The Cherrys And The Coltranes

Next week, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and vocalist Neneh Cherry will both release new records. Coltrane’s Spirit Fiction is his sixth studio album. Cherry’s The Cherry Thing is a collaboration with Scandinavian trio The Thing. Both albums are available for a full preview this week via NPR Music’s First Listen series.

The two artists share more than a release date. They were born less than a year apart and became top names in their respective fields. Their new albums may not sound much alike but both feature abstract saxophone improvising. Both musicians are also the children of jazz legends: Ravi is the son of saxophonist John Coltrane, and Neneh is the stepdaughter of cornetist Don Cherry. Indeed, their fathers even recorded an album together in 1960, entering the studio nearly 52 years before next week’s releases.

I’m not sure if Neneh and Ravi have ever met, but it turns out their lives have plenty of parallels. I’ve compiled them in a short timeline of important dates from their fathers’ birthdays all the way up to their new albums. Continue reading

Thelonious Monk And Art Blakey: 24 Years Of Telepathy

Pianist and composer Thelonious Monk and drummer Art Blakey were born two years and one day apart: Monk in 1917, Blakey in 1919. The two are among the most influential musicians in jazz history, and — appropriately, somehow — were close colleagues throughout their careers. In fact, Blakey played on Monk’s first three recording sessions as a bandleader.

This video is the best YouTube clip I could find of Monk and Blakey together; it’s from a 1971 all-star world tour. Dizzy Gillespie, prominently, plays trumpet; Sonny Stitt is on alto sax; Kai Winding plays trombone; Al McKibbon is the bassist. The band, billed as Giants of Jazz, is playing “Round Midnight,” probably Monk’s most famous composition.

Soon after this show, Monk would make his final studio recording. Blakey was there, too.

There are many other recordings featuring both Monk and Blakey, but I’d briefly like to point out the first and last. As Robin D.G. Kelley documents in his excellent biography of Monk, there was a touch of a mentor-protege relationship between Monk and Blakey at first: Monk and fellow pianist Bud Powell used to take Blakey to jam sessions around New York. When the opportunity first arose for Monk to document his vision on wax, Blakey was asked to do the gig. Continue reading

The Drummer Who Invented Jazz’s Basic Beat

It doesn’t take an expert to identify this sound as a jazz rhythm:

Musicians call it “spang-a-lang,” for obvious phonetic reasons, and it’s so synonymous with jazz, it no longer occurs to us that someone had to invent it. But someone did: a drummer named Kenny Clarke, who would have turned 100 today.

Spang-a-lang was only part of Clarke’s innovation. Marking time on the ride cymbal with his right hand — previously, jazz drummers employed the bass drum with the right foot — gave his left hand and feet the freedom and sonic space to play thundering accents (“dropping bombs”) at irregular intervals. The sound they made inspired another phonetic term: “Klook,” which became Clarke’s nickname.

“Clarke represents a tectonic shift,” drummer and educator Ralph Peterson says. “He is the patriarch of drumming in modern jazz.” Continue reading

Detroit’s Jazz ‘Patriarch’ Improvised A Teaching Career

There’s a lot of astounding information in this comprehensive profile of trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, “the reigning patriarch of Detroit jazz.” After touring with Ray Charles for years, and getting opportunities with Max Roach and Charles Mingus, Belgrave opted not to stick it out in New York like many musicians of his caliber. Instead, he chose Detroit, where he’s been since 1963.

Belgrave is still performing and recording, in spite of chronic lung disease which keeps him under oxygen all the time — and regularly lands him in the hospital. In fact, doctors have told him that practicing the trumpet so much has actually kept his lungs in working order.

What I find most interesting about this story, written by Detroit Free Press music writer Mark Stryker, is Belgrave’s legacy as a teacher. His students include Geri Allen, Kenny Garrett and Regina Carter, to name a few international-scale bandleaders. I think it sheds a little light on how jazz is and can be transmitted. Continue reading

A List Of Things Which Are More ‘Jazz’ Than Bad Jazz Music

For non-playing participants, jam sessions can be difficult musical experiences. As “hangs,” or social gatherings, they aren’t so bad — sometimes you learn a lot by talking to the musicians there. But the quality of the music itself often varies. It only takes a mediocre performance to sour the mood, and a poor showing can turn you off altogether, especially if you’ve paid money to see it.

You know the feeling? What happens when you hear something with all the archetypal trappings of jazz — a basic swing pulse, people improvising rapidly over standards and blues changes, taking place in a jazz club — which leaves you generally unmoved? Do you ever think, “This sounds like jazz, but it poorly embodies the values I associate with jazz”?

That sent me thinking: Could there be other things that feel more true to the essence of jazz — really, of black American music — than indifferent jazz music itself? Fully aware that “jazz” is an artificial construct which everyone defines differently, and that I’m projecting my own romantic ideal onto it, I don’t think it can hurt to explore the positive associations we have with the term. So I humbly submit a short and arbitrary list: Continue reading

Why Tax Day Is Even Worse For Musicians

The income tax filing deadline in the U.S. approaches, and jazz musicians in particular know it. The overwhelming majority of jazz musicians are freelance performers (and often freelance teachers, composers and other music-related service providers). But the informal aesthetics of the jazz world often extend to its business practices as well, with its handshake deals and cash payments. That makes it quite difficult to keep track of income and expenses when it comes time to report to the Internal Revenue Service.

It can be to musicians’ benefit to keep meticulous records. Businesses, including people who are self-employed businesses unto themselves, file their taxes differently, and are eligible for different tax benefits. For example, they may deduct business expenses before paying social security taxes, and this can include manager and publicist fees, sidemen payments, instrument purchases, rehearsal space rental and so forth. (Some musicians even set up separate companies — often a Limited Liability Company, or LLC — to take advantage of further intricacies in the tax code.) Continue reading

If Not Jazz Education, What Will Rebuild Jazz Audiences?

In a recent Huffington Post submission, pianist and composer Kurt Ellenberger writes about what he calls “the education fallacy”: the premise that an increase in music education will lead to increased audiences. He’s writing here about classical music, but draws a parallel with jazz:

On the education spending issue, it’s common to hear musicians say, “well, we’re not spending enough, that’s why we’re not building classical music audiences — we need to spend more on education.” I return to Jazz Education, where we went from spending very little, to spending hundreds of millions, with nothing to show for it in regards to audience development. Why did the jazz audience decline, not grow, as the spending rapidly increased? Is there any reason to think that more spending would succeed with classical music where it has failed with jazz?

As evidence that jazz education has “failed” to produce new audiences, Ellenberger cites data demonstrating the proliferation of jazz education in colleges, summer camps and high schools. At the same time, he also states that discussions like the Jazz Audiences Initiative are responses to declining jazz audiences.

Ellenberger, I gather, is also on faculty at Grand Valley State University, and from that perch once helped to produce jazz concerts himself. (He plays in the Grand Valley State New Music Ensemble once featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition.) That is, he’s seen the shifts in education spending and audience decline in person. As he is paid to be a jazz educator, it seems unlikely that he’s attacking the entire system that supports him — just its efficacy at seeding jazz audiences.

I find this perspective compelling, but also a bit frustrating. Continue reading

‘It Can’t Be Done’: The Difficulty Of Growing A Jazz Audience

Last week, we published a much-discussed blog post about the connection — or lack thereof — between jazz education and the development of new audiences. It examined a viewpoint by pianist, composer and music professor Kurt Ellenberger, and concluded by challenging Ellenberger to suggest some ways to win new audiences. Here is Ellenberger’s response. –Ed.

Since my Huffington Post article on jazz education and audience development, many (including this very blog) have asked “Well, if education isn’t the answer, what’s the solution? How do we develop and maintain a strong jazz audience?” Continue reading

One Of The Best Things Ever Written About Jazz Writing

Is also one of the saddest. Here’s the first paragraph:

Jazz writers are a bunch of kids who don’t know anything about the music; also, they are a bunch of old men who haven’t liked anything new since Bird died. They live to put musicians down; this explains why they let record companies bribe them (sometimes outright, sometimes through paying them to do liner notes) never to write anything negative about anybody. By this means, among others, jazz writers get rich off the work of musicians. Nobody publishes in jazz magazines worth reading, though, because there isn’t any audience that will pay to read one.

The article is from 1983, but it still carries a certain resonance today. Its author, J.R. Taylor, was already “semiretired” from freelance criticism by the time he penned this item. But in 1983, somehow he got the Village Voice to print 2,799 words about the actual “marginal” business of jazz writing: pay rates, supplementary income streams of questionable ethical value, the actual age of writers (“jazz writers have always tended to be too young”), the tenuous business of funding a jazz publication and other structural observations about the impossibility of making a living doing this.

Much has changed in the landscape of jazz journalism since 1983 — the Internet, for one — but in spite of the references to obscure defunct publications, the perspective will be familiar to anyone who has tried to write about jazz, especially for money. Perhaps it’s the hint of hope embedded within Taylor’s black humor, which saves the piece from total cynical despair: “The caricature at the head of this column is a thoroughly unfair composite of opinions from members of all these groups. I will now demonstrate that every word of it is true.”

Thanks to saxophonist/composer/writer/historian Bill Kirchner for recently pointing it out. The story has been archived on the servers of the invaluable Jazz Discography website. [Village Voice/Jazz Discography: “Critics Have Problems, Too”]

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Six Creative Presenters Finding New Audiences For Jazz

Recently on A Blog Supreme, pianist and blogger Kurt Ellenberger expressed doubt that audiences for jazz can continue to grow, writing that audience development is “a tall order that seems insurmountable.” Although this alarm bell has been sounded by jazz writers for at least seven decades, musicians stubbornly seem to keep on playing, and new fans keep on discovering the music.

It’s true, though, that the shape of jazz audience development to come seems to be changing. Rather than linking up with national entertainment circuits or large-scale public campaigns like the Ken Burns film Jazz, many successful efforts are operating on a grassroots scale, through local efforts and dedicated distribution channels. By playing creatively both on and off the bandstand, musicians are actually bringing their sound to new audiences all over the world.

Examples abound. CapitalBop, Search and Restore, Revive Music Group, the Center City Jazz Festival, the Blue Whale, Darcy James Argue, the Outpost Performance Space, and many, many others — these cases were simply drawn from NPR Music stories — are creating communities around art. Taken together, these efforts show that Ellenberger’s lament doesn’t reflect this staggeringly vibrant reality. Rather than pining for grand solutions, perhaps it’s time to recognize the vast diversity and creativity that jazz is offering to its audiences today. Continue reading