Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Graying Of Jazz

The main stage structure in Ottawa's Confederation Park—home base for the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival—has only just been dismantled, but the pundits are already debating what transpired there over the event's 10 days.

Ken Gray, a former editorial board member at the city's major daily and ongoing columnist, is a man who loves to lounge in the park and listen to music, and as he writes here he's willing to see the festival die a slow death rather than be subjected to music that he feels doesn't belong. My estimable colleague Peter Hum takes him on through the digital pages of the same newspaper.

Like many critics, Gray is only too happy to tell you what he doesn't like—anything that he feels smacks of pop, rock or blues—but is woefully short on opinions of just who might fill the bill to keep vacationing public servants and retirees nodding their heads and making trips to the beer concession as the festival sails toward the inevitable sunset of his doomsday scenario. He's also woefully blind to everything that goes on away from the festival's main stage (which, this year, included what was perhaps the best set of improvised music—performed by the new Dave Douglas/Joe Lovano quintet—I've witnessed in a couple of years anywhere) and how much those shows are subsidized by the 11,000 or so music fans who show up outdoors to hear the likes of Robert Plant or Steve Martin in all their non-jazz glory. In an earlier entry, I highlighted how much popular mainstream acts contribute to the coffers of the festival, which often loses money on jazz acts (the second set of that stellar Douglas/Lovano band attracted only about a one-third house, for example).

Of course, Gray also overlooks the reality of history. He falls back on that old saw that jazz never sounds better than it does on a summer's evening when it's played outdoors, presumably casting his mind back to the archetypal summer jazz fest at Newport, Rhode Island. Conveniently, he overlooks the fact that promoter George Wein—in addition to popularizing the concept of the outdoor jazz festival—also pioneered the inclusion of popular artists who drew from the same roots as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Hence, Wein's inclusion of acts like Chuck Berry and, a decade or so later, the Allman Brothers Band, in the Newport Jazz Festival lineup.

No, Gray would rather see the festival shrink, or even perish—a vision that is not only ridiculously shortsighted, but diminishes the contributions of the artists who are performing in venues that promote close listening.

With 'fans' like that, is it any wonder that so many younger musicians reject the notion of jazz altogether?

July 8 Addendum: Here's an interesting perspective on the crux of this issue from pianist Robert Glasper, who believes jazz as the purists like Gray see it is a "secret club."


Mark Beirne-Smith said...

James a very balanced view here... but you raise many issues with me here are a few:
When does a Jazz festival change to become a music festival?
If Jazz festivals are not finacially viable with out mainstream (non jazz) acts should they continue?
I have never been a fan of any outdoor concerts as the nuance of the music is sometimes lost so should just be in the club setting?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts

James Hale said...

Personally, I dislike labels, so I've never been a big fan of festivals delineating the genre of music they program, especially when the term is a slippery as 'jazz' is. Bear in mind, that I used to program the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and I've worked on contract for the organization a couple of times, so I'm complicit here. Still, the name choice pre-dates me, back to the years when it was essentially a Dixieland festival, and didn't book a single black performer. Some people would justifiably look at that and say that it wasn't a jazz festival then, either. Labels limit and mislead.

Lynda Leonard said...

Hey James thanks for the eloquent rebuttal...I'm a relative parvenu to the Jazz Festival but like Mr. Grey I have come to love those 10 days best of all the days of summer. What I love about the festival are the hidden jewels you find when you're not expecting them. The beauty of Prism, Dave Holland's quartet, shining through the rain was one example and Destroyer at the OLG was another. I see the eclectic mix the festival programs as a key strength..not a weakness. And isn't this city wonderful with the sound of jazz etc. wafting through it. Like you I think this is a stupid debate lead by people who can't find anything more interesting to say about music.

Christopher Smith said...

It's the same argument used here in Montreal about our festival. It's really a "festival of all kinds of music that were influenced by the African diaspora, plus a bit more" but that doesn't trip off the tongue as snappily as "jazz festival." I would venture a guess that if they renamed any music festival to take the word "jazz" out, then there would be hardly a note of jazz heard at all. I hate to invoke Nicolas Payton here, but there is a problem with the word. It means something different to everyone who uses it, and so everyone is liable to be disappointed unless they relax and get very liberal with the definition.

Anonymous said...

The article and posted comments bring forth a myriad of threads worthy of pursuing. However, I'll stick to those that resonate most strongly with me.

Firstly, I enjoy many genres of music. Principal amongst them are classical and jazz. I do like labels, even if they mean different things to different people. When I use one of these words, you are likely, and correctly, to assume that rock is not at the top of my list, nor is country & western. Labels do help, even if not precise with single word labels like these. Let's use them, but use them with care, and increase our precision when comparing or discussing sub-genres. Let's also recognize that not all music fits within a single label, but that these broad ones at least help us understand broadly what another person is trying to communicate.

I listen to a lot of jazz. It has overtaken my love of classical music, even though I'm still a multi-series subscriber to the NAC Orchestra. I still listen to jazz year-round, at home, at clubs & restaurants, and at jazz festivals. Over the years, I've found that the OIJF (Ottawa's Jazz Festival) has been a treasure of joy -- music in the park on a summer's day is an amazing treat, even if the sound purity would best be enjoyed indoors. It's also a chance to kickback, socialize, try out some food and buy CDs of music you've just heard and liked. And, very importantly, it's a chance to hear music you haven't heard before, and might not have experienced if it required specific ticket sales. This has greatly broadened both my knowledge and enjoyment of the genre.

But to sit in the park and be blasted by loud music you dislike, just so you can be there for some you might like, is not for me. So for the first time in 29 years, I didn't buy an OIJF pass this year, and I stopped my membership and financial support of the festival.

I also love the indoor quality of jazz concerts, which is why I always subscribed to the additional Pianissimo and Connoisseur series, when they were available. But now the most-likley-to-be-enjoyed-or-appreciated-music (by me), is now largely indoors, and I need to choose, and I need to buy tickets like a crap shoot (since the online clips don't necessarily represent what you'll hear), and stand in long lines for each one.

So I did attend 2 ticketed concerts this year and 2 free ones; but I used to attend about 40 at each summer's OIJF. So I lose. And I've talked to many other regulars, sadly disappointed by last year's festival. Personally, I knew I wouldn't enjoy a repeat of last year, where I spent more time leaving performances than enjoying them. I know there were some great ones, but having to sort them out, find and schedule them, wasn't for me. Too much disappointment. And, frankly, too much work, for something that was a fun summer outdoor festival in years past.

James Hale said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Anonymous. You hit on points I wholeheartedly agree with, particularly how much fun the social aspect of Confederation Park can be. Like you, I sorely miss the Pianissimo series; which was my favourite to cover when I was The Citizen's jazz critic alongside Peter Hum.

But, as with so many things in life, the situation has changed radically over the past couple of decades. For one thing, artists' fees (at least at the top end, i.e., those who can potentially fill Confederation Park) have increased by several hundred percent. So, while in the past, festival organizers (not just here in Ottawa, but everywhere) could afford to take a chance that a mainstream jazz artist could fill the park, now they tend to go with things that are a safer bet, and that usually means looking at their track record in other cities, and sales of recordings in various formats. So, for better or worse, that's a reality we have to live with.

Back to the issue of labels for a second: "jazz" doesn't mean much, does it, if I relate it to late-period John Coltrane and you relate it to Benny Goodman? So, yes, sometimes it's up to the consumer to either do their homework or take a chance.

As I noted, I don't have any ongoing commercial relationship with the Ottawa Jazz Festival, but I know they would appreciate hearing your input as a longtime supporter.

Anyway, Anonymous, thanks for taking the time. I appreciate the comment.

Christopher Smith said...

Aha! Sorry to bogart the thread, but you've definitely hit on something about the usefulness of labels, James. Really, they are only good for marketing, in the best sense of the word, in that people are looking for something that sounds somewhat like this other thing they heard, only different. Now, we can all sneer at record store bins and their overly-generalised labels, but we need SOME way to compare.

May I suggest something along the lines of what Amazon does? They track when other customers have bought the same thing you did, and show you what ELSE they bought. This is kind of a Darwinian method of choosing what else to listen to, and it really works well!

Hmm, except for when I was helping out my son's elementary school production of "You're A Good Man Charlie Brown", bought the cast album on Amazon, and now am getting bombarded by suggestions for children's books, albums, and toys, even though my son has graduated high school now.

Anyway, that's where a well-programmed concert series can really shine. Grouping similar kinds of bands together, year after year, can really build audience loyalty. James, I don't have to tell YOU this, but maybe somebody could slip a word in with the Montreal festival...

James Hale said...

Ideally, a music festival should reflect the personality of its artistic director (or team, if that's the approach chosen). While his vision was somewhat more limited than mine was when I was involved in booking the Ottawa Jazz Festival, Jacques Emond established a strong personality with festival-goers, and I can't count the number of times people told me they trusted him to book acts they needed to hear. Compliments don't come any bigger than that. I hold out big things for Petr Cancura, Jacques' successor.

John Doheny said...

For one thing, artists' fees (at least at the top end, i.e., those who can potentially fill Confederation Park) have increased by several hundred percent.

my take is that this dates from the fusion era, when jazz artists found that they could demand and get fees commensurate with the rock guys, and the Wynton era, when fees in the same ballpark as classical concert recitalists became the norm among jazz 'stars.'

lest your readers be misled though, it should be said that I and most other midlevel schlubs have certaintly not increased our fees, we're still making the same scale-or-close-to-it bread we always did. In fact it has become pretty much impossible to "tour" without some kind of subsidy, either canada Council (up there) or some local granting body, such as the Deep South Institute for the Humanities, who graciously underwrote travel expenses the last time I brought my New Orleans band to canada in 2008.

Even these bright spots are fading though, as government funding at all levels shrinks, and "pay" in many clubs devolves to essentially indoor busking. New Orleans, supposedly a "music town," if full of gigs like this, generally some combination of the tip jar combined with a 'wage" that often amounts to 10 or 15 dollars an hour. seriously. Is it any wonder then that many musicians look to the road and festival gigs to top up the kitty in-season. And now even this is disappearing.

Basically, people in general just don't want to pay for music anymore. I have no solution to this, only the sense that things can't continue this way.

James Hale said...

I hear you, John, and believe me the point you make is true throughout the industry. I make basically the same amount writing about the music as I did in 1978, when I started out, even though my overall income, derived from other types of writing, has increase about tenfold.

For the record, the example of headliner fees multiplying comes from this article I wrote for the CBC Music website:

The example cited to me by Catherine O'Grady, executive director of the Ottawa jazz fest, was for a bebop era musician who remains a poll topper today.