Op-Eds Speaking Truth to the Powers-That-Be
Yes, I speak jazz heresy: Maybe it is time that the promoters of the annual April/May music festival in New Orleans fess up: Jazz may get top billing on the signage and the posters at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but it rides the back of the bus on the fairgrounds.
There’s a reason for this too… (Shhhh…) Jazz doesn’t make the festival much money.
The smallish jazz tent at “Jazz Fest” was relegated to a location directly behind the big ACURA main stage where the blow-back of pop bands like Arcade Fire muddled the music of The Mingus Big Band and others.
Only festival namesake Jazz was positioned for that kind of disrespect. Not Gospel. Not Blues. Not Cajun.
It is not the first year that it has been that way, either.
The bitter pill for Jazz fans like myself to swallow, particularly in the city that was the birthplace of the music: Jazz does not move millions of dollars in tickets and souvenirs. Alternative and pop do.
So the promoters roll with the money. Pop sensation Arcade Fire? Front and center. The Mingus Big Band? You heard it well if you were not sitting to the back of the tent, closer to the audio blow-back from the mountainous speakers surrounding the main stage just a few hundred feet away.
You can’t entirely blame the promoters. Jazz has been on its way to endangered species status in the United States since the end of the BeBop Era in 1955, when it moved away from being a popular entertainment to an art form.
As the art form ranged off into new vistas, from acid jazz to fusion to you-name-it, it began to fade in popularity but it grew in academic interest.
Today, jazz music is very much a part of academia. The music is taught and performed in middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities nationwide.
Outside of schools, it is performed professionally in the United States for a dwindling audience of largely white, ex-Beatniks and aging-post-hippies who often have to band together and form music societies or promotional groups to bring it to their cities.
Originated by African-American performers, many young African-Americans have moved on to other more profitable musical forms, like Hip-Hop, Techno and Rap.
The music that rose out of African and Christian musical traditions in the bars, brothels and sidewalks of New Orleans is played around the world by musicians of great talent and passion. You are as likely today to see a clarinetist from France and a pianist from Japan at the Preservation Hall. At the Heritage Festival jazz bands sported a Chinese drummer and a Russian bassist.
Jazz possesses little super-star power in a pop-soaked America that hangs on every drooling syllable of a Justin Bieber or the latest costume outrage of a Lady Gaga. It has no mega bands packing 60,000 screaming fans into venues in the United States.
Before I’m flayed alive by boiling mad Jazz fans, yes friends, Wynton Marsalis and Christian McBride and Chick Corea are big names to all of us who love the music. We are the hockey fans of the music world, though. Outsiders know a few names, like they know the NHL’s Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby. Most pop fans know Jazz as Kenny G, not Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea.
A site listing the fifteen most influential jazz artists does not list one living artist.
Jazz, like classical music, has become more of an acquired taste. John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, to name a few, pushed the music out of its Big Band conformity, exploring the outer limits of music, time and space with their instruments. Artistically successful? Sure. Distancing from popularity, though, was a financial disaster.
Pop music isn’t big on dissonance. It isn’t big on free. It delivers the tune that has been played a thousand times with minor variations. The driving drumming rock ballad. The soul singer soaring upward to that big crescendo. The rap riff ripped over some classic beat.
Modern Jazz deviates. It explores. It redefines. Sometimes it is linear. Sometimes it is not.
That doesn’t resonate well in our Billions and Billions Served McMedia-Hyped music business.
We lack an Ahmet Ertegün, founder of Atlantic Records, or an Alfred Lion, founder of Blue Note. Men behind the jazz stars who made them epic, who promoted them and made them edgy, relevant, cool.
Ertegun’s last shot at it before his death, the debut of Norah Jones, was as close as jazz has come to being a major popular art form again.
Academia, the refuge of able jazz musicians great and small, preserves the music, but it also limits it. What’s taught in school isn’t cool.
Most of the great American music forms rise out of the poorest neighborhoods, from the porches and churches and taverns of humble beginnings. They are also about the taboo, setting new trends, and, let’s face it: Pissing off your parents. Music is a generational battle cry, and a rebellion against the prior generation.
The jazz of the Roaring ’20s was the music of prohibition. It was free. It was wild. It was sinful.
Rock was the music that was going to corrupt American youth.
Now it is Rap’s turn.
Jazz needs a spark. It needs a new direction. Respect the history, but for it to thrive, it needs to be cool again. It needs to be counter-culture. It needs to piss off more parents.
Perhaps one of today’s stars, perhaps someone in a high school classroom, or playing on the streets of New Orleans, will be that person to give jazz back its cool. Maybe a new producer/imprimatur will arrive on the scene and reignite the genre.
If not, I fear that Jazz will continue its slide into longhaired academic irrelevance.
Particularly at a festival chartered to promote Jazz and other cultural heritage music of New Orleans, though, the organizers of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival can go a long way towards making jazz music more prominent: A better location on the fairgrounds, and some of the top acts in the genre each weekend, might be a good start. Bring in more of the brass bands and small Dixieland bands like The Smoking Time Jazz Club, who are already working the streets of the French Quarter, to play in the open areas of the fairgrounds. Young people playing the music make it cool, and worth a listen.
The Festival’s foundation is failing the music as much as the music may be failing their financial aims. If they want Jazz in the title, though, they need to do a whole lot more to respect and nourish it at the “Jazz Fest.”
My shiny two.