What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.

The panelists for this roundtable include:

Lewis Barnes Lewis Barnes, a trumpeter best known for his work with William Parker, Burnt Sugar and other New York-based ensembles.

Willard Jenkins Willard Jenkins, a producer, journalist, broadcaster, and principal of Open Sky Jazz, a jazz services company located on the Web at: www.openskyjazz.com

Joe Morris Joe Morris, a guitarist who teaches at New England Conservatory and The Longy School of Music, and administers Riti, a CD label located on the Web at: www.joe-morris.com

Lawrence Simpson Larry Simpson, the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Berklee College of Music.


Bill Shoemaker: Granted, there is an enormous amount of good work being done in the education community, the arts funding community, and all of the other communities that contribute to jazz maintaining something of a unique cultural status in the US. I don’t think it’s too much of an oversimplification to say that there are two prevailing evaluations of these activities: one is that the proverbial glass is part empty, and the other is that it is part full. We may have differing ideas as to the percentages. Certainly, in each of these various endeavors, there are existing conditions that pose challenges, finite resources to achieve goals, and institutions whose shifting priorities and Byzantine requirements can hinder long-range planning and necessary on-the-ground tactical decisions. From your respective vantages, how do assess the relative fullness or emptiness of the glass?

Willard Jenkins
: I've always maintained a glass half-full perspective on this music, preferring not to wallow in the "oh jazz, po' jazz..." muck. Anything less is counterproductive to the work of many of us who work hard on the support side of this music. That said I am also a realist about the disparities we face and the erosion of visibility that is all too real. The light of day shines clear and one is left with the dwindling of visibility of the music in the traditional marketplaces: namely radio airways and retail.

But in both instances the models are positively changing in hopeful ways -- towards satellite radio services, internet access to the global airways, and artist self-production models and increased consumer access to recordings through new technologies.

On the presenting/live performance opportunity side the not-for-profit marketplace is capable of and in some instances is providing broader stages for the more creative sides of the music than nightclubs could ever hope to. And festivals are one of the more robust arenas for the music which keep increasing in scope and number.

The traditional club laboratory as learning place has long since been replaced by the academy - mo' better than worse. And given the sheer number of students thirsting for and studying this music, who among us can intelligently make the case that these students are on a Dead Sea scroll quest? This music is living and breathing, and continues to challenge many students and practitioners. On the other hand its sheer folly to expect anything beyond a relative miniscule percentage of these thirsty students to become actual practitioners. But then we must ask ourselves: for all those who don't "make it" how many will become supportive consumers in their post-grad lives? And that brings up the biggest issue of all.

The biggest issue is audience development - always has been; always will be. We're continuing to nurture and raise exceptional musicians, but who'll be there to hear them? However even in that critical vein there are those entities and individuals who are striving mightily to bring the music to new audiences. The woe is us attitude is extremely counterproductive.

Lewis Barnes: By nature I am a “glass-half-full” person. Without a doubt, much more could and should be done, especially by our Federal government, to support and promote this music called Jazz.

Just as our government promotes products and services made in the US, what “product” is more American-made than Jazz? If we can spend trillions of dollars on war, surely a few million can be spent for jazz education and awareness. At the least, Jazz promotes more goodwill towards America than war.

Joe Morris: I agree with Lewis but I have a different reaction to the difficulties of working in jazz than Willard’s. I try to be positive about all of it too, but only because I need the good attitude to keep myself going. Personally, my glass is half-full. I’m doing well. For the jazz scene the very tiny glass is half-damp.

I disagree with the idea that not being positive is counter-productive to the efforts being made by people on the support side. Is being honest counter-productive? We are adults, mostly all smart and creative and there are many reasons not to be positive.

The jazz support people who control the funds have an obligation to support our work. We don’t need a lesson from them about ethics, or attitude. We don’t need their pity. We don’t need them to qualify the value of our work. We just need them to understand how we actually operate and to pony up. Jazz musicians are by nature fiercely independent. The music has historically functioned outside of the mainstream without institutional support. Institutions need to drop their social services style mentality towards musicians and begin to accept us on our own terms. After all, we are musicians, not disaster victims.

The lack of financial support from the government, corporations and arts funding institutions throughout the history of jazz in America has left us artists to fend for ourselves. I don’t actually see a support side of jazz having any impact on the production or maintenance of the music or of the community that I’m involved in. That support usually goes towards funding the part of jazz that seems to need it the least. My part of the scene is strictly do-it-yourself (DIY). The DIY crowd includes some club owners, record company owners, presenters, writers and agents. I’m like a lot of other musicians in that I book my own tours, organize my own concert series, run my own record label, and produce any recordings of mine that are released on other labels. I do that plus 2 teaching jobs. The DIY crowd operates without much involvement from the jazz establishment and often (like in my case, after 30 years of playing) in spite of it. I consider them to be a big part of the problem and no part of the solution.

The internet, and satellite radio, may eventually increase access to consumers, but in the meantime the jazz record industry has collapsed. There is virtually no distribution for thousands of CDs made including those made by artists. Internet downloads may be the answer to that problem someday but it is not a positive thing that any of this has occurred. It has caused a new round of disarray in the music and thrown the issues of coverage and focus on ideas into chaos. Those things may work out in time too. But meanwhile musicians and record labels are not doing well at all with getting the music out. If and when it does work out it will be because the DIY crowd has figured out a way to make it work, not because the administrators have facilitated it.

If anyone thinks the jazz cup is really half full, just consider that most of the good paying gigs are in Europe and few are in the US. We do need to find ways to adapt our music to reach out to audiences. This has always been done. Changes in venues and record production have happened before. Musicians adapt to those changes by changing with them. It’s one of the reasons the music keeps changing. On this point I agree with Willard completely. If there is no place to play, make a place. If there is no audience, create one. But we DIYer’s will have to do it ourselves instead of expecting help from the arts administrators.

Larry Simpson: I believe the glass is half-full, but the relative fullness must be put in context. The question is framed from the unspoken backdrop of jazz as once-upon-a-time the popular music of the day. It no longer holds that position and has not held it for quite a long time. Yet, this view, like a ghost, lingers and forces us to engage the debate about the relative fullness of the jazz glass. Technology, globalization, economics and changed racial dynamics have resulted in jazz emerging as high art in search of support and audience.

In a culture and society whose memory and attention span are short and whose appetite for the next new thing is voracious, jazz faces tremendous challenges. In the breach of jazz clubs and significant national radio airplay, many educational institutions have stepped in to provide a foundation for the teaching of jazz and maintaining its place in the culture. These institutions have fierce critics and some of the criticism is justified, but the fact remains on campuses across the country the music is being perpetuated and developed.

In addition, we saw the development of jazz societies 30 or so years ago in many American communities. The purpose of these organizations was to support jazz in their respective communities by presenting artists who otherwise would not appear in those communities. These organizations also developed relationships with resident artists and local school districts to build stronger bases of support for jazz in their communities. Like the ever-shifting jazz club world, many of these organizations remain strong while many have floundered or disappeared.

Last, with the market itself not supporting completely jazz, other funding vehicles were developed such as government (NEA, the states) and foundations (Lila Wallace, Doris Duke). These agencies provide less support (or none at all) than in the past, but they provided unique opportunities for supporting the music.

The point is the struggle continues and I believe that the music is stronger than the current marketplace forces, which might suggest otherwise. To that end, I agree with Joe Morris and the DIY crowd.

Shoemaker: The jazz funding community can’t do it all with the available dollars, and given the inimical political climate that has existed for the arts since the Reagan Winter, those dollars will be progressively stretched in the coming years, further stressing their missions of cultural preservation and educational outreach. The real question is: Will this two-prong strategy yield long-term results? I think the jury is still out, and my bet is there will be a split verdict. After all, the glass is half full and half empty at the same time. Perhaps it is faulty logic on my part, but it seems to me that, in the long term, the more successful the education mission is met, the less need there will be for the preservation mission. There will be a point in the future when, if there is still a cultural reparations sub-text to programs like the NEA Jazz Masters grants, the argument can be made that either the educational programs came up short, or that inaction on the issues Joe addressed perpetuated a status quo nobody wants.

It’s obvious to me that real synergy between the jazz funding community and DIYers would be powerful. But, what could be remedied in, say, five years? My guess is that are more names in DIY artists’ phone books of people who used to put on gigs in the US than names of folks currently putting on gigs. Reversing that would be real progress, and could be done in a few years if there is a direct subsidy to artists for small venue tours, where simple applications can be made 120-150 days out from a tour, decisions are made in a timely manner, and the disbursement is made prior to the tour’s launch. Even just $150 per musician per stop would take a palpable amount of risk out of the equation. It can make filling in a week night with a door gig viable; it can take such items as hotels and meals off the table; it can take the sting out of $3 a gallon gasoline, particularly if you’re trying to reach an outpost. An 8” snow fall is not automatic doom.

Direct funding of artists also precludes the need for grassroots presenters to incorporate as non-profits, have the tax status and the two-year track record that most funding organizations consider prerequisites for grant consideration. They are essentially volunteers in many cases, and the burn-out rate is constantly high. I would second Willard’s point about non-profits being better equipped to present creative music, and take the point a step further: These grassroots folks are the ones most consistently presenting creative music. The current approach of fee subsidies practiced by regional arts foundation is well-suited for established artists playing theaters and university halls, but there’s only so many such tours that can taken on by organizations who present everything from children’s programs to classical music. One concert a season does not create a scene in the tertiary markets that will be increasingly essential to the music’s health in the coming years. That’s where the DIYers are crucial to audience development, which Willard rightly IDs as a perennially vexing issue.

Are there are other means to achieve similar ends?

Jenkins: There may be “many reasons not to be positive…” but how productive is negativity in the long run? Ultimately it’s akin to reading about another of the daily atrocities in Iraq, shedding a few righteous tears at the negativity of it all, then moving on to another section of the newspaper. The shedding of those tears may have done you personally some soul-wrenching good, but what has it done for the overall anti-War effort? That “oh jazz, ‘po jazz, woe is jazz…” attitude may help you to operate but what does it do for the ultimate condition and atmosphere for the music? I fail to envision how such attitudes push the envelope forwards towards a healthier atmosphere for creative music. And when I refer to “support people” I’m not necessarily strictly referring to those who control the literal and figurative purse strings, but also to the presenters and venue producers, and educational institutions.

As far as the notion of “obligation to support”, do you agree that there must by design be quality control measures firmly in place to best vet that support? Beyond that I feel you [Joe in this case], but unfortunately the Maplethorpe matter of the early 90s was used as a convenient tool to poison the waters for direct grant support for the individual artist, which is why collective efforts are encouraged.

I agree that “the jazz record industry has collapsed…” and that could actually be a good thing in the long run, given the often questionable-at-best business practices of that “industry.”

Sorry Bill, but there likely will never be a level of direct funding of artists that will preclude the “need for grassroots presenters to incorporate as non-profits…” (which is precisely why I recommended incorporating such presenters in this conversation). There is far too little understanding – particularly among musicians – of the plight of such presenters or recognition of their good works – and I’m not just referring to those entities Bill characterized who may present one jazz concert per year as part of an overall presenting series menu; I’m also referring to such exceptional jazz-specific presenters as Seattle’s Earshot Jazz, Outpost Productions in Albuquerque, Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, CA, SF Jazz in San Francisco, the Artists Collective in Hartford, CT… I could go on but I think you get the picture.

Per Bill’s comments, are there other means of achieving similar ends? Perhaps artists collectives in the historic manner of the AACM or the more recent Jazz Composer’s Forum may be one positive solution.

Simpson: It is not an either/or situation. The problems that confront jazz are also confronting all of the performing arts in America. There is less money for all forms of art in the country. The major presenting organizations need to continue doing what they are doing with the resources they have on hand. The DIYers need to continue doing what they are doing. Art and culture have always been seen as extras and not essential in this country. In this environment, we must remain vigilant and stay creative. And how should we stay creative?

The music industry has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. But the fundamental fact remains: how to connect musicians with audiences? We still talk about musicians on a bandstand with maybe 70 people in the audience. In five years I would like to see us make better use of technology to create bigger audiences and larger revenue. We need to create more collaborative experiences: jazz and dance, jazz and film, jazz and theater. Music scoring for video games, for example, is bigger than music for film today, yet I have not seen jazz folks enter that genre to any significant degree.

Barnes: Jazz musicians that are not driven by mass appeal objectives (sorry, “smooth” jazz folks) must learn to adapt with the times or we, in a certain sense, will become relics in a museum, or extinct. Artist-driven grassroots organizations along with the best use of the Internet and other technologies are essential to our survival and growth.

Morris: Rather than dwelling on what isn’t working very well I would like to suggest a specific idea for what might work better.

I see the real problem being with too many middlemen. Federal and corporate funds often go to local and regional granting organizations. Many of these groups are not interested in certain kinds of music, so their tastes often exclude the very musicians who deserve and need support. These organizations are often struggling to make payroll and rent on their space, with much of their effort going to keeping their jobs in the non-profit arts administration business. They don’t tend to fund the DIYers who are out on their own trying at their own expense to do the things that Willard correctly suggests need to be done the most; building audience and community. Instead, the funding often goes to more commercial artists who need it the least, but whose stature might attract a big enough audience to repay the organizations expenses, or to help attract more funding so that the organization can stay in business. To me, that method has failed to support most of the artists who deserve help, many of which are like the musicians in the past who carried on without support and made the most historically significant music.

Considering the good efforts made to squeeze those funds out of the coffers of the government and corporations it’s a shame to get so little value out of them. The answer is to change the way the funds are dispersed. A better idea is travel grants. Many European musicians receive travel grants. They use them to pay for transportation and their performance fees traveling away from their hometown and country. If we did that here it and supported the musicians who already have a track record for doing that on their own without support, we would get much more value for the money. This method would also take the burden off of the organizations with funding, and help emerging grassroots organizations to present higher profile artists without killing their suffering or out-of-pocket budgets.

I know, there is already a regional touring program funded by Meet the Composer. To receive those funds an artist has to be accepted to be on the roster of the regional funding org, at the discretion of the org. The funds are only a part of the budget and can only be used for partial artists fees. A qualified non-profit presenter has to facilitate the performance, including applying for the grant, matching fees not granted and filing a report after the performance. It’s much more complicated and cumbersome than what I am proposing. Considering that many of the DIY touring and performances are done in for-profit and artists owned spaces, the new plan would facilitate many more performances in new places and in a much more immediate fashion, keeping up with the pace of creative development in the music. I suggest that these travel grants be used exclusively in the US, with a requirement that all musicians perform out of, as well as in the usual 5 -10 cities and States where the music is traditionally supported, automatically widening the audience and maybe even encouraging musicians to look past the current trend of making the music more formal and often as a result, less accessible.

It is great to support jazz heritage and education, but it is a built in dead end to do that and not support the active artists who are presently doing the work that builds the need for those things in the future. The travel grant idea would be a great incentive for musicians too, because it places the burden on them to act in a positive way to get their music out to the world and that includes musicians who are new to the scene who would have to earn the track record needed to qualify for the grants with DIY effort. This idea gives musicians the chance to work when it matters to the development of their music, and keeps the aesthetic control (regardless of what style or sub-genre of jazz they present) in their hands, where it belongs.

I remain a skeptic that anything like this will ever happen, but it’s not too hard to think that it would better than what we have now.

Vision Festival

...More What's New

> back to contents