How Norway Funds A Thriving Jazz Scene

Did you hear about the Italian gallery owner who burned his gallery’s paintings last year — with the cooperation of the painters? It was a sort of desperate smoke signal to his government; a means of protesting funding cuts. If there haven’t been similar protests in the U.S. lately, it could be because we’re used to declining arts funding.

In today’s strained environment for arts support, the funding wonderland of Norway can incite jealousy. Yes, Norway is an oil-rich country; it also allots a respectable percentage of its oil wealth to pioneering art, making it a model for exactly what well-spent money for the arts can engender.

Especially in jazz. Public support has helped the country’s improvised-music scene expand from a handful of artists in the late ’60s to a thriving network of recording, performing and educational opportunities today. It’s not perfect, of course; I’ll address some chinks in Norway’s funding armor. But the country’s improvised music flourishes largely on public support.

It’s a cliché to refer to a “Nordic tone” in Norwegian jazz. Many still do, ascribing the geography of fjords and mountains to even the most urban musical productions. But if a single tone underlies Norwegian improvised music, it’s probably the sound of jingling kroner.

A Punkt Attitude Continue reading

Meet The Man Who Assembles The World’s Biggest Jazz Concert

The pianist and composer John Beasley has one of the most formidable tasks of anyone associated with today’s International Jazz Day, the celebration produced by UNESCO and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. He’s music director of the centerpiece concert to be live-streamed from Istanbul tonight (2 p.m. ET in the U.S.). That means Beasley put together the lineups from a star-studded international cast, with a set list meant to charm the world.

His cast is headed by international superstars Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Eddie Palmieri, Robert Glasper, Ramsey Lewis, Esperanza Spalding, Joss Stone, Anat Cohen, Branford Marsalis, Hugh Masekela, Keiko Matsui, Lee Ritenour, Joe Louis Walker, Ruben Blades and Jean-Luc Ponty. They’ll perform with Turkish musicians Husnu Senlendirici, Imer Demirer, Bilal Karaman and many others. They’ll appear throughout 12 distinct musical segments at Hagia Irene, an ancient domed building — the first Christian church built in Constantinople.

Having served as music director for artists ranging from Queen Latifah to Freddie Hubbard — and worked as MD for the first International Jazz Day concert in 2012 — Beasley seems well-prepared for the job. His Louisiana upbringing and prodigious talents have resulted in jazz chops that earned him a Grammy nomination for his 2009 album Positootly! His commercial instincts have landed him work as a soundtrack writer for movies and TV reality shows. An extra dollop of credibility comes from Miles Davis, who hired Beasley for his last touring band. Continue reading

The Jazz Documentarian Who Won The Lottery

Around 2009, Brooklyn native Brandon Bain started shopping for a new video camera. He’d sung in choruses growing up, but had recently started going to open mics and jam sessions to try his hand on stage. To his surprise, he discovered that the city he grew up in housed a ton of young, undersung jazz talent — and he grew anxious to document it.

Bain talked to a film-director friend who recommended a specific model. That choice was seconded by another friend later that week. Of course, Bain didn’t quite have the $2,600 to purchase such a camera. Then, suddenly, he did.

“That same guy who recommended it to me, the second guy, I asked him for four numbers between 0 and 9,” Bain says. “And within a few weeks, that number came. I can’t even make that up, but that’s what happened: I won exactly $2,600.”

The New York Lottery has a game called Win4 where you pick four numbers and hope they’re the same as those drawn. There are different ways to multiply your bet, but the bottom line is that if you aim to win $2,500 or more, your odds are 10,000 to 1.

With those odds in his favor, Bain, now 31, launched Capsulocity — at, or via a YouTube channel — a series of video “capsule” portraits of young jazz musicians in New York City. He didn’t have much of a journalism or multimedia production background (apart from a few college courses), but he managed to sell a few musicians he knew on the idea of an interview and performance vignette. Continue reading

Michel Petrucciani: The ‘Mischievous Elf’ Of The Piano

Michel Petrucciani was the first important jazz pianist I ever saw live. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that he would make it to Guéret, my tiny hometown in the middle of France. But in 1992, on a tour called “Like father like son” (“Tel père tel fils”), Petrucciani came to perform with his father, guitar player Tony Petrucciani.

It was a delightful and intimate evening. Though known as a virtuoso, the pianist also played moving, beautiful melodies. The saxophone player Sylvain Roudier, who also grew up in Guéret, later recollected his impression that the pianist seemed capable of much more than that particular duo setting permitted.

It was also a surreal moment, hearing such beautiful music emanate from such a man. Petrucciani had a genetic disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. He was extremely short — three feet tall — and his bones would break all the time. His hands were normal, but he required special modifications to actuate the piano’s pedals.

But the music, much more than Petrucciani’s physical appearance, grabbed everybody’s attention. Here was a sort of meteor who came and left almost in one breath — Petrucciani died in 1999, at age 36 — in a small town in the middle of France. Continue reading

A Brief History Of Jazz Education, Pt. 2

As a teaching assistant for UCLA’s undergraduate course “Jazz in American Culture,” I spend much of my time in a scene found on college campuses around the world. My professor, the seasoned jazz guitarist Charley Harrison, lectures eager students on the music’s geniuses. In the evening, he directs the college big band through classic Swing Era repertoire and modern reinterpretations of it. Harrison and his colleagues also lead smaller ensembles that take 1960s hard bop as their aesthetic core. His students are deeply committed to honing their skills as jazz improvisers; most were already indoctrinated in high school or earlier. During the summer, many of them play in a nearby summer jazz workshop, where visiting masters further school them in the intricate art of jazz performance.

UCLA is also home to the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, a highly selective graduate program where students receive mentorship from legends like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, who have just been named UCLA professors. Meanwhile, the Center for the Art of Performance books the campus’ resplendent concert venue, Royce Hall, with high-profile jazz artists from the international touring circuit. Recent headliners include the Robert Glasper Experiment, the Vijay Iyer Trio, and the Ron Carter Quartet. Continue reading

A Brief History Of Jazz Education, Pt. 1

One year ago, when I began graduate study in ethnomusicology at UCLA, I found myself undergoing what has become a familiar ritual. As I played my trombone in a near-empty classroom accompanied by a play-a-long recording, it occurred to me that I was in the midst of my sixth college big band audition. A professor — in this special case, guitar legend Kenny Burrell — led the proceedings. When he engulfed my hand in his massive grip, I learned that I was in.

Having grown up in the age of the “jazz-education industrial complex,” as Nate Chinen and others have called it, educational institutions such as high schools, summer camps and universities have provided the setting for much of my jazz experience. As I continue down the rabbit hole of jazz academia, I have come to appreciate some of the quirks and contradictions of these strange organizations. They’ve allowed me to wear many hats besides “big band trombonist”: history student, theory teacher, radio DJ, journalist, blogger, advocate, critic and diehard music fan. Continue reading

Tito Puente: 90 Years Of Getting People To Dance

The percussionist and bandleader Tito Puente would have celebrated his 90th birthday this weekend on April 20. And the recently released box set Quatro: The Definitive Collection is a great place to start celebrating the once and forever King of Latin Music. It captures the driving sound of big band mambo and cha-cha-cha that launched people onto dance floors for decades.

When he died in 2000 at age 73, the New York City native had more than 100 recordings to his name. The new box set features his recordings for RCA in the 1950s, when he was at the height of his popularity. That includes the 1958 release Dance Mania, which remains one of Puente’s most popular recordings.

Quatro features tracks from Puente’s move to RCA records (from a smaller indie label specializing in Afro-Caribbean dance music). In his book Mambo Diablo: My Journey With Tito Puente, biographer Joe Conzo points out that Puente hoped that RCA would allow him to stretch out and incorporate more jazz elements into his records. Continue reading

How One Singer Made Four Debut Albums

About a month before she died last week at age 76, Sathima Bea Benjamin finally properly celebrated her debut album. That’s a bit of a complicated claim, of course, because depending on how you count, the South African vocalist either made her debut album in 1959, 1963, 1976 or 1979.

In 1959, as Beatty Benjamin, she recorded the LP My Songs for You. It was produced by the pianist Dollar Brand, who was later known as Abdullah Ibrahim; he was also her boyfriend and later became her husband. However, it was never released.

In 1963, then living in Europe, Benjamin recorded with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Danish violinist Svend Asmussen and Ibrahim’s trio. Ellington personally paid for Ibrahim, his band and Benjamin to travel to Paris to make two separate albums for Reprise Records, the label founded by Frank Sinatra. (It’s a wonderfully serendipitous story worth reading in full, as told to several interviewers.) Reprise put out Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio, jump-starting her future husband’s career, but never released Benjamin’s languid, plotted album; the label was supposedly pessimistic on its commercial prospects. Continue reading

The 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll

NPR Music is pleased to present a poll in which 140 jazz critics picked their favorite recordings of 2014.

For nine consecutive years, this poll has been a labor of love by eminent critic Francis Davis. It’s grown tremendously since he initially submitted the consensus of 30 writers to The Village Voice in 2006. Over the last month, print journalists, bloggers and broadcasters nominated more than 700 different albums. We’re thrilled to welcome his exhaustive project back to our site.

Below are full results of the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, highlighted by a playlist of the Top 10 overall picks. You’ll find a list of the entire Top 50 in the voting for Jazz Album of the Year, with the top finishers in Latin Jazz, Vocal, Debut and Reissue/Historical categories as well. (You can find all the raw data, including individual ballots, at a website operated by Tom Hull, who annually collates all the information from the poll.) Continue reading