The New Face of Jazz

A friend owns a coffee and wine shop in Chapel Hill and recently he sold 140 tins of sardines after mentioning in his newsletter that Portuguese sardines are the best in the world and he’s now selling them in his shop.  People want to know what is good.  I noticed this when I worked in Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books in the mid-1990′s.  People want something other than the standard fare, and if you tip them off on writers like Margaret Laurence and Alistair MacLeod and Edward P. Jones and William Maxwell they eat it up and come back for more.

The same is true with jazz.  If more people were out there touting the contemporary scene there would be a bigger, more appreciative audience.  Jazz and the alt-rock audience is a match that needs to be made.  It’s already happening under the surface.  Mehldau plays Radiohead.  The Bad Plus plays Nirvana.  Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood tout Mingus and Alice Coltrane.  Joe Henry hires Mehldau and Brian Blade and Jason Moran and Don Byron for his albums.  Jeff Tweedy hires Nels Cline for Wilco.  Meshell Ndegeocello puts together a top notch jazz band and tours the European festivals.  Lucinda Williams sings about Coltrane.  Derek Trucks quotes Coltrane in his solos.  Branford Marsalis and Trucks ponder a joint project.

The next step is to get current jazz in front of younger audiences who are standing up drinking beers, not told to sit still and be quiet.  If you listen to Monk at the Five Spot or Bill Evans at the Vanguard you hear people talking and drinking.  More new steps would be if Merge Records produced jazz albums and if Pitchfork wrote more about jazz, as Patrick Jarenwattananon recently mentioned on his important new NPR blog.  It wouldn’t just be a service it would be a new market.  If Marcus Strickland or Jeremy Pelt played Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle or Durham’s Pinhook they’d set the places on fire.  I know this goes against efforts to make jazz “America’s classical music,” and for young musicians who matriculate in the finest conservatories it seems like a step down to tour hipster dives.  But the move is essential to building new and younger audiences.  It could work.

Two weeks ago on Jarenwattananon’s blog I learned about a new effort by Cicily Janus to promote the vitality of current jazz in a book called The New Face of Jazz. Janus interviewed more than two hundred jazz musicians and the book is a compendium of excerpts from her interviews.  I bought it earlier this week.  There will probably be a rush to criticize Janus (it’s already starting to happen) and there are things about the book I’d do differently.  But more people should be doing work like this.  I wish I had done it.  Here are some notable quotes from the book:

Frank Kimbrough, piano player:  “I got started in music when I was very young, maybe three years old, living in a small town in North Carolina.  My mother and grandmother were both piano teachers who taught at home, so as far as I knew everybody played piano.  They’d take me to church on Sunday morning, and when we got home I’d pick out the hymns and songs and improvise on them.  At the age of seven I began piano lessons, but I always continued to improvise.”

Ingrid Jensen, trumpeter:  “My mother was a classically trained pianist.  She provided me with a highly creative environment, and music was the center of all we had.  To her, music was something anybody could go to at anytime of day.  The piano kept her sane while raising three kids on her own without much support and holding down a teaching job.  This was a very important lesson for me.  Despite her initial image I didn’t see any pictures of women playing jazz until I was in my teens.  But it wasn’t that big of a deal, thanks to the highly supportive artistic environment I grew up in.”

Steve Swallow, bassist and alum of 821 Sixth Avenue:  “Several years ago I attended a concert of a piece by Messiaen, the Quartet for the End of Time. I’d heard it on recordings many times, and I greatly admired the piece.  I went to the performance and objectively it wasn’t a great performance.  As I listened to it I was in my usual analytical mode and enjoying it while standing back from it at the same time.  I guess there’s always a part of me that’s extracting knowledge from any music I listen to.  Then the piece finished and we all got up to leave.  I was leaning against the building, waiting, and I was completely, unexpectedly blindsided by an overwhelming sadness.  I burst into a deep bout of crying and staggered out of the building and disappeared around the corner to sob uncontrollably.  I realized that despite the objective stuff going on, I was having a very deep experience that caught up with me when the piece was finished.  From then on, I had great respect for the mysterious ways music can affect people.”

Jeremy Pelt, trumpeter:  “Despite what critics say or who’s bowing to them, jazz is at its healthiest point right now.  There are some famous figures that get a lot of press, and more times than not they’re the ones who are stagnant and give this perception of the art being stagnant.  But jazz has always survived because of the undercurrent of talent.  This is the reason it’s still flowering today.”

-Sam Stephenson

1 Comment

  1. Cicily Janus Said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

    Thanks for the shout out. I agree….completely. I wish Ambrose or Jeremy or Christian would light some of the “usual” places on fire and start anew with the crowd that desperately needs to hear what they have to say. When I was at the New York Winter Jazz Fest this past December I was astounded at what Jason Miles, DJ Logic and Ingrid Jensen in their group, Global Noize did with their music to turn the hall into a house party for the ages. I don’t think I was too drunk to see it all happen and unfold in front of me, but I believe there was a mosh pit in front of the stage at one point. The music is there, it’s certainly not “classical” and it certainly deserves the attention of the newer generations. And I know the criticism is coming…I’m just waiting for it to hit. But then again, any time you put yourself out there in any form or fashion in the greater media formats like print or audio etc, you’re going to have folks that think you’re the worst thing ever. Hopefully just one of the readers, listeners, jazz fans and more out there think that this was a worthy project and start their collection of new jazz because of the words and the people in the book. They’re all worth listening to. Every single one of them. Even the ones that were interviewed and didn’t make it in deserve listening to. There’s just so much ground to cover and hardly enough trees to cover them with…

    Thanks again and I’m glad you mentioned me in your blog. I thoroughly enjoyed the Loft Project and have already mucked it up with my finger prints and ear wax.