So here I am, sitting here on a nice but windy – at least I think it’s nice out. I haven’t been bold enough to venture beyond the confines of the domicile today. But I am going to see Gary Bartz at Blues Alley this evening so that’s something.
Blues Alley is pricey. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the premier jazz club in the Baltimore/D.C./No. Virginia metro area. Aside from the price of the ticket and the $9 minimum buy-something-or-get-out fee there’s another fee on top of that. I think it’s a “Blues Alley Historical Society” or “Blues Alley Youth Jazz Big Band” or “Blues Alley We Can Do This the Easy Way or the Hard Way” or “Blues Alley You Can Leave Through the Door or the Window” fee. Plus some taxes, I’m sure. And parking. Defenestration aside, I don’t go there often (closer to never) like I thought I would when I was emigrating back to the east coast, visions of jazz-hip, sugar plum fairies dancing in my head.
We need a Yoshi’s out here. It’s accessible. Young jazz musicians can go and enjoy the music; there’s no 21 and over limit. So they aren’t made to stand, city rats skittering around their poorly-shodden feet, shivering in the bitter cold, wet puppy-like noses pressed vainly against the plate glass, heads cocked to catch a sliver of sound from their jazz idols. That always made me sad to see that musical desperation.
“Excuse me, sir, may I hear more?”
Then they’re soundly beaten about the head and shoulders with old man Blue’s trusty thwacking baton. Like it or not, it is his alley.
I saw Terence Blanchard and his group at UM College Park a little while ago and the ticket alone was $30. Ouch. My musician friends couldn’t afford to go see it. The East Coast Jazz Fest. was last weekend. They grouped the headliner shows together and you had to pay $65 for the set even if you wanted to only see one of them.
I’ve got a whole thing about jazz. Well, it’s not so much about jazz with a little “j” as Jazz. I was really out of it for a while, but hearing good live music got me back in the game, mentally speaking.
I heard someone discussing music and art recently from what I called a skeptical point of view. I’ve never heard of actual music and art skeptics before. The basic point being that there’s nothing special about art, for instance. Sure, it may entertain and move you, but it’s just from the sum of past experiences that the artwork may resonate with. But don’t glorify art or artists. I don’t fully grasp the point. It’s foreign to me. But it’s nothing more than visual stimuli eliciting memories and experiences that result in the firing of neurons … and so on.
As much as I viscerally disagree with the reduction of our existence to biochemistry, I have to admit to a growing skepticism of the Jazz world. I realize that this is heresy and that I may be officially excommunicated from the Church of Jazz. At the moment I’ve been reassigned to another Jazz parrish or parish, depending on which is the correct spelling.
My main issue these days – yes I’ll have admit to having lost faith – is that we approach the jazz genre as if it were dead. At least that’s the way it’s often treated, as a hallowed, carefully preserved, loved figure that passed away. And now we’re all pallbearers of the artform into the future as we solemnly walk down the street under over-sized photos of its likeness. Very New Orleans of us. When we perform this noble artform, we stand in front of its mausoleum and dare not disrespect the spirits of the elders.
Well, let me put this another way. The “spirit of Jazz” is one of innovation, improvisation, rebellion, expression, meditation, pursuance. But (and here’s where my issues lie) the average gig for an aspiring musician is exactly the opposite of that. We, as musicians, spend years trying to play music the same way as it was played 70 years ago. AND we try to play the same songs the same way as 50, 60, 70 years ago. You can pick up a CD released in 2004 and find, say, “My Funny Valentine” or “Stella By Starlight” on it. Often, you’d be better off just going straight for the original recording that’s being emulated.
GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT
It’s a fact, depending on how accurate my memory is today, that 90% of jazz CDs purchased are The Classics so that’s a determining factor. As Chris Cortez, DJ and more, at KCSM (the local 24-hour jazz radio station the Bay Area, CA) commented about my CD, “Don’t underestimate the power of the standards.”
However, if all Taco Bell had to offer was Modern Mainstream Big Macs, Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and Southwest Chipotle Salsa Milkshakes, most of us would probably just go straight to McDonald’s for the classic renditions of this fast food fare. And then we’d spend the night doubled over in gastro-intestinal pain and spontaneous artery-clogging.
I’m glad that there are people out there who are focused on the history and heritage. Thank goodness for them. But considering the progression from the Blues to Ragtime and stride piano, swing, big bands, Be Bop, Soul Jazz, Avant Garde, Fusion and so on, the “spirit” that I’m talking about balances on the shoulders of its giants and then takes a radical leap forward into the unknown.
TANGENT: Academic Jazz
Sure, now things are different. There are jazz studies programs at universities. And it has become a genre of the elite. There was a time when Ray Brown would go down to the local club as a child and literally sit next to the piano every night that a band was in town (that could have been up to a month in those days). Young musicians could go to jam sessions where their international heroes would go to musically unwind. It was the music of the people, particularly when it was dance music. Now, due to market forces you’ll spend at least $50 to see a show at Blues Alley by the time the set is over. $25-30 for a show in other venues.
It sits behind walls of academia and is often only accessible through cultural “field trips”. I wonder if Hip Hop will ever be a graduate level university program.
“Yes, I majored in DJing and my doctoral thesis was entitled ‘Non-Euclidean Turntable Dynamics’.”
Will they offer “Syncopated Polysyllabic Freestyle Techniques” in the Jam Master Jay lecture hall?
They’ve got to have “Keeping It Real 101”. It may be remedial but our children in American often graduate high school nearly street-smarts illiterate.
BUT BACK TO MY POINT
The average gig for a musician is playing the standards. Most accomplished jazz musicians can do that on auto-pilot. (I can’t because my internalized repertoire is pitfully skimpy even after all these years of oxymoronic sporadic immersion.) Subsequently, many gigs sound like they’re on auto-pilot and are thoroughly average for the musicians and the audience.
It’s hard, of course, if you’re a musician struggling to make a living at music. You may not exactly have the time to compose, arrange and transcribe tunes for your next gig. Getting all of your ideas from your head out into the world can be a heavy process. And artists of any variety are not necessarily the most cogent, organized people on the planet to begin with. Not to mention that getting working musicians together for rehearsals is like trying to herd cats. Trying to herd cats into icy baths, to be more specific. Except herded cats are probably better at returning phone calls.
So what’s a musician to do? Beats me. But since I’ve been thinking about this for a few years now, the potential growing steadily now on the verge of kinesis, I’m beginning to formulate strategem. I actually wrote them down but I’m not going to put them here for now. Another day.
So, those are my musical thoughts on paper. Well, they’re not my thoughts about paper. They’re my thoughts about music put onto paper or whatever medium this reaches you on. I just needed to get it out and organized. And now I’m done.