Internat’l jazz journalists convene, talk, listen (eat, drink, argue, make merry)

More than three dozen pundits and several hundred devotees of “jazz” old and new, free-form and familiarly-structured, abstract and/or pure blue — writers, broadcasters, editors, photographers, new media specialists and teachers (most of whom fulfill several of those roles simultaneously) — from some 20 countries — pondered the big picture – “Jazz in the Global Imagination” at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism lecture hall Saturday in the first such international conference ever held in the U.S.
It was sponsored by the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, produced by its director George E. Lewis, and consulted by the Jazz Journalists Association. That’s an organization I’m deeply involved with, which hosted auxiliary events — a party and jazz tour of Harlem, a Sunday brunch sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center so hip that Wynton Marsalis attended.

Trumpeter-bandleader-composer-spokesman-role model-Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director Marsalis, though internationally acclaimed, highly honored and more media-visible than any other living jazz musician, hasn’t always enjoyed harmonious relationships with journalists (including this one) — but he was entirely personable and welcoming to the 70-some conference participants, JJA members and friends at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the stylish eating-drinking-venue in the complex he said was meant to be a “home for jazz — all visions of jazz.”
He allowed that like members of a family, people into jazz can have divergent opinions, yet still sit down to celebrate together. If this was the first visit to the Jazz at Lincoln Center facilities, he hoped it was only their first, that they’d come again. Wynton didn’t play — he was hanging with his teenage son, who presses him at basketball — but he met face-to-face several journalists he’d previously known only by phone. Face-to-face is better.
Adrian Ellis, a British 10-year-resident of NYC three weeks new as executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, also addressed us, citing John Gennari’s book Blowin’ Hot and Cool surveying jazz journalism as evidence that it’s always been vital to the comprehension, dissemination and preservation of jazz. The thought went down easily among the journalists, as did the bacon, ham, eggs, fruit, cornbread, biscuits in maple-flavored gravy, mimosas and gallons of coffee we were served and a strong set by Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca‘s quartet (with saxophonist Ralph Bowen). At brunch-end most of the non-New Yorkers scurried off for trains and planes to distant homes.
{Before the brunch a dozen intrepid early risers from the conference took an entertaining, informative and not too brisk walk through Harlem’s Sugar Hill, Strivers’ Row and legendary if mostly long-gone music club strip, conducted by Paul Blair (SwingStreets). Paul is also editor of Hot House magazine, and I recommend his guide-work any reasonably limber jazz adept.
As for the red meat — the conference panels — they started at 9 a.m. Saturday — not too late, as we’d been out Friday the night before at a chicken&ribs reception at the Lenox Lounge (co-sponsored by Boosey & Hawkes music publishers) with music by ASCAP Young Jazz Composer competition-winner Robert Rodriguez‘s piano trio — then to hear South African multi-reeds player Zim Ngqawana, a concert at Museo del barrio that was part of the Center for Jazz Studies’ larger “Columbia/Harlem Festival of Global Jazz”schedule.
Ngq(pronounced with a click)awana is a post-Coltrane reedsman, with a deliberate, astringent sound on saxes (more timbral on tenor, more fluid on alto) and a compositional approach different than though reminscent of Capetown-native pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand). His pianist combined power with limpidity, and special guest bassist William Parker was excellent as always. Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman performed what I was told was a characteristically high-energy second half, with musicians from Cuba and elsewhere, but the subway ride back to Brooklyn threatened to be more than 90 minutes, so I ducked out on that before it happened, hoping it will happen soon again.
Still, the panels, you want to know what was said at all these panels. Well, I haven’t digested it all yet – I’m still recalling the titular summitt meeting of the day. Populated by Gwen Ansell (South Africa), Seda Binsbagil (Istanbul), Christain Broecking (Berlin), Stanley Crouch (NYC), Francis Davis (Philadelphia), Alain Derbez (Vera Cruz, Mexico), Alex Dutihl (Paris), Gary Giddins (New York), Ben Ratliff (New York), Greg Tate (New York), and Kazue Yokoi (Tokyo), with June Cross, professor of journalism at Columbia and a noted PBS news producer introducing that session, and me moderating, it was set up to let us position ourselves on issues regarding the intersection of jazz with its global reach and new creative infusions, its image and practice in the work, and journalists struggling to keep pace wth media developments while constantly fine-tuning their personal aesthetics.
To me the big fun of it was Tate’s presentation, purportedly research he’d done on “the black brain,” and Derbez’s sonnet, which he offered in Spanish, then English. Kazue Yokoi defended the avant garde, farflung from the roots of jazz in African-American culture, emphatically telling Stanley Crouch “Times are changing!” while Seda Binbagil defended mainstream (and even commercial!) American jazz as being of particular interest among the intellectuals of Istanbu, for being the true jazz, understood as born of African-American struggles with genuine social problems. The rumor that American jazz is dead (or just irrelevant now) but new ideas/talents are bubbling up in formerly remote jazz enclaves has spread among some foreign constituencies, and may be pleasant to contemplate, though few Americans would give it credence. This rumor was hinted at several times, though never officially called to the floor — at the end of 12 hours of jazz theorizing, we were all pretty much in concilliatory, collaborative moods. But there was some heat. The multitude of accents and plethora of perspectives voiced by non-panelist participants (questioners and kibbitzers) as well as those of us on the program proper exposed the global nature of jazz, but also that people living far from each other find in jazz a culture to share, and fight over!
Documentation: Thorough panel minutes, written by JJA Jazz Notes’ editor David Adler and ambitious JJA member Jeremy Pfau, are currently active postings at, meaning you (or anyone) can add comments to make the discussions ongoing.
A two-camera shoot of the six panels has been prepared by a special Columbia department, and there’s no news yet on where/when it will be viewable. Papers and presentations by panelists for the conference are being collected for posting soon at
What next? There are thank you’s to write, follow-ups on contacts to be dealt with, promises to keep — all the usual post-conference work, which is the cost of the privilege of meeting in real time and physical space with people for exchanges/networking, if we do it right.
What could come out of this conference? More and better contacts for those who involved themselves, first of all — perhaps allowing for determination of journalistic issues we hold in common, as well as exchange of info on the sounds/trends we know about for the same on those we don’t. Group consideration of hard-core professional issues — ethical, financial, craft-oriented, etc. Different slants on some of the ongoing themes of jazz/arts joiurnalism: What is the “real” art? How far does the concept stretch? What’s one’s personal stake, and what role does history play? How do we conceive the art’s history — what’s the “truth” or “truths” we try to tell? Is being passionate about the art, becoming its advocate, an abandonment of objectivity, a lapse into conflicts of interest?
Senior jazz journalist, NEA Jazz Master, Grammy-winning liner note writer and director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University Dan Morgenstern said it isn’t.
“The responsibility is to advocate for the music,” he urged us in luncheon remarks (that regrettably aren’t documented online or via video). “That’s the best thing we can do.” For those of us who believe it, that’s very nice to hear — however much more we have to explain it to our loved ones. And even to each other, or ourselves.

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  1. says

    Any chance it might become an annual (or otherwise regular) event, so that those of us who couldn’t make it this time around have something to aspire to? :-)

  2. says

    I just wanted to say this was nice to read, even though it seemed more to focus on talking than playing the ‘music’ itself. Jazz is all over the world, and now influenced by harmonies and textures of international musicians, who look and collaberate with the masters to be shown the truth of this music and sometimes truth within themselves, and share that with audiences… Whew, whoo! Long sentence/thought there. But, anyway, this meeting could just be the beginning of international collaberation of this beautiful freedom of expression in sound. Jazz on….