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.