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
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.
“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.
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.
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?