Thursday, September 26, 2013

We Can Do Better

Jazz is a living music. If it's not being played somewhere live, then it's essentially dead. I have written about how as Jazz moves into academia, we must make efforts to ensure that jazz doesn't end up like classical saxophone: as an almost exclusively academic pursuit. The challenge is great: Jazz music hasn't been popular for more than half a century, live music competes with the internet for our attention, and the terrible economy forces folks to stay home instead of going out to spend money. 

When I started playing professionally in the late 1980's, there seemed to be much more interest in live music than there seems to be now. Although anybody playing jazz in the modern era is going to struggle with large numbers of folks who have little understanding of bebop and swing, in my youthful days there were gigs happening almost every night; between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., I could do pretty well financially. Some of the gigs paid more in the 80's and 90's than they pay now. Furthermore, even as a relative novice, I almost never had the need to do what is quite often disdainfully referred to as a "door gig." 

What is a "door gig?" Simply, it's when there is no guarantee for the band; you get only whatever money comes in at the door, which is oftentimes actually a percentage of the door( the venue takes some of it. This can vary.) Showing up for work without knowing if you are going to make any money can suck; can you imagine a doctor showing up for major surgery and being told, "Sorry, but you only get 30 dollars. It was fun, though. Let's do brain surgery another time!" The door gig takes the risk away from the venue and puts it on the musicians. Sometimes, this can be better than a guarantee; when you consider the paradigm of the club that gives you a small guarantee and then pockets the profit, even when there are huge crowds, then a percentage of the door means the band can get more more money if more people come out. However, if no one comes, then you don't get paid at all. No matter how fun it is to play music, if you are a professional musician, it sucks to end the night with nothing to take home, especially if you have been doing this for a few years, and even more especially, if you remember a time when you refused to do door gigs because you didn't need to do them.

I remember when the shift occurred in New York City; at a certain point, it seemed as though there were two kinds of gigs: restaurant gigs which guaranteed payment, and door gigs which didn't. The restaurant gigs came with issues like having a dress code, having to play for 5 or 6 hours and having specifically timed breaks and limited food options, and also being told to play quieter even though the conversation of the diners was already drowning out the music. The door gigs were situations where you could play whatever you wanted, but you couldn't expect the venue to do anything to get people to come to the gig. In fact, it seemed like there were some door gigs that were almost like scams; for example, some gigs would say you only get the door after the first 10 covers. I remember doing one of these, and because I was so wrapped up in worrying about the music, I couldn't actually count how many people had come to the show. The lady at the door said, "only 10 people came, so you don't get anything." It seemed like there were more than ten people there, but I was too tired to argue over nickles and dimes. After a bunch of experiences like that, I stopped doing door gigs and just tried to make the restaurant gigs more interesting. Sometimes, those gigs could be just as fun as the "playing" gigs. Of course, those gigs started to pay less and less, even as the restaurants got more and more crowded and the menu got more expensive. You can stop greed....I mean, progress......

Now that I have a day job teaching jazz at Portland State University, I can do door gigs and not worry about the fact that I couldn't make a living from these kinds of gigs. I can do them for the love of playing music. However, this is in some ways a short term solution: in the short term, I can feed my family, and I can play my music regardless of demand. Cool, right? Well, the problem is that I'm actually less motivated to publicize my gigs or to try to get people to come out and what have you. 

This brings up the issue of whether this is even my job at all. I think that, especially in today's world of social media, putting your gig on Facebook is the least of what you can do. You can make posters, call or text your friends, send out a press release, try to get the radio stations to interview you, etc...You could pay for ads or hire a publicist, but that's probably way more money than you want to spend, especially for one gig. How much more than that can we do? Also, you could try being a really great musician that people are interested in hearing, or you could try to present your gig as a "special project," or even a "tribute" to some great jazz legend (PDX Jazz does a lot of these.) Or you could have more people in your band, which equals more friends who will come to the venue, hopefully. 

What often ends up happening is that whomever can convince every friend they had from middle school on and every extended family member to come out every time they play will be the successful ones. If you spend all of your time shedding, and have a small circle of friends and family who also have a life of their own, you can't expect them to come out every time you play! (I used to do OK at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. when my Dad or Mom would really organize folks to come to my performances. But I did a lot of gigs with local singers who were secretaries by day; they would invite the entire office to their gig once a year and they would pack the place. So this was the beginning of what I thought was an imbalance. The really good local musicians who played on the scene regularly couldn't draw a crowd at Blues Alley; but the amateur folks could do really well with ticket sales. So the amateurs would get repeat bookings while the professionals would end up working at Twins Lounge. That's a whole other story....)

But what if people STILL don't come? Can we not look at the venue itself? Is the venue a place where people go regardless of who is playing or not? Even though "jazz" gigs can be distinct from "restaurant" gigs, many of the "jazz" gigs take place where food and beverages are served. These aren't just performance halls; these are "clubs" or "lounges" that also have music. Without music, these venues would have no other way to draw folks other than their food, or their drinks, or their atmosphere, or what have you. Just like musicians are being told, "you need to figure out how to get folks to come out," restaurants, bars, and lounges also have to figure out the best way to "build a following" as in a regular clientele. You need to have a place where folks want to go and feel comfortable. You need to get a good reputation in the community. 

Without naming names, it's amazing to me that many of these venues would rather blame the musicians than blame themselves. If you own a venue and you are expecting local musicians to bring huge crowds all of the time, you are going to be sorry; if you book jazz, it just isn't popular enough to draw huge crowds.( If you want to book techno, or other really popular forms of music, then by all means do so, if that's the kind of venue you want.) But some of these places, not just in Portland, but everywhere, don't do everything that they can to make people want to come to their place. If you are in Portland, this is now a foodie town, and your food has to be able to compete with that. If you are in a funny location, and you don't have walk in traffic, that's not the musician's fault. You have to figure out how to make people WALK or DRIVE to your venue. 

A musician friend of mine recently posted this letter that he received from the proprietor of a local venue:

 "Hi. I have an issue with the lack of audience. I would've hoped that someone in your group of performers/musicians would've marketed the group playing. This has been two weeks playing to no audience. Are you expecting fans next week, because if not I would ask you to step down from performing any further at my shop. I don't have a built in audience. I count on the bands to bring folks in and that hasn't been done. Let's call a spade a spade." 

My musician friend sent it out as a warning to other musicians who would venture to perform in this venue. There are so many problems with this message, but perhaps we can also learn from this scenario in addition to being angry about this kind of message.

Of course, we also hate not having an audience. I'm sure my musician friend did the best he could to get the word out. And the side musicians on the rotation for this gig were some of the best known in Portland. Although that could be a problem in that if you are playing often in town, then it's not a special event if you play somewhere, so people are less likely to come down every time you play. On the other side of the coin, you aren't going to get famous out-of-town jazz musicians to play a door gig in your venue. So getting the best local guys is probably your best bet, UNLESS you want to go the "let's get a secretary who sings and has hundreds of friends who will come to her gig." That has pros and cons. That kind of mentality has it's limitations; eventually you run out of those people, and then you are left with the pro musicians, who have abandoned your venue in search of a place where they can play real music as well as listen to real music.

Also, the idea that the leader will market the gig is one thing, but you cannot expect the sidemen to do but so much in marketing the gig. That is not their job. They can post it on facebook if they choose. But in general, if you are asked to be a sideman, it's pretty beyond the norm to expect you to do any publicity. It would be different if it was a collective or some kind of band where everyone is an equal member. But in a situation like this, it's really on the bandleader. I couldn't imagine if every sideman gig I did, I was asked to hire a publicist and do heavy promotion. There's just no way!

The letter says: "This has been two weeks playing to no audience." Well, I hate to break it to you, but the regular weekly gigs sometimes take more than two weeks to develop into something. Sometimes it might take months. Let's look at the venue itself. With or without music, would you close up shop if you had little business in your first two weeks? No. It would suck, and you might try to figure out how to get more folks out, but you wouldn't abandon all the prep work you did to open your venue because you started slow. It is said that it takes three years of having a restaurant before you start to make money. Would you close after two weeks? So here, the venue owner is clearly short sighted.

Finally, the fact that they put all of the responsibility on the musicians is just bad. YES, we as musicians need to do better. AND FOR THAT MATTER, we the musicians-as-fans-of-the-music need to do better. We need to support the venues and the local musicians better. I make my own excuses; I'm busy with school or my own gigs, my son wants me at home, I'm too tired to go out, etc...Some of my music students, who I suppose are interested in a career as live performing musicians, never go to local gigs; at least, I've never seen them at any gig. I understand that some have problems with being underage for going into bars past a certain hour, some have transportation issues, and some have financial issues. I understand, but if there is a will, there's a way. Students need to go to some of these gigs not just to support a scene that they want to be a part of someday, but they also need to hear live music to learn from the pros, and also be a part of the scene. If people see you around at venues, they get to know you, they might let you sit in, and then if you are good, they might call you for a gig. This is what it means to "make the scene." Many of my students don't understand this at all. 

I also think that, while Portland has a better than most cities in America jazz scene, and a decent crowd for jazz, the jazz fans need to branch out and look at ALL of the jazz venues, not just Jimmy Mak's and The Mission Theater. Sure, lots of folks come out for the PDX festival and PDX events, but where are they the rest of the year. Jazz can't happen 6 times a year to be a jazz scene. I am reminded of when I asked someone if there was a jazz scene in Montreal. "Sure, there's a great jazz scene. We have the Montreal Jazz Scene every summer!" THAT DOES NOT QUALIFY AS A JAZZ SCENE! That's one time a year when a whole bunch of famous cats come to your city. What's going on the rest of the year?

Getting back to the letter; the owner of the venue takes no responsibility and has no long term vision for music in his venue. Even though it's a bit extreme that his letter was distributed publicly, did he think that musicians don't talk to each other? Indeed, I've gone to the venue to support musicians, because I actually thought it was a cool spot and I have been telling people that they should go there. I played there a few months ago and really enjoyed it. I don't know, I feel a little disheartened by the owner's attitude, and I'm feeling disrespected in solidarity with my musician friend who was trying to build something there. I still think it's a cool place, and I never say never; if they are willing to keep an open mind, it could actually be a great spot for jazz. But this kind of attitude doesn't make me want to go there, let alone perform there.

In order to be a jazz scene there has to be a community: we all have to do better. Musicians have to get people to come out. Musicians and students need to support other musicians and venues. Venues have to support musicians and do ALL that they can to make their place a destination. Jazz fans have to be fans more than a few times a year. I've already blogged about how music schools can do better. I can do better. You can do better. Let's not just point fingers, let's just commit to keeping jazz alive in the 21st century.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Three Wishes

Dear Mr Colligan,
We are three students from a French high school called Pierre et Claude
Virlogeux. We are all 17. We are really pleased to write to you.
The 26th edition of the music festival called ‘Jazz en Tête’ will start on
Monday October 14th in our area. As part of the festival, we are currently
working on jazz music in our English class. Indeed, our English teacher is
preparing us for a meeting with two musicians who will take part in the
festival: a pianist (Laurent de Wilde) and a double bass player (Essiet
Okon Essiet). We will also attend their concert.
In the 50s, 60s and 70s, Pannonica de Koenigswarter, aka Nica or the Jazz
Baroness befriended such giants as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud
Powell and many more. Over the course of a decade, she asked 300 musicians
what their three wishes in life were, jotting them all down in a notebook.
Today our aim is to follow in her footsteps. That’s the reason why, just
like Pannonica with lots of great jazz men, we would like to ask you what
would be your three wishes  if you could make them come true.
We would be very grateful if you could spare a few moments to answer the

Hélène, Thomas and Jade

Dear Hélène, Thomas and Jade,

Bonjour. My three wishes? Hmmm.

These are in no particular order.

1. World Peace.
2. A great life for my son.
3. More gigs for my band.

Bonne chance!

-George Colligan

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Yes, I Can Say Sammy Davis Jr. is a Jazz Singer

When folks talk about the great Jazz singers, we hear about Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Shirley Horn, Joe Williams, Nat "King" Cole, Little Jimmy Scott, Billie Holiday, and so on. But why not Sammy Davis, Jr? I've wondered this for a number of years. Is it because he's thought of as an "entertainer?" Or is it because he was part of the "Rat Pack?" Is it because he had some hit songs which I suppose could be considered "corny" such as "The Candy Man" and "Mr. Bojangles?" All of that being true, Sammy Davis could play instruments and it was legend that Davis used to sit in with the Count Basie band on every instrument. I find Davis' phrasing, intonation, and interpretation to be marvelous.
This version of "Who Can I Turn To?" is not the "jazziest" version, however, it's impeccable. Now, let's look at Sammy Davis Jr. side by side with the great Ella Fitzgerald....

Ok, so he's got a great voice, great stage presence, great phrasing, AND he can scat sing his butt off. If you still aren't convinced, check THIS out:
WOW! He's a jazz drummer! And he plays great blues on the vibes! How many of the aforementioned jazz singers could do THAT! And yet, Davis is rarely mentioned as a jazz anything. In fact, if you look at this list of 100 greatest jazz singers, Davis isn't even on the honorable mention list! I would take Davis over MANY of those mentioned on this list. In terms of hipness and depth of artistry, check this amazing interpretation of "Maria" from "West Side Story":

I'm enthralled! He doesn't need any harmonic accompaniment to bring the song to life. Here's another example of Davis and drums:

The rhythm, the vocal sound, the "jazz" phrasing, the freedom with the song, the enunciation, is without reproach, in my humble opinion. Even when he goes into some British accent for comedic effect(this was for the BBC), it's still amazing. He is an entertainer, after all. But within that ability to "entertain" lies a great jazz singer, one of the greatest. ( I like how he introduces the drummer at the end. What a mensch thing to do.)

Someone might say, "Well, he isn't really an improviser!" Lot's of jazz singers don't do a lot of scat soloing, and we've already proven that Davis actually can do that as good as or better than other jazz singers. But he is so free with his interpretation of these melodies, it's so conversational and effortless.

The story of Sammy Davis Jr. is pretty remarkable: Born in Harlem, raised by his grandfather, joined his father in their vaudeville act at age 3, was shielded from racism until serving in the army during WWII, began his singing and film career in the 1950's, converted to Judaism after a car accident took one of his eyes, was active in the Civil Rights movement even when African Americans did not embrace him, and died at 64 of throat cancer with millions owed to the IRS and others due to excessive gambling and overspending. There's more to it than that, of course. As for his place in musical history, I believe Sammy Davis Jr. should be on that list of jazz singers. If not because of everything I just said, just out of respect for his talent.

Did I mention he could tap dance? Can Diana Krall tap dance?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

8 Reasons Why You Should Have Been At The Orrin Evans Concert

Pianist Orrin Evans
I heard a fantastic concert last night at Jimmy Mak's in Portland; Pianist Orrin Evans brought the house down with his amazing trio which featured bassist Eric Revis and drummer Donald Edwards.  Although for a Monday night in Portland, the turnout was good, but I think it should have been better. Here's the 8 reasons I think you should have been there:

1. Orrin Evans is one of the best jazz pianists out there, he's from the Philadelphia tradition, and he played his butt off last night. I've always liked the way he thinks about music. He had a well thought out and varied program, from a beautifully swinging version of "I Want To Be Happy" to some rather free music, to a hip tune based on Cherokee, to a Bill McHenry tune? Wow, that was unexpected. (Actually I recorded one of McHenry's tunes years ago. He's a somewhat obscure saxophonist on the New York scene.)Evans also surprised everyone with a vocal tune; I think he should keep singing.

2. The rhythm section: Eric Revis is a highly in demand and experienced sideman; I've heard him with Betty Carter and Branford Marsalis. He pulls hard and has a solid foundation, but can stretch when necessary. I've known Donald Edwards for many years; we've recorded and toured together in my group, his group, and many other groups as well. He's one of the best drummers in jazz; at times, I was more focused on him than anything else( although I actually just tend to focus on the drums more than anything. Probably why I should have been a drummer....).

3. The overall sound of the trio was really balanced and the conversation amongst the musicians was a marvel to watch and hear. Evans and company sound like a band. We don't have many groups in Portland playing creative music on this level. I think this would have been an education for some of my PSU students.

4. You missed a great Jazz Conversation where Darrell Grant interviewed Evans. Mr. Evans talked about being from Philly(although he actually spent his early years in Trenton, New Jersey) and all the masters like Shirley Scott, Bootsie Barnes, and Trudy Pitts that he was able to learn from. It's cool to hear the backstory. I'm determined to interview Evans for jazztruth.

5. You missed Orrin inviting ME to sit in and trade choruses on a rousing rendition of Mulgrew Miller's blues tune entitled "The 11th Hour." Evans called me to the bandstand. I had my trumpet, but what ended up happening was he played a chorus, got up from the piano, then I got on the piano and played a chorus. I never really did that before, and it was a thrill. It's also good cardio work! We did that for about 20 repetitions. After that, I stayed on the piano and Evans invited Jeff Baker to sit in on a ballad version of "It Could Happen To You." Evans has a lot of class.

6. Monday night is actually the best night to go hear music, because the Pearl isn't filled with yuppies who are partying for the weekend. You'll find parking quicker and it will be less traffic getting there.

7. There's is nothing on TV. Don't say, "Well, "Breaking Bad", blah blah......NO! There is nothing on TV. You can get "Breaking Bad" off of netflix at your own convenience anyway. TV is dead. 500 channels and nothing is on. Please!

8. There's really nothing like a live concert to gain eternal inspiration. I love listening to recordings and watching concerts on youtube. Sure, that's way more economical, and easier to study than one concert. However, when you are really in the moment with a great band, it can really leave an impression that will last forever. I fondly remember many of the concerts I've been to over the years; not necessarily EXACTLY what music was played, but the energy and the sound. Live concerts are vital to the survival of jazz. If you are a PSU student, you need to get out and hear and support the music. I know times are tight, but hey, maybe spend less on beer and weed that week and you'll be ok.

Evans has 20 recordings out as a leader on various labels. The latest is " ...It Was Beauty" on the Criss Cross label, and it features the same trio.
 You can also check out his previous recordings at his website.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Where were you?

Most people who know me already know this story. I'll never forget that day in 2001; September 10th. You read that correctly. On September 10th, 2001, I was in Tokyo, Japan, getting ready to fly back to New York after a tour with bassist Lonnie Plaxico's band. There was talk of an impending typhoon( the Asian version of a hurricane). I've been afraid to fly for years, and news of a typhoon was really making me nervous. However, once we boarded the plane and took off, the pilot was able to get us out of the weather system fairly quickly. Although I didn't sleep much on the flight, it was a pretty smooth ride; as we got closer to our destination, I thought, "Hey, maybe I'm finally over my fear of flying!" We got in late in the evening, and I went straight from the airport to my apartment on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn to settle in for a long sleep. I called my girlfriend(now my wife) and sleepily mumbled a good night and drifted off into temporary hibernation.

I awoke the next morning feeling great; finally, a good night's sleep and safe in my home. My bedroom window faced an alley; even though my room was dark and cool, I could still tell that it was a sunny day. I got up with the intention of some type of breakfast, even though the clock said noon. I decided to check my messages. I was still a little groggy from the trip and the long sleep.

There was a message from my girlfriend Kerry, who worked as a legal secretary on Maiden Lane, which is in lower Manhattan. "Oh My God......there's been a terrorist attack on us.......10 planes have been hijacked, the World Trade Center................where are you?" I still asleep?

Well, let's listen to another message....

"George," it was my mother," there's been a terrorist attack, you said you were flying to D.C. today, what's going on.?....."

Whoops! OK, I was supposed to have a gig in  Washington D.C. on September 11, that had been cancelled months before. However, I had told my mother that I was flying in to Washington National, and I had forgotten to tell her it had been cancelled. Oy gevalt....

Another message. Mom. "George, please call me, oh my god, just please call me, I hope you are ok, oh god, my baby......"


Tried to call my mother, but the line was busy. Hm.

Well, I still wasn't buying it. This must be either a dream, or some horrible practical joke. Still very dazed and confused, I got dressed and headed to the corner store for coffee and maybe a black and white cookie. I walked out onto Ocean Parkway into the sun. It was a perfect Autumn in New York day. I ran into my neighbor from across the hall,  Susan, a 60-something African American lady who drove a cab and listened to jazz.

"I guess you heard about the World Trade Center?"

"Uh...yeah.....what's going on?"

She explained what had happened. There was talk of our enemies around the world, American Imperialism, the Kyoto treaty, and so on.....I was still too groggy to comprehend all of it. The crisp New York Autumn air, the blue sky.....I thanked Susan and headed to the corner store.

At that point, I had been a New Yorker more or less for 6 years. New Yorkers have this ability to remain completely unfazed by events which in lesser towns would be major catastrophes. If somebody shoots at you, duck. If somebody mugs you, mug them back. Somebody yelling at you on the subway, just keep reading your book and get off at the next stop.

This was different. You couldn't just act like this was nothing. New York, America, and the World, would never be the same.

Regardless of what I think about who actually was behind the so-called terrorist attacks, the wars which followed, and the current state of our country, I'll never forget that day.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The New Hustle

When I played with Gary Bartz in the late 90's, he had a song called "Hustler's Holler." We would use it as an interlude/set break for our live gigs, and it appears as an interlude on the album called "Blues Chronicles:Tales Of Life"(which was Bartz' final recording for the Atlantic label). I've always enjoyed hearing the word "Hustle" when it comes to jazz musicians: when cats talk about "The Hustle" in jazz, they are definitely not talking about the dance step or the associated song from the 70's! When older jazz musicians say, "you need to HUSTLE," this means that you need to get out there and get work, meet other musicians, find out about gigs, make the scene. It's really about the business aspect of being a jazz musician in all forms, whether it is going to jam sessions, or going to gigs and giving people your card, to trying to write commercial music and so forth. 

It's intriguing that the definition for "hustler" I found was as follows:

noun: hustler; plural noun: hustlers
an aggressively enterprising person; a go-getter.
a prostitute.
ummmmm, OK. I hate to get into the whole prostitute analogy, especially since the prostitutes of the high class escort/ courtesean/ lady of the evening variey oftentimes make a lot more money than jazz musicians(please don't be offended by my attempts at levity.)......., however the "prostitute" mentality is more widespread in jazz than we acknowledge. If you are a freelance musician with a family to support, you aren't in a position to turn down gigs because you don't like the musicians or the music or the venue, etc... You need to make the money, period. This plays to the advantage of many in the industry: your price is influenced by the fact that you "need" the money, therefore, you'll do things for "less" than you are worth, because those controlling the money KNOW that you need the money and 1. there are only but so many gigs out here and 2. they can always get someone else to do it for less.
The jazz hustler also comes from the street hustler in the sense of how African Americans in days of then, and now, work outside the system to survive. I found it fascinating to read "The Autobiography of Malcom X" and learn about his days before becoming the iconic civil rights activist:
There I was back in Harlem's streets among all the rest of the hustlers. I couldn't sell reefers; the dope squad detectives were too familiar with me. I was a true hustler -- uneducated, unskilled at anything honorable, and I considered myself nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any prey that presented itself. I would risk just about anything.

Right now, in every big city ghetto, tens of thousands of yesterday's and today's school dropouts are keeping body and soul together by some form of hustling in the same way I did. And they inevitably move into more and more, worse and worse, illegality and immorality. Full-time hustlers never can relax to appraise what they are doing and where they are bound. As is the case in any jungle, the hustler's every waking hour is lived with both the practical and the subconscious knowledge that if he ever relaxes, if he ever slows down, the other hungry, restless foxes, ferrets, wolves, and vultures out there with him won't hesitate to make him their prey.
Real working jazz musicians lived and still live outside the system in many ways: they get paid more often than not in cash, they don't apply for a job, there's no contracts, they never know whether they are really "in" a band or not. It's a life not designed for the faint of heart. Although I have a Master's Degree in Jazz, I have never "applied" for any of the sideman gigs I've had, and I never showed anyone my diploma. People ask, "How do you get these gigs?" I don't know; I just "hustled" at first by going to jam sessions, making the scene, getting a reputation (or "street cred") as a musician. Then, word spread through the grapevine. ( This was before I could post videos on Facebook. It's interesting that although now with all of this magical connection through social media, I can't say that I've gotten more gigs because of it.) It's extremely intangible compared to the typical "get a MBA, work on tightening your resume and then you apply for jobs."

Up until recently, the hustle for jazz musicians has been for gigs. In the new millennium, the new hustle is for teaching gigs. Whether it be private students(in person, or via skype), adjunct positions, tenure track professorships, administrative work, writing educational books or making educational podcasts or videos, Jazz Education is taking the place of Jazz Gigs. While some would show evidence that this has been happening gradually for decades, my personal observations make me think that it's really snowballed within the last 15 years. As the gigs have dried up, as the music business has changed, as the economy has contracted, musicians have been facing the music and looking for other opportunities. Even in the 90's, a lot of musicians wouldn't be caught dead taking a teaching job. Now, those same musicians are regretting that they never pursued their P.H.D., or their Master's, or even Bachelor's degree. 

My own story has been circuitous; I pursued a Music Education degree in addition to Classical Trumpet. Surprisingly, I ended up as a professional jazz pianist from 1991 to now. Nevertheless, the desire to have more security led me to searching for tenure track University teaching work. It took me many tries to actually win a job( at University of Manitoba) after almost a decade. My position at Portland State University was a  lucky break; apparently, there were 100 applicants who also desired to live in Portland and teach jazz. I don't take my job lightly at all. Some say that a tenure track position for a jazz musician is like winning the lottery! Some say a tenure track position for a jazz musician today is like getting signed to a record label was in the 90's.( I think it's actually a lot better, although it might not be as exciting in the short term.)

I have a lot of respect for academia, and I think that jazz is enough of an intellectual pursuit that it warrants study within higher education. However, I think that this huge shift towards education rather than actual live gigs is really dangerous and depressing. We don't want jazz music to become like, uh, let's say classical saxophone (which is something which even classical saxophonists would have to acknowledge has very few real opportunities outside of teaching). Jazz is meant to be played, and heard, and experienced as a living art form. 

All of this is to propose that we must find a way for the new hustle to be the new "scene." By that, I mean the institutions which now give jazz a home have to do more than just turn out tens and hundreds and thousands of jazz students who will either quit in a few years, or at best become teachers, repeating the cycle until the eventual endgame(lord only knows what that is!). Academia must do more; academia must create opportunities for jazz music to exist. Academia must put on shows, masterclasses, concerts, jam sessions, and forge relationships with the community, whether it's a small town or a large city. 

It's really baffling to me that Berklee College of Music, one of the first and most renowned jazz and commercial music schools in the world, is in Boston, which according to many has a pretty limited jazz scene. It was better years ago, but you can say that about every city in the United States. Where do the students play? Where are the opportunities? What do these kids do after they graduate? I realize that many students have gone on to teach at Berklee, but I think there's got to be more than that. 

With all of the colleges and universities across the nation and the world which have jazz programs, why could there not be a circuit which jazz musicians of various levels of fame could easily book a tour? There used to be a circuit of clubs and venues all over the country; now in the U.S., it's hard to put together more than one gig, or maybe a weekend at the most. When you consider all the jazz schools in North America, and if you agree that schools should be more active in creating opportunities for music to happen, then you would think that musicians would be touring constantly from coast to coast, showing up in Anytown, U.S.A., for a clinic in the afternoon and a concert at night. 

I suppose this might be a lofty goal. I would love to hear what you think in terms of how to create a movement of this nature. I realize that it might be an impossible feat. However, I believe that if we continue down the path of Jazz in an academic vacuum, without a link to building a community and keeping the music alive outside of the classroom, then we might all find ourselves looking for another new "hustle"- in order to preserve, as Buster Williams likes to say, "the rise and fall of the fork....."

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Some Cool Discs

Gerry Gibbs
I haven't done any CD reviews for a good stretch, but I'm determined to tell you about three recent CDs which have come across my desk. Who am I kidding? CDs? These were all in a digital format. Although CDs are in danger of extinction, reports of their complete demise have been greatly exaggerated. There are places in the world where people love to buy actual CDs; some folks still love buying vinyl, believe it or not. Still, I find myself dealing more and more with an all digital experience with many recent albums. Anyway, what's really important is that the music survives, and that we don't take it for granted. A CD, or even a record, has a certain tangibility that digital doesn't; you are more aware of that particular disc, whereas when you have your music in a bunch of folders, it just seems like a bunch of.....well.....folders. Who knows? Perhaps twenty years from now, we will be thinking back on Mp3s with much nostalgia. And we will be kvetching about it on whatever will be the future equivalent of Facebook.

The first Steeplechase album I ever played on was a date lead by tenor saxophonist Jed Levy (called "Sleight Of Hand" on the Steeplechase label). The date featured the wise bassist Ron McClure and the precocious drummer Gerry Gibbs. Mr. Gibbs has been on the New York scene for decades; although he's always busy with various projects, he's fairly underrated in the lager scheme of the jazz world. Hopefully, his latest disc, "Thrasher Dream Trio" will change this notion. The "dream" refers to the all star line up of pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Ron Carter; clearly, it would difficult to dream of a better line-up than this! ( It was also recorded at the "dream " studio of Systems II in Brooklyn, which has always been one of my favorite places to record.While oftentimes all star projects can seem to be more about the name combination and sound a bit uninspired, "Thrasher Dream Trio" sounds like a BAND! It's a great sounding focused trio sound, and the playing is virtually flawless. There are a lot of snappy presentations of familiar jazz or pop material, but none of it sounds hackneyed; Monk's "Epistrophy" is finger poppin' good, " The Shadow Of Your Smile" is subtly arranged in a fresh key ( D major, or starting in B minor), and "Impressions" is more relaxed than usual, with some tasty hits. Some tunes like Freddie Hubbard's "Mr. Clean" and Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" will surprise you with a burning swing feel. I was quite impressed with the fastest version of Herbie Hancock's " The Eye of The Hurricane". I was also touched by Gibbs' original "The Woman On The T.V. Screen", a hauntingly beautiful ballad which Gibbs wrote for his wife Kyeshie. I'm not exactly sure if this album is available yet but here is some more info on the project. Anyway, keep an eye and and ear out for this special project.

 Another project you might enjoy is by a pianist and vocalist who I met here in Portland; Kerry 
Kerry McCoy
McCoy, who currently resides in Los Angeles, has released a beautiful disc called "Chasing After Shadows", which is a collection of his original songs backed by his own piano playing in a jazz trio setting. It's refreshing to listen to honest music; McCoy's lyrics are heartfelt and unpretentious, and his accompaniment is a great bed on which his melodies can rest. Songs like "A Million Roads" and "Until Tomorrow" and of course the title track are songs not about trite subjects, but about  experience and wisdom. There's also some humor; "You Want Fries With That?" is a silly commentary on how we end up in our stations in life. I won't spoil the surprise, but it's cool because it intersperses the lyrics with some light piano soloing. McCoy also presents "Angel's Sleeping", a lush ballad which I'm guessing is about his
young daughter ( who I think is about as old as my son, 3 and halfish). McCoy has a vocal style which is a clear mid tenor. He's no slouch as a pianist, which you will hear in his expert comping and his tasteful solos. I don't think Portland gave McCoy enough attention while he was here. But you can check out "Chasing After Shadows" on CD Baby.

Finally, I downloaded this third album a bit reluctantly; actually I'm mostly joking. It's just that when I listen to Geoffrey Keezer play piano, I love the music, but the pianist in me wants to at best quit piano, and at worst kill himself! I kid, but if you play piano and you've listened to Keezer on recording or especially live, you'll feel me. Indeed, hearing Keezer at
Geoffrey Keezer
Bradley's in the early 90's has been kicking my ass to practice ever since. His latest solo piano record is called "The Heart Of The Piano" on the Motema label. I used to listen to his solo disc entitled "Zero One" and this is reminiscent of that; the material is not exactly what you might expect from a "jazz pianist." The frist song is from the Canadian rock band Rush; if you were a fan of "Moving Pictures," I guarantee you have never heard "Limelight" played like this.( It might interest you to know that I saw Keezer at my gig in Los Angeles; he told me he's seen Rush live almost 30 times. I was quite jealous...) Keezer plays an almost Keith Jarrett-ish version of Peter Gabriel's "Come Talk To Me", which showcases his lyrical touch, but his still driving rhythm, even in the midst of a more impressionistic setting. I would expect Keezer to play a crushing version of Donald Brown's "New York," a composition which says much about the arguably Mecca of Jazz.
There's a shade of eastern mystery on Alanis Morrissette's "Still," which is a bit more impressionist; Keezer demonstrates more depth of tone control as the album goes on. I dig his treatment of Christian McBride's "Lullabye For A Ladybug"; it's got everything in it, from classical tinges to gospel implications to impeccable right hand lines, and the whole range of the piano is well used. This album is not only a great collection of performances, it's a piano lesson and a music lesson.

Speaking of Geoffrey Keezer, if you happen to pick up the August issue of Keyboard Magazine, there is an article by Keezer called "5 Things I've Learned About Solo Jazz Piano." It's the hippest article not only in the entire magazine, but one of the hippest short articles I've seen in Keyboard in a while. I'll have to nudge Jon Regen as to why it was not mentioned on the cover. If you have questions about solo piano, buy Keezer's CD and the August issue of Keyboard and you'll have lots of work to do.