endless war?

What I've learned since writing that WSJ piece is that, Dave Douglas's comment aside (as well as those of musicians I did not quote in print), the "jazz wars" are still to a fair extent alive and relevant to a degree I no longer thought true, though the term "jazz war" itself may be a trivialization of something far more complex: By that I mean that there is still a good deal of clear resentment toward and well-expressed opposition to Jazz at Lincoln Center's aesthetic sensibility and, more the point, its dominance of both funding and press attention in some musical circles. There is even still very much a sense among some musicians I've heard from that JALC "defines" jazz in a way that is dangerously in opposition with or dismissive of broader, more progressive representations (as one musician put it, "...an interpretive version of jazz to be held higher than originality"), and which they feel drowns out or smothers alternative viewpoints. Also, there is at some level the feeling of injustice based simply on income disparity.

I should have known all this, as it appears to be truest among the ranks of the very communities I spend much of my time listening to and writing about. And I've come very quickly to respect the fact that what I'm talking about is not the sort of critic-oriented philosophical argument that was so common in the 1990s: This is a deeply held feeling within communities of musicians who, for lack of better words, are often described as avant-garde or free-improvising but who in reality create music no less well defined or connected to jazz tradition than anything else anyone calls jazz, yet also not confined by such definitions.

Buried in what I've learned is a potentially meaningful debate or at least discussion that I for one wish to flesh out (and which I touched on directly through quotes of Scott Southard and Randall Kline): Is the net effect of Jazz at Lincoln Center's work in education, fundraising, and presentation helpful, neutral, or detrimental to the career potential and audience development of those musicians whose music is not reflected at all in JALC's programming or aesthetic?

Listening to Ornette Coleman play in Rose Hall (where I could hear the dynamics of his acoustic-plus-electric-bass quartet far better than in Carnegie), I thought to myself: Some of this audience must be new to this music-- which adheres as strongly as any other to Wynton Marsalis's definition ("Having the swing element and the blues at its center, and heavy on improvisation"), is as tightly executed as any other presented on that stage, perhaps more so, and is yet also unfettered by ideas about genre, instead liberated and elastic almost in the face of its tight execution--and, oh, mustn't they be in rapturous appreciation too?

I don't know how many in the seats around me were season subscribers that were new or previously closed to Coleman's music and how many were die-hard Ornette fans. Yet I wondered about that question of impact, and the promise for Jazz at Lincoln Center to grow not just on its own terms but also in ways that, whether in direct alliance or not, are of service much more than of hindrance to so many musicians that, like Coleman, engage in what one musicians described to me as a necessarily "messy and thorny process of creativity in real time." 

No other musician can claim the position Coleman has; he is a special case in all respects. But if Jazz at Lincoln Center's booking of Coleman to kick off its season is indicative of a deeper embrace of Coleman's musical horizons and if the various forays into broader programming of the past few years grow into deepened threads, and if concerts like last night's open new ears among JALC subscribers, then maybe something begins to happen, is happening.

I noticed that Amiri Baraka is among the instructors for this year's JALC "Swing University" series: The last time I saw Baraka, he was reciting his work onstage at the Vision Festival.

Are these things token crossings? Or can worlds that seem separate, even at odds, not so much unite as find common purpose, shared resources, even some audience in common? 

I'm still thinking.

September 27, 2009 4:16 PM | | Comments (4)


Over at Greg Sandow's blog I posted a comment about classical music, which I think fits for J@LC too:

Also I think part of the problem is just economic. Certainly the large classical institutions draw a lot of financial oxygen from any market. $10,000 or $20,000 might not make much difference to the NY Phil, but make it an easily available grant to a hungry new music outfit, I think you would immediately see more diverse, daring, interesting (not always successful, but that's ok) programming that would attract a more diverse (racially, aged, and economically) group of people, especially if they aren't charging $50-75+ for seats, and would feel more real and relevant to the listeners.

If you changed the classical to J@LC, my argument is still the same. I think that J@LC does deserve credit for raising the bar for jazz in the upper crust circles that previously would never consider jazz worthy of support. However, with such a mark of status, J@LC could be so much more. I think there is frustration that the conservative attitude at J@LC by freezing jazz in amber freezes out many great musicians who don't fit the model. And without any real choice or competition, there doesn't seem to be any (or very little) institutional avenue for more contemporary and progressive takes of what jazz is. The only major jazz institution with any clout really is J@LC and that's frustrating. In the classical world, sure you can have some fundamentally conservative and cautious organizations like the NY Phil and the Met (both which are disappointing in similar ways as J@LC, although under Gelb at least the Met is moving in a different direction), but that is more than offset by other adventurous organizations such as the SF Symphony or even Bang on a Can. Where is the Bang on a Can-like organization for jazz? If there were some competition for the 'jazz dollar', some other high profile organization to take on music/groups/composers that which J@LC won't or can't, some one other than Wynton to be able to bend the ear (and get the eye) of Obama and Clinton, I bet there would be less animosity toward Wynton and J@LC because he wouldn't be the only gatekeeper, his voice would be balanced by a competing voice.

And as an former high school educator, I can say that while the Essentially Ellington Festival and the sheet music that goes along with it are great, there are too many bands and directors out there that think that jazz stylistically stopped with swing and (post) bebop. The instruction leans too much to the past for many of these groups. Sure they might play some contemporary music, but to them the real jazz references the golden age. My bands were never like that but too many bands and directors value that attitude because J@LC has a status as "the place for all things jazz," and if that's the kind of music they do and value, that's what will be played in many schools. And to think those students, with that attitude, are the future consumers of jazz.

"Does JALC's rising tide lift all boats?"

In my experience working as a PR/MKTG/COMM professional in the arts & jazz world, no. But it's true - being in NYC does afford much better access to bigger wallets than say, the Midwest.

Patrick: Your comment is well taken. And though I think that what we report on, music, begins and ends with musicians and that musicians alone can judge what inspires and drains them, I do feel that there should be a larger community of folks who can and must address the issue of what nurtures and supports music, especially the kind that is not so readily funded by corporations, wealthy donors and ticket-buyers, and large foundations. I think club owners, arts center leaders, and those who do all sorts of things to promote and present creative music (and more than just jazz) would do well to engage in a real analysis of what helps and what hurts, including the subject of JALC.
In my own arc of consideration, I used to think that JALC would narrow the definition and appreciation of jazz and absorb funding at the expense of, say, the Vision Fest (just an example). And at first that may well have been true. But in the past decade, I think that largely out of necessity (as I wrote) JALC's road has led to broadening its mandate and its aesthetic. And I wonder: Though some people say: What if we took that $38 million budget and spread it around...? Well, would that $38 million budget really exist for jazz or for any version of adult music (or even arts) were it not cultivated by JALC? I'm no trickle-down economist (and in fact that school of economics has helped kill much funding for things like arts): But I wonder: If JALC puts correct Ellington scores in HS teachers' hands, if they play Coltrane for tots, if they present Ornette to an audience that must include at least some of their subscribers and donors, and if they put adult music on the agenda for foundations, mightn't that create potential for audience development (OK, it's only 1 of 10 maybe that heads to Herbie Nichols and then to Cecil, or through Trane ends up with Evan Parker...) and nonprofit funding for even the creative improvisation that doesn't fit JALC's model enough to outweigh any chilling effect? If they have Amiri Baraka teaching adults jazz history, won't that open ears to William Parker?
I'm honestly not sure but it's a damn good question.
And only time will tell what is a real broadening and deepening of interests at JALC, as opposed to tokenism.
I revere the musicians who have voiced opposition to JALC and even my article. I think JALC's business model seems sound and appear at least to me to be headed down a path that will continue to take them closer and closer to helping not hurting the cause of creative improvised music and the very musicians who feel disenfranchised.
The larger conversation, though, needs to be had among more than just musicians. That's why the death of IAJE requires something new and more progressive in its wake. That's why Patricia Parker is wise to appeal to NYC officials to figure out ways to support and nurture one of the city's treasures as musicians and venues get priced out of residence. That's why New Orleans needs to rebuild with indigenous jazz culture bearers as part of its foundation, as essential as the levees that also get ignored.
I want to be a part of those conversations. LB

Hi Larry,
Have linked to this at A Blog Supreme.

As for me, I admire a lot of what JALC does, and I do agree that the Jazz Wars as previously defined are no longer relevant. This very material-oriented question you ask, however, is worth pondering. Does JALC's rising tide lift all boats?

I would think that only the musicians can answer that question.

Cheers, Patrick

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