Boston doubles down on jazz

Boston — historically stuffy but blue-blood liberal, devoted to higher education, high finance and professional sports — is now doubling down on itself as a world-class jazz city. Berklee College

Berklee students

Berklee students

of Music, nearly 4500 students strong and  an economic engine onto itself, is generating energy that enlivens Boston’s  neighborhoods, drawing in general audiences with such outreach events as the Beantown Jazz Festival, the free street fair held last weekend. JazzBoston, a non-profit grassroots  organization, has announced that its 2014  “Jazz Week,” celebrated during April, which is Jazz Appreciation Month, will start on Patriot’s Day, April 21, when the Boston Marathon is run, and climax on International Jazz Day, produced globally by UNESCO, on April 30.

“Previously  we’ve avoided programming during the Marathon,” JazzBoston executive director Pauline Bilsky told Boston media representatives and jazz presenters at a meeting at Berklee College of Music’s Café 939 (which, full disclosure, I co-chaired as president of the Jazz Journalists Association; the Berklee Internet Radio Network was another co-sponsor). “This year we realized that more than ever the  Marathon will be a patriotic celebration. There’s no music more American than jazz. We think these two celebrations belong together.

Pauline Bilsky

Pauline Bilsky

“We also hope to work with the new Mayor to produce a public celebration of International Jazz Day that puts Boston on the map. Why shouldn’t Boston be up there with cities like Paris, Istanbul, New Orleans,  and New York?”  Those cities were central sites for UNESCO IJD activities on April 30 2012 and ’13.

Though this city has traditionally been better known for its prohibitive “blue laws” rather than its entertainment industry, Boston has been a birthplace, rearing grounds and teaching home of important American musicians since the Revolution (cf., William Billings). Renown for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, est. 1881, it has also been home to modernists Roy Haynes, Cecil Taylor, Sam Rivers, Jaki Byard, Gunther Schuller, Tony Williams, Ran Blake, George Russell and Gary Burton, who attended Berklee in the early ’60s and served on its faculty for 30 years.

Although not alone in great Boston developing advanced instruction for musicians interested in popular and practical genres — New England Conservatory, Brandeis University and Wellesley College have highly regarded programs, and MacArthur Award recipient pianist-composer Vijay Iyer has just been appointed Professor of the Arts at Harvard — Berklee attracts the top  professionals to address its students directly. When I visited the school on Thursday, Sept. 26, pianist-producer Patrice Rushen addressed the freshman class, advising all students to “Commit and contribute.” Faculty currently includes violinist Darol Anger; bassists Victor Bailey, Eugene Friesen and Dave Clark; pianists Joanne Brackeen, Laszlo Gardony, Helen Sung and Francesca Tanksley; saxophonists Bill Pierce, Frank Tiberi, Alan Chase, Walter Beasley, George Garzone, Stan Strickland and Joe Lovano; guitarists Garrison Fewell, David Gilmore, David Tronzo, Mick Goodrick and Dave Fiuczynski; rumpeter Tiger Okoshi, oudist Simon Shaheen, MC Raydar Ellis, singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor, vibist Victor Mendoza, electronics designer Neil Leonard, drummers Yoron Israel and Ralph Peterson Jr. Percussionist Terri Lynn Carrington teaches at Berklee, and was music director of the sprawling, Berklee-sponsored Beantown Jazz Fest.

beantown stroll

Beantown Jazz Festival thoroughfare

While that one-day fest attracts something like 20,000 Bostonians of all stripes and dots to stroll several blocks, bookended by portable stages and lined with food and other vendors’ booths, it is a tough place to actually hearmusic. Young ensembles with veteran guests — like pianist Matt Savage with alto sax sage Bobby Watson — competed for listeners’ ears with a large stage set in an adjacent field. Noise (not necessarily music, not necessarily jazz) blared from the vendors’ booths. A proud, loud drum ensemble rolled back and forth through the crowd in the street, producing random audio chaos like ballbearings tossed into gearworks.

This need not be. A few simple regulations on the vendors’ use of amplification, a designated area (somewhat removed from other music-makers) for the drum troupe to pound all it wants, and better placement of stages and speakers to mitigate the bleeding of one act over to another would go a long way to enhancing the efforts of musicians who deserve to be heard, and if heard could be enjoyed. Temporary seating areas, if not folding chairs at stage-side, would be nice, too. As it is, people stand mosh-pit style or sit on stoops and grass.

We can hope JazzBoston will take those kinds of issues into account as it designs programming for its 2014 Patriot/Marathon Day activities. So far no details of programming beyond the date have been disclosed, and no discussion has been broached with the Boston Athletic Association, organizer and manager  of the Marathon. But at the JazzBoston/JJA/BIRN meeting attendees floated such ideas as  having jazz stages featuring local musicians set along the Marathon course route, special radio programming, coordination of artists from the city’s music education institutions into public venues, and media outreach using online as well as traditional platforms to snare the attention of folks who don’t currently have any contact with jazz at all — by definition, a potential market.

JazzBoston, organized in 2006, had the largest booth space at the Beantown Jazz Festival, where volunteers conducted videotaped interviews of local musicians and activists. It publishes an ongoing calendar of  area performances and is sustaining a campaign in support of local jazz radio which has grown to embrace the introduction of JazzBird, an app curating and distributing  “live-hosted” programs of online radio from around the world. In collaboration with the JJA, over the past three years the organization has nominated and consulted in the selection of “Jazz Heros.” It also supports Riffs & Raps® jazz-in-community centers and multi-generational, family-appropriate jazz presentations run by Bill Lowe and Arni Cheatham (a “Jazz Hero”).

JazzBoston’s Jazz Week partners in 2013 included  Berklee College of Music, Boston Public Library, Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, the New England Conservatory, MassJazz, Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism and in 2012 the Consulate General of Japan. As tens of thousands of runners take to the Marathon course next April 21, and people across America reflect on the anniversary of last April’s devastating Marathon bombings, jazz may be a salve to the soul and/or a sound of celebration. At the JazzBoston/JJA/BIRN meeting, it was reported that both candidates for Mayor of Boston have pledged to rescind Boston’s notoriously burdensome entertainment licensing laws, which would be a boon to producers and presenters, musicians and audiences, too.


David Bryant

tom hall

Tom Hall

The impulse to play is irrepressible. Last Thursday I heard a quartet  led by pianist David Bryant and tenor saxophonist Tom Hall at the Outpost, a simple room in a yoga studio in Cambridge’s Inman Square. There were only five people in attendance, but the musicians (John Turner, bass; Eric Rosenthal, drums) put their all into improvisations that built on the freedoms and responsibilities proposed by innovators such as Ornette Coleman, with whom Bryant studied and worked. On a long walk of Massachusetts Avenue back toward Boston’s Copley Square, music poured out of bars and restaurants. Young people were out carousing, and carousing calls for music. I heard djs, reggae, a cover band playing classic rock. It felt like ground zero for the up ‘n’ coming audience. Those smart kids from Berklee and their friends from MIT, Boston U, Tufts, Emerson College, Harvard, etc. seem open and ready for anything. Why shouldn’t they like jazz?

PS: My friend Gordon Marshall is a Boston blogger who writes about rock as well as improvised, jazz-related music. In connection with doubling down, I’ve posted some of his music-inspired poetry.

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  1. says

    hey Howard, thanx for the nice mention of Outpost 186! glad you dug the space & sounds!
    – full name: Outpost 186
    – not in a yoga studio, but both are in the same building complex
    – I run the space & own the building

    please return anytime!


  2. Alex Lemski says

    Can’t agree with you Howard about Boston & Jazz for the very reasons you give. Gone are the days of leading and producing. Only a few musicians of note remain as far as I’m concerned. And who comes here on tour or the short drive up from NYC? Oh, I forgot, the “headliners” at (Cambridge, not Boston) clubs who are same time and time again; and just straight ahead styles. Ever see how many club dates are reserved for private parties? And Berklee. (and the horrible! festival they produce), the main reason this town is turning into a cow if you get my gist. Only a pocket of indie attempts like Outpost (still with it’s drawbacks) are worthy. Even with wonderful instructors at Berklee, not one is booked at area clubs or spaces, museums, galleries – why?? They don’t even live here for the most part. Curious what Vejay Iyer’s presence at Harvard will mean,only classroom work, the public left out? Just like a commercial venture, trying to attach Jazz to Patriots Day is like a holiday sale: here today, gone tomorrow. I want Boston to be creative and inspire, can’t be hopeful these days…

    • says

      Alex, I hear ya about the challenges and somewhat sad state of affairs, but I don’t think the situation is in a downward spiral, and I’ve talked to lots of people who, while sometimes tired, and putting energy into making the jazz scene better. It won’t be what it was back in the days of Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop. Day-out tours from one city to another seem to have dried up for most artists in most regions. Like every institution, Berklee has its pitfalls but also its upsides. Look at all those students, devotees! Independent producers and venues ought to be able to catch some of them on the way up; meanwhile, people who care about jazz (like the activists in JazzBoston) have made some gains in communicating with the (potentially vast?) audience, and with some more efforts could get further, maybe influencing more bookings. The Patriots Day plan by JazzBoston would be the kickoff of a 10-day promotion of jazz and might gain some more eyeballs and ears than ignoring Patriots Day would. Like most promotions, it’s only supposed to be a start. For Boston jazz to be creative and inspire, people like you who care about it have to pitch in with compadres and press the right levers. Seems to me Boston is prime, but yes, it does need serious and concerted efforts to focus and improv what’s right there.

      • Alex Lemski says

        Good day, Howard. BTW, I really like the title of your Blog, had it booked marked already, as it also says something to the listener who doubts the validity of the adventurous lets say. I’ve always appreciated your open-mindedness and respect your insights. I don’t feel Boston-Jazz is in a downward spiral rather it’s stagnant, in limbo, tho probably won’t be seeing it’s more laudable days as you state. I think, I know that the day-out tour can happen i.e. from NY, IF the venues/producers want them, ask them to come, with few and rare exceptions. Just attended one of those recently at a bicycle factory in Watertown! Braxton once told me as others have in my journeys, that he thought he’d never play Denver until someone asked him, actually happening in the 90’s sometime. And when some dives have a “play-to-pay” policy, why should they visit here? And the clubs are corporate and pricey. Musicians still go to Europe to make up, earn a living m(even with a recession, austerity there?). I have no faith in college music depts, not if they don’t book their guests/instructors beyond a workshop, class or solo-plus student ens. Reading about Vejay from Harvard’s music dept., quote “…look forward to connecting all of what we do beyond the Univ…”. It can be done. A Patriots Day approach has been tried before by others elsewhere; the big splash-association & pr thus populist (a commercial sales approach) to substitute for an ongoing, grassroots effort. And serious, yes, but not about numbers; how we want the music treated, by whom and without compromise, yep! We aren’t party politics like Washington, more like Single-Payer. Keeping the faith, especially in da music which isn’t faltering.

        • says

          Alex, I agree, again, there are problems promoting jazz in Boston, as is true everywhere. When I look at a community’s music culture I try to be realistic yet also want to acknowledge the positives because in many cases local supporters are so weighed down by their frustrations that they don’t take any energy to build from improvements that have been gradual (and may still be small), but are visible to an outsider. In the past couple of years I’ve seen that syndrome affect jazz stalwarts in Chicago and Philadelphia as well as Boston, and I’ve also observed genuine breakthroughs in places where there was little going on but a very few people have made a huge different — D.C., for one place. In Boston there does seem to be a gap between available talent and potential audiences, which could be addressed by imaginative and dedicated presenters and improved projection throughout the area of the pleasures of the music. It seems to me most of the pieces are present to move forward, which would help not only Boston but could hook up much more of the region and be something of a model elsewhere. I can’t predict with certainty that will happen, but I believe it’s possible. And limbo is a strange concept, since in our world nothing is static, everything’s always in flux.

          • Alex Lemski says

            I guess we could go on dialoging until there is Single Payer (smile), but thanks for the chats. Now, if you were only the arts-music reporter for the Boston Globe (the rest are rags or catering to the beer drinkers or Back Bay residents). .. I don’t know everything, however, I think only a few entrepreneurs have been effective unlike Rock, Pop, Classical, Folk, etc., which is what the bottom line media concentrates on. Movers & Shakers? Albuquerque has their Outpost and Seattle’s Earshot. Denver used to have a working Creative Music Works, now dormant. Smaller operations in Eugene and Portland plus centers in California (I don’t believe the new S.F. Jazz Center will serve enough, just like Lincoln Center) makes me envious yet proud–but I live here for other reasons. And I spent the last 11 of 12 years in the NYC area, so I am spoiled (good ). However, nothing wrong with Real Art Ways in Hartford and Firehouse 12 in New Haven on da way to Boston; plus The Vermont Jazz Center , to isolate the modernists let’s say, to tour, so why is Boston so far away? Yet, when what we have deny, and they are–and only one band from the CT schedules will (and has) come up–someone else just can’t will it to be real. I’m a realist yet with hope because of musicians creating (somehow). However, I don’t think Jazz Boston’s lofty hopes of citizens, the media recognizing Jazz (as a Patriotic mode, Jazz Week, whatever) will go over in the long haul when the marathon’s meaning has changed (for a long time anyway) and Jazz Week-Month doesn’t do it. I won’t stop it, glad if it works unless it’s another sell-out. We can’t really avoid the frustration when everyone including the art oriented is run by the business- PR model with all the pressures to “succeed”. Or practically none will share their program with Jazz like galleries, museums or art centers or campus music programs beyond students. Clubs are corporations. Wally’s is Wally’s. Sorry, Berklee’s internet radio has only 2 hrs of scheduled Jazz (unimpressed with the playlist) and from their archives no one in the general programming honors Jazz – I have no faith that it will improve. But MIT has good programming and even Harvard. Will, have they been consulted? How about those citizens who newly struggle to make a living, will they be convinced? Southies, Roxbury? Find a Messiah(s)? New Mayor? Hardly. Did you know that the current Governor and former mayor of Denver was a Jazz Club owner? He didn’t carry the genre along with him to greater heights…It’s like waiting for a new Bird, ‘Trane, Duke, etc. Yet, speaking of D.C., there are pockets in VA and N.C., MD, NYS, small businesses and operations that show up on tour itineraries – that’s why I’m frustrated here with the population (yet lack of interest or sophistication ). Who are the “silent” supporters with time, skills and yes, money for a real makeover? Until then, enjoy your own experiences and maybe some light will shine from Bean Town, even if the Sox don’t win the series…Chow!

          • says

            Alex, Globe freelance contributor Jon Garelick is a solid jazz fan, present at the JazzBoston/BIRN/JJA meeting. There’s considerable interest in promoting jazz radio, and yes stations beyond BIRN and WGBH as well as independent radio producers are being consulted about participating in a combined 24/7 jazz radio schedule, and included in jazzBoston’s JazzBird global radio app, while WICN (Wooster) maneuvers for better coverage. Traditional “mainstream” media, as you note, is not dependably attentive to jazz, but guess what? — jazz needn’t depend on traditional media anymore. All those movers/shakers you mentioned are exemplars of what grass roots support can do (I’d add Chicago, New Orleans, Cleveland, and other of the 25 US cities where the JJA helped institute jazz parties celebrating local heroes last April. Austin, Detroit, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Bloomington, Philly, Atlanta, KC, Minneapolis — there’s a lot going on, though it is scenelike rather than aboveground and profitable. Don’t despair, support the music by going to hear it and bringing friends. This is a person-to-person thing. But stronger and in some senses more real because of that.