Vision Festival, NYC’s sole surviving summer jazz big bang

With no news confirming — or denying — that there will be a mainstream New York City jazz festival next summer like those produced by George Wein since the late ’60s and for the past 25 years supported by the JVC Corporation of America, the artist-organized “avant-jazz” Vision Festival stands as the largest and longest concentrated such effort in the city this year, having just released its complete schedule of concerts and panels to be held at the downtown Abrons Arts Center and Angel Orenzanz Foundation June 9 – 15, 2009.

Wein by comparison — and disassociated with Festival Network, to whom he sold his former Fetival Productions company two years ago — has announced he’ll present singer-pianist Diana Krall at Carnegie Hall June 23 and 24 (in celebration of Quiet Nights, her recently releasedstring-drenchedchart-topping album of broken-hearted love songs) and stage jazz and folk fests in Newport, Rhode Island, where he established the successful format for summer vernacular music fests 55 years ago.

“Avant-jazz” and its related forms of expression (improv dance, in-the-moment drawing/painting, music-inspired poetry) tend to be thought of as enduring aspects of artistic bohemia, marginally or not-at-all commercial though the Vision Festival is now in its 14th consecutive year. Produced by the non-profit Arts for Art, Inc. organization headed by Patricia Nicholson-Parker (wife of bassist William Parker), the Vision Festival says its mission is to build awareness, understanding, a sense of community and stage for multi-media collaborations serving musicians from innovative Afro-American-derived perspectives/traditions and their audiences.

I once objected on-air to WNYC-FM program host John Schaefer‘s statement that the Vision Fest is more open to different styles of jazz than Wein’s JVC New York Jazz Festival and related JVC Newport Jazz Festivals; I still think the Vision Fest programs deep into its subgenre, rather than wide, encompassing the varieties of jazz. There are no so-called “traditional,” swing, bebop, fusion, smooth or determinedly commercial acts at a Vision Fest, but instead an international complement of improvisers partaking of post-Ornette Coleman/Cecil Taylor freedoms regarding melodic conception, harmonic fields and rhythmic underpinnings. Vision Festival artists typically embrace open-improvisation, high energy and determined self-expression rather than conventional song formats and repertoire familiar to non-specialist “general” audiences.  
This year’s Vision Festival comprises 48 performances. Highlights at first glance include violinist Billy Bang‘s “Brass Bang” (four brass, Bang and drums); midwestern reedist-visual artist-folk craftsman Douglas Ewart‘s band; Butch Morris conducting a chorus of poets and string ensemble; the Sun Ra Arkestra directed by Marshall Allen (who will be honored for his lifetime achievement); Chicago alto saxist Ernest Dawkins‘ New Horizon Ensemble, drummer Sunny Murray‘s Quartet with reedists Odean Pope and Sabir Mateen; South African saxophonist Zim Ngquawana with William Parker, pianist Matt Shipp and drummer Nashiet Waits; drummer Milford Graves‘ quartet with Parker and pianist D. D. Jackson; singer Lisa Sokolow‘s trio (I wrote liner notes for her excellent album A Quiet Thing); guitarist-bassist Joe Morris‘ GoGo Mambo tentet; Henry Grimes solo violin, bass and poetry; Chicago 80-year-old jazz master/proprietor of the Velvet Lounge tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson‘s trio with Parker and drummer Hamid Drake; pianist Michele Rosewoman with a sextet; German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann‘s trio Full Blast; violinist Jason Kao Hwang‘s 25+ string ensemble Spontaneous River. 
The style of the above artists is about as far as can be from what Diana Krall has wrought, and what most other jazz-defined best sellers offer. The Vision Fest has, over the course of its existence, been a convention of the hard-core improv ranks, and as such is a good thing.  But if no effort or focus is fixed on the diversely flavored, multi-generational “jazz” that has attracted casual listeners as well as devoted fans in years past to Carnegie, Avery Fisher and Alice Tully Halls, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, the Danny Kaye Playhouse, the Studio Museum and jazz clubs throughout Manhattan via discounted after-concert tix, Jazz City is impoverished — isn’t it?
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  1. says

    I still think the Vision Fest programs deep into its subgenre

    It’s not only that, although that certainly true. It’s also that the “subgenre” the Vision Fest is committed to a very particular, narrow, and, honestly, kind of old-fashioned idea of what “avant garde” means and what it could be. In past years there seemed to be a good-faith effort to program at least a few younger artists who are really pushing things in a different direction and not just playing in a codified “neo-avant” language. Maybe it’s just me, but this year it seems like there’s a lot less of that — just look at the average age of the artists being presented.
    If the Vision Festival define their role primarily as historical preservationists (like JALC), honoring the elder statesmen of the 1960’s and 1970’s avant-garde, then clearly they are doing an admirable job! But if they also want to be seeing as a cutting-edge festival, showcasing what’s best in contemporary improvised music, it seems to me their programming (this year, at least) falls short of the mark.
    HM: Thanks for your comments, Darcy, I think they’re all to the point. In its mission they define their interests, and they’ve stuck to them – there is no law saying they MUST stretch out, though. And fortunately some other non-profit music presenters represent other new efforts.
    I’m thinking of the Jazz Gallery, where I heard your Secret Society open an impressive series of commissions for large ensembles; Roulette, where Adam Rudolph has staged several large-scale and audience-drawing GoOrchestra improvised concerts; Issue Project Room, where Brandon Ross is playing soon, and Butch Morris conducting the Chorus of Poets and String Ensemble. I wonder if the new economy will favor these organizations, and perhaps make it worthwhilethey coordinate efforts or schedules to forge a city-wide (2 borough?) festival of new music, new jazz, cutting edge, avant-garde, happening-now, call it what you will?

  2. says

    Please enrich your listing of artists at the VF by including Joe McPhee, who plays twice in prime time, once with his Trio X and in another instance with his Ayler project whose band members are Roy Campbell on trumpet, Joe on sax and trumpet, William Parker on bass and Warren Smith on drums. This is a stellar band.
    As to the larger question, it takes the boil of festivals like the VF to maintain cultural richness. I do not know “Jazz City” like you do; but I do know that the following of the VF is growing substantially. By the way, compositions and a song or two are played there. Avante-guardists, as you know, are anything but artists whose heads are somewhere in outer space (Sun Ra pun not intentional), rather they are grounded so deeply that they cannot be uprooted. Thus, the persistence of the festival….
    HM: I enjoy Joe McPhee too — and many others of the Vision Fest. Hard to choose potential highlights, leaving lots out. Of course there will be some songs, there may even be some swing. And I’m glad the Fest is growing; I reviewed it when it was still Sound Unity for the Village Voice. But I doubt the Vision Fest believes it represents all “jazz” and appeals to all jazz audiences. So what, we need more fests that cater to a niche?

  3. says

    I think that it is a grassroots thing and its impetus will allow niche-ness to disappear. This is not an overnight change. It will take time for avante-gardism to come across as not so scary and unintelligible.
    HM: The point I try to make in Miles Ornette Cecil — Jazz Beyond Jazz is that genuine “avant-gardism” is never completely assimilated (or defanged, rendered not-so-scary or completely intelligible, that’s what makes it enduringly “avant-garde.” And that’s not bad (though it may limit the income of the avant-garde artists). I think we’ve heard many of the tropes employed by Vision Festival artists for 40 years or more, and just like the past century’s twelve-tone and serial music, the sound hasn’t been embraced as mainstream; it’s gained followers but not general acceptance. *Maybe* that’s because it remains “new.” Even so, it is presented in circumstances that sustain its niche status — rather like trad jazz (formerly aka “Dixieland”) which has so many grass-roots clubs and fests but is even more overlooked by jazz publications than the avant-garde. Actually the Vision Festival artists have gotten pretty far: I’ve heard them in Tampere, Finland, in Ponta Delgada in the Azores, in Guelph, Ontario and they have at least a few fans virtually everywhere. Kudos to Patricia Nicholson-Parker, to William Parker, to all the musicians who believe in themselves and their sound explorations.

  4. says

    There seems to be some misunderstanding of what Arts for Art and the Vision Festival seeks to do. A few years ago I wrote this definition of avantjazz to explain the aesthetic of a music which I felt had long gone unrecognized and very much misunderstood. I thought that it might shed some light in this discussion. * (see below)
    The definition doesn’t deal with the age factor that Darcy refers to – although I do think that there is a range of ages at the festival – though possibly, not as many younger artists as last year. I have been working hard to find new spaces to present younger artists on a weekly basis through the RUCMA series, where they have a better chance of making money. (artists receive at minimum 75% of the door). (RUCMA is an artist’s advocacy group that I initiated)
    The Vision Festival like the JVC can’t be all things to all people. I have a commitment to showing the best. And it is my impression that artists get stronger with age. This being said, I also think that it is important to show artists at different stages in their careers, I also make a commitment to presenting a range of different kinds of innovative music and art.
    *Avant-Jazz: a definition
    Avantjazz is art that exhibits a disciplined disregard for traditional boundaries. While avantjazz is an outgrowth of African American musical forms, e.g. blues and jazz, it has made a break from these traditional forms. Avantjazz is free to draw from any tradition in creating structures and frameworks for improvisation. It is also free to disregard all conventions. The avantjazz musician has the creative freedom to incorporate music of asian, african, native american, and european cultures, or possibly doing away with conventional song forms or rhythmic structures. That is their freedom. It is not a freedom from melody or composition or rhythm. It is the freedom to choose any tradition or vocabulary as part of their palette when either composing or improvising. This aesthetic extends to the presentation of all art forms, as they inspire and help evolve art and thinking.
    to read this on our website
    HM: Thanks for that clarification, from Patricia Nicholson-Parker, a powerful force (whatever her current title) involved with the Vision Festival, Arts for Art, RUCMA

  5. says

    I’d like to thank Patricia Nicholson-Parker for her response, especially since, in the cold harsh daylight, my original comment reads a lot more negatively than I’d intended it. I know the Vision Festival is a labor of love for all of the organizers and it really is a remarkable achievement. (Also, serious kudos for keeping the flame going year-round with Arts for Arts/RUCMA!)
    But I worry that I came off sounding like I somehow didn’t think it was worthwhile to honor the lifetime achievements of under-recognized masters like Marshall Allen (or, in years past, Bill Dixon, Sam Rivers, and many others), when in fact the festival’s recognition and celebration of these artists is vitally important, and obviously represents a key part of the festival’s core mission. I hope that was clear.
    My only real point was that I was disappointed to see so few younger artists represented at the Vision Festival this year. Especially because the aesthetic of “disciplined disregard for traditional boundaries” (as Patricia writes) is one that is wholehearted embraced by the overwhelming majority of the young musicians I know!
    Regardless of whether or not it’s true that artists generally get stronger with age, it’s clear that many of the performers at this year’s Vision Festival made extraordinarily exciting, important, groundbreaking contributions while they were still in their 20’s and 30’s, and that there is no shortage of young artists who are doing equally brilliant and invigorating work today. (I hope Patricia will agree, because the Vision Festival has included many of them in past years!)
    To me, it seems in keeping with the searching spirit of the artists whose work the Vision Festival celebrates for its organizers to approach their programming with an eye to the future. I say this with a deep appreciation of the challenges involved in mounting this extraordinary event, and I wish Patricia and everyone else involved the very best of luck with this year’s Vision Fest. I’ll be there.
    HM: Me, too — and I agree, Darcy, that honoring the elders is vital but so is listening to newly emerging artists, making sure youth is heard.

  6. says

    As someone who volunteers for the Vision Festival year-in, year-out because I don’t believe the music it represents gets nearly enough support in the city that did so much to move that music forward, I hear some variation on Mr. Argue’s arguments every year. Nonetheless, I also believe Mr. Argue mistakes “showcasing what’s best in contemporary improvised music” as the goal of the festival, and even there, conflates what is best and/or contemporary with what is younger and/or as-yet unpresented by the Vision Festival.
    I invite people to consider that even great artists OVER 40 don’t always make it onto the Festival (we could all come up with a similar list, + let’s not), and that the players who are so much a part of the “Vision aesthetic” rarely play NYC these days anyway. Add to this a superb “next generation” Saturday session — a feature of the Vision festival for many years now — plus people under 40 on the “main stage” like Ras Moshe, Matt Lavelle, Nasheet Waits, Craig Taborn, the remarkable young drummer Russell Carter in Billy Bang’s Brass Bang, and any number of players in the Jason Hwang Spontaneous River ensemble performance I was honored to participate in and wow, does it seem like someone (+ admittedly, not by his lonesome) protests too much.
    Whether or not Mr. Argue liked the line-up this year — performance-to-performance one of the very best, from my perspective — is one thing. But to have it both ways and damn with faint, contradictory praise (“If you want to be the Preservation Hall Avantjazz Festival, don’t call it ‘contemporary’ — oh, and gee, thanks for keeping those RUCMA/A4A fires burning all year!”), when Patricia Nicholson Parker, two barely-paid staff people and a battalion of volunteers like me puts on a monster festival every year under increasingly challenging socio-economic/cultural conditions, seems facile at best and doesn’t take into account the feat of bringing so many world-class musicians together is one place at one time.
    Should there be other people booked for the Vision Festival every year who are young and “deserving”. No doubt. To paraphrase the good people at Maximum Rock ‘n Roll, book your own f’ing festival!
    HM: Thanks for the clarification, James, though I don’t understand the vehemence of your comment. I didn’t get the impression Darcy was backing off by offering faint praise. I wasn’t able to get to any of the Vision fest this year due to being somewhat incapacitated after getting hit by a car while biking and nonetheless having previous commitments to fulfill (producing the Jazz Awards, principally). I think NY jazz-beyond-jazz followers mostly understand there is a Vision esthetic which is the primary of the Vision fest, as its been defined for 13 years.

  7. says

    Howard — I think I’m pretty clear in my post where the heat behind what I’m expressing comes from, quite apart from the demonstrable inaccuracy I address. The work that goes in to creating the Vision Festval is so extensive, pain-staking and literally hand-crafted, the criticisms (here + elsewhere) over the line-up strike me as worse than lazy. Moreover, for a festival and its principals presenting music no one else does and that has well and truly resisted mainstreaming for half a century to be simply seen as “historical preservationists” seems to elide a point or two — to subsequently then encourage PNP to keep up the good work may not in itself be damning with faint praise, but the suggestion that the Vision “preserves” an…uncontemporary?…music is surely damning, and the subsequent praise is surely faint.
    I don’t doubt your readers know a “Vision aesthetic” when they see/hear one (was I disputing this, somewhere?), though even they might have been surprised by the work of great up-and-coming player/composers on the Festival this year like Seth Meicht or Darius Jones, to say nothing of the remarkable array of high schoolers (and younger) on display in the large ensembles during the Sunday afternoon, next-generation artists who are all taught by musicians associated with this mausoleum sensibility.
    As you point out above and in your NY Press piece this week, we are now seeing a proliferation of festivals (like the Red Hook Jazz Fest PRP played and which plans bigger events come September) and smaller-scale activities, and hopefully that’s where the next avant festival comes from. I’ll welcome it, just as I’ll welcome the “new” music that rocks my world every year at the Vision Festival, freshly, thrillingly created right before your eyes by master musicians who have long since earned the right to this gig, and unquestionably some others.
    HM: Let a zillion styles bloom, in smaller-than-grandiose frameworks that deliver us the thrills. Vision’s done it — no doubt continued to this year. And I’d have liked to hear the high school bands especially, because kids really need Vision, and encouragement to be free, not just to learn those chops and licks. The contemporaneous quality of Vision stalwarts, even the elders, is not to be dissed, you’re right — in the moment, this moment, not preserving old glories. But it is fair to cite the aging element of a music introduced some 50 years ago. The jazz journalists at the Jazz Awards were a noticably grey bunch — I’ve got to admit it, I am, too. Not a bad thing but must be factored in. We’re looking for younger jazz journalists as I gather the Vision Fest is looking for younger visionaries. Darcy isn’t among them — yeah, I kind of can see why, but from his point of view I believe he’s got a responsible question to ask about that, which I think he meant with respect.