Left Side of the Balcony: Broadly Defining an Art Form
What's a jazz festival with almost no jazz?
Jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke performing at the Montreal Jazz Fest, 2016.
At the recent Oakland Jazz Festival, most of the performers weren't jazz musicians. The event featured fine R&B and soul groups but only a smattering of jazz. I see the same phenomena at such famous events as the North Sea and Montreux jazz festivals. Even Yoshi's in Oakland, one of the world's best-known jazz clubs, is booking increasing numbers of non-jazz acts.
Some festival impresarios think the term jazz lends prestige, jazz pianist Kenny Barron told me, but "the music itself, they don't seem to care for. Think about the money they're paying that person and how many artists they could get for that same amount of money."
The source of the problem, in the view of many impresarios, is that jazz audiences are small, and popular music puts more butts in the seats.
The Montreal Jazz Festival, the world's largest jazz festival with more than 2 million visitors, wrestles with this problem every year. I recently returned from covering the event, and to its credit, Montreal features mostly jazz. The festival sells out large concert halls for such groups as Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Chick Corea trio.
But it also features lots of blues, hip-hop, and other kinds of music. Some of this year's biggest draws were pop singer Rufus Wainwright and rapper/singer Lauryn Hill. Festival president Jacques-Andre Dupont said in an interview the tree that gave rise to jazz has many limbs.
"We like to have a broader definition of the word jazz," he said. "We look at the tree and make sure every branch is part of the festival."
Jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke understands those many roots of jazz, having grown up in the West African country of Benin and playing Afropop as a teenager. He also understands that festivals have to make money, or at least break even.
"Having pop musicians is a good thing for the organizers in terms of business to keep jazz festivals going," he said.
Having pop music fans in attendance can help jazz artists as well, he said. "It's important for the audience to come closer to what we do, to bring people who normally wouldn't listen to you."
Dupont admitted that jazz as an art form isn't as popular as in years past. He said many people are turned off by the image of jazz. "People think it's far away, that it's intellectual, that they won't get it. It's not true. Jazz was pop before."
Indeed, during the big band era of the 1920s-'40s, jazz was America's popular dance music. Jazz styles ranged from dance bands like Benny Goodman's to the sophisticated orchestrations of Duke Ellington.
When musical tastes changed and the big band era ended after World War II, two musical trends emerged: bebop jazz and rhythm and blues. R&B became the popular dance music, particularly when white-owned record companies restyled it as rock 'n' roll. Bebop and its many derivatives became listening music, filling jazz clubs and later concert halls.
Today, jazz has a small audience in the United Sates, making up fewer than 2 percent of annual CD and download sales. Mainstream jazz tends to draw the older and more affluent, who can afford $25-$100 for the nightclub cover charge or concert tickets.
"When I play concerts, they're all blue-haired ladies," said pianist Barron with a chuckle.
One musician in Montreal went so far as to say jazz would die out when baby boomers kick the bucket. I disagree. Jazz obituaries have been written many times before.
Today, universities are filled with young people enrolled in jazz studies programs. Artists in their 20s and 30s are creating new and exciting music. Earlier generations of jazz musicians re-purposed show tunes and movie themes—the popular music of the day. Today, young musicians fuse jazz with hip-hop, Latin, and funk.
Most major U.S. cities have at least one jazz club or other venue that regularly plays jazz. And jazz remains even more popular in Europe.
Guitarist Loueke said, "The only way jazz will die is if there is no more new sound." The music will ossify if musicians only play the standards, but it will grow by incorporating other musical styles, he explained. "I truly believe that if Duke were here, or Miles or Coltrane, they would be playing different music today."
Not familiar with jazz? Here are five easy steps to learn more:
1. Listen to some of Miles Davis' classic CDs, such as Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain. You can hear wonderful melodies, catchy rhythms and sophisticated orchestrations.
2. For contemporary, easily accessible jazz, check out Wynton Marsalis CDs, particularly the big band arrangements of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
3. My personal modern favorites combine jazz with other musical styles such as Larry Vuckovich's Blue Balkan and anything by Cuban pianist Chucho Valdez.
4. Tune in to the all-jazz radio station KCSM (91.1 FM) or listen on Saturday afternoons and other select times on KPFA (94.1 FM).
5. Visit a live jazz performance. This month Yoshi's calendar includes the John Santos Sextet (Aug. 12), Barbara Dane (Aug. 24), and the Glenn Miller Orchestra (Aug. 27-8). www.Yoshis.com. Other local venues include the Sound Room, SoundRoom.org; and Birdland Jazzista Social Club, BirdlandJazz.org.
This story appears in the August edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.