Portland jazz fest hails Blue Note, cancels Cassandra

The PDX Jazz Festival in Portland, Oregon last week began to garner good reviews for its programs, many of which celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Blue Note Records. Yet as the first major jazz festival of 2009, it may be the canary in the coalmine regarding effects of the economic downturn. Last fall Alaska Airlines rescued the fest from folding after its major funder, Seattle-based Qwest Communications, pulled out, having been one of the decade’s 25-worst performing S&P 500 Index stocks. Now, according to PDX Jazz artistic director Bill Royston, severely disappointing ticket sales forced his cancellation of a major show scheduled for Friday 2/20 headlined by singer Cassandra Wilson, with pianist Jason Moran‘s band as an opening act.

“I’ve never cancelled a show before in 30 years,” Royston told me, continuing, “Other than sales, which are somewhat down across the boards, we’re doing fine.”

I’m going to Portland as a guest of the fest Thursday (weather willing) to publicly interview Toronto-based, Afro-Cuban championing soprano sax-and-flutist and another fest artistic director Jane Bunnett, to hear guitarist Pat Martino, vibist Bobby Hutcherson with alto sax soulman Lou Donaldson, singer-songwriter-pianist Patricia BarberKurt Elling interpret the Coltrane/Johnny Hartman songbook, as many local acts as possible and oh yes, the Master Musicians of Joujouka.the Master Musicians of Jajouka. (error corrected: Joujouka is a band led by someone other than Bachir Attar, who carries on the original authentic Jajouka troupe).
I’m sure I’ll enjoy it all — over the past five years, this fest has put Portland on the map as having a responsive audience for many styles of contemporary jazz and improvisation. However, I have some mixed feelings about this year’s organizing principle. . . 
On the one hand: Blue Note is and has been a genuine savior of jazz artistry and a proponent of jazz-beyond-jazz almost since its founding. Thanks to Blue Note, we have the first trio recordings of Thelonious Monk, the best of pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, Bud Powell, Herbie Nichols, Don Pullen, Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock as well as Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley and Joe Henderson, the breakthrough ensemble works of Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean and Sam Rivers, the most of Grant Green and Jimmy Smith, and especially satisfying albums by Chick Corea, Elvin Jones, Cannonball Adderley, Sheila Jordan, Ornette Coleman and Tony Williams. 
That’s just to reference musicians recorded before 1970, recordings that informed much of my youthful taste (Coltrane and Miles both have minor though interesting BN albums, and I also was moved early on by Sun Ra and weirdos on ESP Disk, plus the AACM and blues put out by Delmark). More recently Blue Note has championed such of my favorites as Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Greg Osby, Geri Allen and Bobby McFerrin (several of whom have been or will be featured at the PDX fest, in films if not onstage) as well as Cassandra, who’s Loverly made my 2008 10 best list, and Moran, another pianist I admire and believe is continuing to develop.
Blue Note was also the outfit that best understood the importance of multi-dimensional support for  the musical artistry of its productions, with brilliant sound recording by Rudy van Gelder, beautiful portrait photography, much of it by Francis Wolff (below, Bobby Hutcherson)
and hip cover designs by Reid Miles.
 (It wasn’t so dependably great on liner notes, but there is some good writing associated with its catalog and I’m proud of liners I’ve done for the label). 
On the other hand, to commemorate a single record label, any record label, over two weeks of fest programming can seem like overt promotion. Maybe such a partnership is what it takes to stage an independent city-wide jazz fest these days, but when PDX mounted a similar program with ECM two years ago, I found my professional sense of journalistic distance to be challenged when sitting on panels with partisan employees of that firm. As it happens I hold all those with whom I was impanelled in esteem and believe they are sincere in their admiration for what Manfred Eicher has wrought. But nonetheless I owed it to our audiences to express scepticism about all things ECM — aesthetics including artists, sound and cover art — being the greatest accomplishments of any jazz entrepreneurs since, uh, Blue Note.
It may become a critic’s luxury to carp about festival-label collaborations if tightening money is going to require fests everywhere to supplement income from ticket sales with good deals on artists who come out with label encouragement and in some cases I assume, financial support. Of course quality will out — if the artists aren’t good musicians or good draws, few artistic directors will book them no matter how little they have to pay. A fest like Portland’s depends upon pleasing its ticket buyers, the better to enlist them as repeat customers.
The question remains: As jazz is not immune from economic fluctuations, how will jazz fests adapt to the new financial landscape? Will artists’ fees, transportation and hotel costs, advertising and promotion budgets be cut? Will ticket prices come down — or go up? Will audiences come, regardless? Will there still be jazz festivals? The season bringing answers has just begun.

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  1. says

    Hi, just wanted to note that it was the Master Musicians of Jajouka (not Joujouka)who played in Portland. The link to their site is actually http://www.jajouka.com not joujouka.net
    The site you linked to is a rival group led by an Irishman who has often tried to sabotage and discredit the group led by Bachir Attar. Attar is regarded by most as the inheritor of the traditions of the ancient masters. My father,Rolling Stone critic Robert Palmer, first visited the village of Jajouka in 1971 and firmly believed in Bachir’s talent, ability, dedication, and legitimacy as the leader of the Master Musicians.
    HM: Right, right right — I heard Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka last night at Roseland Theater, and will report thoroughly on their incredible music and it’s connections to jazz and beyond when I get back from the Portland jazz fest. But I intended no slight to the Jajoukans — Bachir did a lecture demonstration to my NYU class in World Music last summer, and certainly the ensemble he leads practices a fascinating ancient heritage at full force in the here and now.