 24 hours. Tune in on your computer from anywhere in the world by going here.
Johnny Winter. Last week I went down to catch blues guitarist Johnny Winter with Paul Nelson and the band at B.B. King's in Times Square. As always, Johnny played to capacity and knocked everyone out. No one kills on blues guitar like Johnny. See my earlier Wall Street Journal review of his latest album, Roots. A few weeks ago, Johnny was on David Letterman's Late Show, with that white ponytail tucked neatly up in his hat...
Jackie DeShannon. Singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon has a fabulous new album out, When You Walk in the Room, which I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal. Last week Jackie told me she's going to be performing a mini-concert at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on Monday and answering audience questions. But I see now that the event is sold out. Not to worry. Sample the album here.
Howard Rumsey tribute. If you wake up in the Las Vegas area on Monday, saxophonist Gary Anderson tells me he's leading a tribute to bassist Howard Rumsey and West Coast jazz at the E-String in Henderson, Nev., on Monday at 7 p.m. Learn more here...
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The next time you're far from home and someone asks you to define jazz and why you love it so much, pull up a computer and show them this clip from 1961 (a big thanks to JazzWax reader John Cooper for sending it on down the line)...
Late-night jazz radio. Can't sleep? Too busy thinking about the days when hep jazz disc jockeys ruled the airwaves? Flip open your laptop. Jon Jackson hosts a show every Wednesday on KBGA.org from midnight to 4 a.m. (MST). (That's 2 to 6 a.m., EST).
Oddball album covers of the week. Back in 1958 and '59, record-company art directors typically did one of two things to market female vocalists: They either dressed them in low-cut gowns and positioned them as glamorous and available—or they plopped them on hip furniture and hoped for the best. In the case of Julie London, they did both. Here are three singers sitting pretty: