Jazz

Why A Jazz Festival Is Asking Musicians To ‘Do It Yourself’

The Undead Music Festival has grown every year. In 2012, it outgrew New York City.

This jazz festival typically seizes small pockets of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, building immersive urban playgrounds where largely young audiences flood venues with colored admissions bracelets. It is jazz as both heady experience and social happening. But on Friday’s Night of the Living DIY, the venues scatter across five Brooklyn neighborhoods, as well as a half-dozen cities across the U.S.

Still, the festival’s expansion — and its use of “do-it-yourself” spaces rather than traditional clubs — is really a way of asking audiences to think smaller, to look closer to home. To turn off (computers and stereos), tune out (from your MP3 collection) and drop in (on a snug, local gathering).

As the head of Capitalbop, an organization that seeks to engage local jazz audiences in Washington, D.C., and presents informal shows in service of that goal, I find this development exciting. Search & Restore, one of the groups responsible for Undead, has decided to feature living-room venues simply because they are already thriving: A quiet movement of artist-produced, anti-corporate jazz concerts is creeping across the country. Here are a few of the motivations that I’ve perceived for this idea, and for Undead’s decision to embrace it.

1. Jazz thrives in unmediated spaces. The venues at the Night of the Living DIY range from artist studios to musicians’ lofts. Some don’t have event permits, let alone liquor licenses. One, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is the living room of Search & Restore director Adam Schatz’s friends. In these settings, “You’re just in a room with the music, and that’s what’s important,” Schatz told me earlier this week. “On the artistic side, that’s usually where it starts — people playing this music in their homes — and it’s kind of cool to perform it in a similar, raw setting. Not just physically raw, but emotionally raw: There’s a kind of vulnerability to [these spaces] that I think really magnifies the humanity of the music, which is what makes it so special.” Continue reading

Remembering Laurie Frink, The ‘Trumpet Mother’ Of The Jazz Scene

Sometimes, the most important musicians are the ones farthest away from the spotlight.

Laurie Frink was a great trumpet player. Great enough to tour with jazz big bands led by Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan (where she played lead) and Maria Schneider; to be one of the first female trumpet players on the Broadway pit orchestra circuit in New York. As a freelancer, she was known for her ability to execute just about anything, no matter the level of difficulty. Continue reading

5 Points Where Poetry Meets Jazz

Poetry and song were once the same: The first poems were recited to music played on the lyre. (It’s the source of the word “lyric.”) Today, poems are published in books and journals, while songs are heard but seldom read. The poet Robert Pinsky tells of a successful songwriter-singer who said, “A little poetry can really help a song, but too much poetry will sink a song.”

Surprisingly, we’re left with relatively few recordings of poetry sung by jazz artists. Speaking truth and emotion, sonic and rhythmic, structured and free, poetry and jazz seem like natural born partners. More often, we do hear poets read their writing to accompaniment by jazz musicians — a form of spoken-word performance. Others write poetry inspired, informed and shaped by jazz. (If you’d like to read some examples, take a look at Jazz Poems, edited by Kevin Young, or The Jazz Poetry Anthology by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, for starters.)

In honor of National Poetry Month, the world’s largest literary celebration, and Jazz Appreciation Month, which culminates with a global concert on International Jazz Day (April 30), this week’s Take Five samples the collisions between poetry and jazz.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

40 Years Of Mondays: One Saxophonist’s Addiction To The Fringe

I was an 18-year-old saxophone student at Berklee College of Music when my new best friend, a trumpeter named Willy Olenick, told me about The Fringe. “You’ve got to hear this band,” he said. “They’re an amazing trio. You can hear them any Monday night at Michael’s and you’re nuts not to go.”

Willy didn’t mention anything about what style they played, and I didn’t ask. I just took his advice and went.

Michael’s was a small, narrow bar behind Symphony Hall in Boston. There was a WPA mural on the wall. They only served beer and wine, and let’s just say a contingent of a few regulars might have been there just for the Rolling Rocks. (In fact, they may have been there all day for the Rolling Rocks.) A man named Bill was at the front door at night, collecting the $2 cover charge. Michael himself manned the bar.

Frankly, on first hearing The Fringe, I wasn’t sure what was happening. The trio took the stage, and I don’t think I was even sure when the set started. At some point, I realized that this music was not like the other jazz I had heard. Until that time, my jazz listening had been mostly big bands and straight-ahead, swinging jazz groups. Continue reading

Why One Saxophonist Covered His Idol

The late alto saxophone giant Jackie McLean died after a long illness in 2006, but continued performing and teaching until late in his life. One of the last songs he wrote and recorded was “Mr. E,” which leads off his 1998 septet album Fire and Love.

I’m thinking of it because I recently heard another version of the song by the much younger alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and his trio. Their take on “Mr. E” comes from a recording called Dialect Fluorescent, which came out just a few months ago.

“I really love the composition,” Lehman said. “I love the way the melody is structured; I love the way that the harmony is set up. And I think it’s really ingenious, actually, the way that every aspect of the composition … is really set up to create a kind of musical framework that at once is really grounded, and gives you a kind of sense of place and sound as a listener, but also has an incredible amount of flexibility and is kind of malleable as musical material.” 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