thelonious at starbucks (year-in-review)
One image of jazz in 2007 sticks with me most: Thelonious Monk at Starbucks.
When I paid for my latte at New York's JFK airport in November, there he was, looking right at me from the cover of "The Measure of Monk," the latest checkout-counter CD compilation offered by the coffee chain.
Hell, if those folks ordering frappuccinos can learn to say "Crepuscule with Nellie" (track seven on the new CD), I might just learn to say "tall" when I really mean "small," or "venti" for "large." Had this uncoolest of coffee chains suddenly turned hip? Could Monk's dark tone clusters really sell to the masses alongside the biscotti and bittersweet chocolates? As it turns out, yes.
In the November 24 issue of Billboard, "The Measure of Monk" hit the jazz charts at No. 10. Now, I'm not sure this signals a shift in American musical tastes. But it does confirm the fact that music -- even real jazz -- is no longer primarily sold by major record labels in traditional record stores -- which makes for some odd convergences. And which opens the door to all sorts of independent-label success, especially in a niche market like jazz. Take composer and bandleader Maria Schneider, for example, whose 2005 "Concert in the Garden" -- marketed through the ArtistShare Web site -- was the first album available solely online to earn a Grammy award. Her latest ArtistShare offering, 2007's "Sky Blue," made my year-end Top 10. And no less a legend than Sonny Rollins now releases his music on his own imprint, Doxy Music.
Rollins provided my live-jazz high point for 2007 -- his September 17 Carnegie Hall concert, honoring the 50th anniversary of his debut at the hall. In 2005, a jazz specialist at the Library of Congress had discovered a long-lost tape of that show, which inspired Rollins to revisit the material. He played the same three songs ("Sonnymoon for Two," "Some Enchanted Evening," and "Moritat"), this time alongside bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes. Rollins and Haynes -- who'd last performed together 49 years earlier -- seemed to pick up where they'd left off, a fact perhaps best expressed when a melodic fragment from Rollins' tenor sax was met with a flap of Haynes' brushes on the snare, and the phrase, unbroken, found completion.
Whenever I think of Rollins, I think not just of music, but also of social statements like those contained the liner notes to 1958's "Freedom Suite" and the title of 1998's "Global Warming." Such consciousness was also central to the career of Max Roach, who died in 2007. And so it was for Charles Mingus, whose anti-segregationist rant in "Fables of Faubus" came alive again last year through the powerful double-disc "Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy: Cornell 1964" (Blue Note), drawn from previously unreleased tapes.
Having spent much of 2007 in New Orleans, I'm now especially attuned to political statements within jazz's ranks. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard's "A Tale of God's Will (Requiem for Katrina)" (Blue Note) provided powerful commentary on the continuing story of post-flood New Orleans. And notably last year, jazz musicians organized to speak out about, often simply to defend, their embattled art. I was struck by parallel efforts in New Orleans and New York.
In New Orleans last August, a "Musicians Solidarity Second Line" featured some two-dozen players, instruments in hands, for a traditional second-line parade -- except not a note was played nor a step danced. A steady rain lent dramatic drips to homemade signs that read, "Living Wages = Living Music," "Imagine a Silent NOLA," and "Keep Our Story Alive." "Our musicians are suffering," announced Musicians Union president "Deacon" John Moore. "We hate to come out here like this but we have no alternative." The message was clear: New Orleans' musicians need better support, lest the music that lends the city its identity one day fall silent.
Four months earlier in New York City, free-jazz musicians ignored a persistent drizzle, assembling on the steps of City Hall. Some 50 musicians held instruments aloft, along with signs that stated: "NYC in Cultural Crisis" and "Condo Culture." A flyer demanded that city officials "recognize the damage done to the city's cultural heritage and status as a cultural capital," imploring them "to act now to protect those remaining venues from displacement." "If New York already subsidizes classical venues playing old-school European masters, why can't New York support its own culture?" asked guitarist Mark Ribot.
I'll be watching for how -- or if -- these issues play out in 2008. And I'll be waiting with heightened anticipation for a number of CDs -- especially new Blue Note releases from Lionel Loueke and Cassandra Wilson, and a collaborative effort from Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson -- not to mention live takes from Sonny Rollins at Carnegie Hall, from both 2007 and 1957, on his Doxy Music label.
Now, that'll be living large -- or is it venti?
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