Monday, April 25, 2011

Truth in Advertising?

There has been debate here and here about the validity of including artists like Elvis Costello, Robert Plant's Band Of Joy or kd lang in one of Canada's largest, and oldest, jazz festivals.

Where to begin? Well, first, I can't stop laughing at the fact that someone commenting on Ken Gray's screed against pop artists like Costello, Plant and lang takes a swipe at Peter Hum, who isn't too happy about the situation himself. You know the old saying: Put two jazz fans in a room and a fight will break out.

I suspect that the guy who snidely posits if Hum—one of the most knowledgeable jazz journalists I know—thinks Bix is the name of a breakfast cereal might be only slightly older than me. I'm 56, and think the inclusion of artists like Costello, Plant and lang mirrors my own relationship with jazz.

The first music I remember in my parents' house was equal parts rockabilly, folk music and jazz. My older brothers split along the lines of Gene Vincent and the Kingston Trio. My father filled the house with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington on Sunday mornings. When I became old enough to buy my own records, I evolved from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Cream and Jimi Hendrix in the course of three years. From Hendrix, it was only a short step to Miles Davis, and from there the world opened up into John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Charlie Parker. I never drew a line between Hendrix and Coltrane or Muddy Waters; it was all great American music, drawn from the same source. When I produced and hosted a radio show, I regularly mixed the Jackson 5, Bruce Springsteen and Weather Report. To me, it's just second nature. Why would you want to exclude Bix in favour of Hendrix, or vice versa?

So a festival that includes popular artists and more marginal ones is just fine with me. One of my best festival experiences was seeing Patti Smith at the Montreal International Jazz Festival a few years ago, and the fact that she poked fun at those who thought her booking was odd—and at herself—just endeared her more to me.

The financial implications take it all into another dimension, of course. As Catherine O'Grady, who heads the Ottawa jazz fest, points out, booking jazz artists on the festival's large outdoor stage is a equation of diminishing returns. Even the few remaining 'household names' (Shorter, Rollins, Marsalis) in jazz just don't draw the way they did a few years ago. So, if you want to bring in Vijay Iyer or a big band like Darcy James Argue's, you need the revenue that will flow from putting Costello, Plant and lang onstage. That's just financial reality.

But it's also my listening reality, and I expect that it's the same way for most of those jazz fans under 60.


Anonymous said...

Well put James. "Yes...but is ti jazz" arguments are about as interesting and fruitful as that other perennial "Is it art?" How can an artist like Patti or Plant continue to perform for 40 or 50 years without being open to the influences of jazz - and everything else. These explorations are usually interesting sometimes compelling...ask anyone who had tickets to Lou Reed in Montreal last year. Exploration and experimentation are the hallmarks of artistic integrity. We insist on it from jazz musicians...why not from old rockers too.

Peter Hum said...

Cereal? What about those shareable bikes?

Richard Page said...

I understand the reason for the main stage acts, and I think that it is a smart idea having them at the festival. I probably won't attend those shows - the stuff that I want to see is indoors this year. My concern is with the passes. With the pass, you're not guaranteed a spot at the indoor shows. I'm not sure it will make a difference this year, but we might see less passes sold in the future because of the crowd being polarized. Some people may find that the pass is not worth it, whether they want to see Robert Plant, or Brad Mehldau - hopefully, they would want to see both, but that isn't what I'm hearing from most people.

Ground Rules said...

For me, the difference between the "big" shows and the "small" shows has less to do with the music as it does about the listening experience. The indoor performances provide better sound, better weather, better sight lines, better "butt" comfort and no rumble of buses or transport trucks.

Jon Wertheim said...

The point isn't "is it jazz?" The point is "it is a jazz FESTIVAL?" A festival, which must cater to a large number of fans, must do two things: it must present a varied enough program to appease everyone, but it also must present a narrow enough program to truthfully represent the festival itself. If a festival bills itself as a jazz festival, it should book and present jazz - and I think that can include anyone WHO DESCRIBES THEMSELVES AS JAZZ ARTISTS. If Costello says his music fits into jazz, book him! Same with Robert Glasper or some trad-jazz group. But for a jazz festival to advertise itself as such and then present mostly artists associated with other genres - at the cost of publicizing and booking less successful jazz artists, I hasten to add - then there's a problem.

Jon Wertheim
Rehearsing The Blues

Gene D'Andrea said...

Why continue to call it a "jazz" festival rather than a "music" festival? I'm an under-60 jazz musician and yes, I enjoy things outside of the jazz genre but I hate seeing jazz the genre and jazz the word watered down by festival producers and promoters in order to sell tickets. And speaking of financial realities, I bet Robert Plant, k.d. lang, Pink Martini etc. as well as the festival producers themselves are getting paid more than all the other jazz acts combined.

James Hale said...

Gene: Well, in the case of Ottawa, because of the +100 acts the great majority are solid jazz artists: from veterans like Kenny Wheeler to relative newcomers like Darcy James Argue, and dozens in between.