Saturday, June 25, 2011

Jazz Exploitation?

Given what passes for news in some media outlets now, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the 'non-jazz artists at jazz festivals' story has the legs it does, but so be it. The story has kept growing this week as most of North America's jazz fests get underway.

I've already blogged about my own take on it here, but let me address a new twist on this that comes up in some of my former colleague Peter Hum's blog entries. (And, understand, I don't fault Peter for keeping this story going. I know he has a genuine interest in this on a personal level, which is the kind of thing that makes his blog essential reading.)

The issue that bassist Christian McBride and others raise in their responses to Peter's questions is that of festivals "exploiting" the term jazz to attract patrons—both of the listening kind and sponsors. McBride specifically posits that festivals with jazz in their title but acts like Robert Plant or Elvis Costello on their stages are "insulting the legacy of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk."

Well, what would insult their legacy more, I wonder: exposing dozens of jazz artists to audiences by way of the subsidization from artists like Plant, or dropping the name 'jazz' from the festival's title and booking, say, one-quarter as many jazz musicians and filling the rest of the roster with more recognizable musicians? Wasn't it Ellington who once said there was two kinds of music—good and bad? Just how does providing a good venue, good payday and audience exposure to jazz artists through healthy gate revenue violate his memory? Would jazz purists truly feel better about the whole thing if festivals like Ottawa's, Montreal's and Montreux's changed their names and focus?

There's something of a defeatist attitude in all this; as though some of these purists would like the situation for their music and the people who play it to be even worse so they can feel truly marginalized. Last year's jazz-packed lineup at Ottawa's jazz festival (standard disclaimer here that I was under contract to the festival last year) resulted in a deficit of $80,000. Would the anti-rocker faction be happy to see that trend continue in a short-term gain/long-term pain game?

And it's not just jazz fans who do this; the same is true of Ottawa's Bluesfest—one of Canada's most successful music festivals. A common refrain I hear from people is, Where are the blues acts? I often feel like asking them just who they'd book on the festival's mainstage to draw 30,000 people and fulfill that blues quotient they're pining for. The economic reality is that only certain acts are going to draw those kinds of numbers. At least people should take comfort in the fact that fame is a cyclical thing; every so often, a Diana Krall or Blues Brothers will actually get popular for a minute. More often, though, if you want to draw that kind of crowd, you're going to have to look to the diminishing number of iconic figures like Plant or the ever-changing pop sensations who are on their way up.


John Doheny said...

This debate has been going on since George Wein booked Chuck Berry at Monterey, and it shows no sign of ending. My own take on it is slightly different though, because whenever I hear the "open ears policies exposes rock fans to jazz sounds" argument, I always wonder where the reciprocal end of that arrangement is. If we're really into genre hopping here, and it's perfectly cool for Sting to headline a "jazz" festival (as he did some years ago here in New Orleans) when do we get to see Joshua Redman headlining a rock festival?

I'm joking of course, I know it's really about money, and subsidizing the poor relation that is jazz music. I just think that if all these faux hipsters were really as catholic in their tastes as they claim, they might like a little James Blood Ulmer or Archie Shepp to go with their Atom Egoyan flicks, instead of the White Stripes they invariably default to.

James Hale said...

Yeah, the only jazz artist who tends to get booked at rock festivals is Ornette, although there was a while there when David S. Ware attracted the interest of some thrash-rock fans.