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

What’s New? is an occasional email roundtable that brings 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:

Uri Caine, the New York-based pianist, composer and ensemble leader. In 2006, Caine was named composer in residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He is also the Artistic Director for the Bergamo Jazz Festival. For detailed information, consult: www.uricaine.com

Dennis González, the Dallas-based trumpeter, composer, ensemble leader, educator and activist. González is also renowned for his visual art, which has been exhibited internationally, and he writings, which have published in anthologies and two volumes of bilingual travel poems. For detailed information, consult: www.dennisgonzalez.com

Robert D. Rusch, the Redwood, New York-based publisher of Cadence Jazz Magazine, producer of Cadence Jazz Records and Creative Improvised Music Projects, and proprietor of North Country Distribution. For detailed information, consult: www.cadencebuilding.com

Tim Warfield, the Pennsylvania-based saxophonist, composer and ensemble leader. He is the Artist in Residence at Messiah College. For detailed information, consult: www.messiah.edu/departments/music/tim_warfield

Bill Shoemaker: Earlier this year, I attended a jazz convention in Europe. Everyone associated with the host country’s jazz scene were very upbeat about its future; their musicians were on the brink of becoming an international force in the music. During a visit with a local jazz veteran, he showed me an article that ran in Down Beat during the early 1970s, a dispatch from the same country, which detailed the very upbeat mood of the scene and the consensus that their musicians were on the brink of becoming an international force. On the one hand, you can attribute this to the hardy perennial nature of spin, or how the more things change the more they stay the same. But, it also is a revealing measure of progress, or lack thereof, over a thirty-year period. I think it is fair to conclude that they are holding their own.

It’s difficult at the very least to identify a metric that would lead me to the same conclusion about the market in the United States. If the American jazz scene is on the brink of anything, it’s the brink of disaster, market-wise, even though this is a strong period, musically. Certainly, on the macro level, we’ve witnessed one market disaster after another: the collapse of Tower Records; rampant piracy; the door gig syndrome. But, there are trends like the resurgence of artist-run labels, Sonny Rollins’ Doxy imprint being the latest, that are encouraging. What do you see emerging that suggests that jazz in the US is at least holding its own in a very difficult market? Or is it really going over the cliff?

Tim Warfield: I'm not sure that I see growth or degeneration in the current U.S. jazz scene. I do however see change, but not much differently than what previously occurred in the seventies and early eighties. History has proven that many events reoccur or parallel as a result of mankind's effort to reinvent itself. I believe this to be the case in this instance as well. During the seventies which nurtured funk, jazz rock, and other types of fusion groups, there became a division between many of the older traditionalists and younger artists, who chose to acclimate to the current musical trends. This fostered a deviation in swing, as the beat many times transformed to more of a cadence, than an evolving polyrythmic groove generated from collective improvisations. Many artists began to embrace more electronic elements in their music as well as rhythms with a dance sensibility of that era. Some of the primary musical forces during that time were groups like Chick Corea's "Return to Forever," Herbie Hancock's "Headhunters," Joe Zawinul's Weather Report with Wayne Shorter, and the Brecker Brothers featuring Randy and Michael Brecker. There was also a new sound introduced by the ECM record label that began to sign younger artists like Keith Jarrett, Ralph Towner, Carla Bley, Dave Holland, John Abercrombie, etc. Many of the more successful traditional artists like Milt Jackson, and Stanley Turrentine, were signed to the CTI label, which also had a slightly more updated sound. Most of these artists are still dominating forces on the scene today, and many of the musical trends embraced by the younger generation of today seem to parallel past history with the utilization once again, of electronic instruments, as well as less focus on a swing sensibility, and greater focus on odd meter, funk rhythms or other kinds of grooves. In my observation, the big difference between European and U.S. attitudes towards the music is largely the result of the European's deference to art as a whole, and how they embrace it as a significant part of their culture. They appear to understand its value and how it translates to ideas in humanity. True art appreciation begins with an unbiased approach at introduction, making an effort to internalize without influence, which is very much how we should approach understanding each other as human beings. In favor of the US, I will say that jazz music is culturally based in this country and though there have been great artists to come from many places, the US has always been the spawning ground for the most dynamic of musical innovations. As to why the jazz music scene in the US is in its current state, there is no one group to credit or to blame. Much of the reason for the state of jazz today, I believe is the result of the public remaining misinformed and uneducated, resulting in a very unexposed music. Living in an age of consumerism where commercial music verses music that is art, and the true value of music verses the popularity of music, it will always be more difficult for the jazz musician to persevere, because the energy of commercialism and the energy of art are in opposition. I still see companies subjecting the art form to pop music formulae, which further confuses the already confused consumer. Companies try to redefine music that has already been defined by evolution. This dynamic has been ongoing in the industry for decades as there have always been jazz hits or sensations like Louis Armstrong's popular “Hello Dolly,” Lee Morgan's “Sidewinder,” not to mention the introduction of Wynton Marsalis as a trailblazing artist in the 1980's which then spurred the jazz renaissance that I was fortunate enough too be a part of in the 1990s well into the 2000s. Jazz is dead in the US? This is an idea I have heard posed in publications from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Could jazz actually die? Sure, but the idea is highly improbable, and if it did disappear for awhile, that doesn't mean that it wouldn't reemerge. Truth of the matter is, art doesn't die; it just gets better.

Robert D. Rusch: I think one might, at this point, have to define Jazz and its place in Creative Improvised Music. As I have recently editorialized in the January 2007 issue of Cadence Magazine (Vol.33 #1): "So maybe Jazz as a current living art of its own time is dead. I've sensed it for years..."

The reality is that, by the end of the 1960s, innovations and new directions in "advancing" the "art" were overwhelmingly coming from outside the U.S.A., England, Germany, and the Netherlands in particular. Creative Improvised Music, which up to this point was near synonymous with "Jazz," was in evolution and "Jazz" as it was known and defined, ceased "advancing," society caught up with it and it became co-opted almost completely as a commodity for profit and repertory. So depending on how we define the genre, Jazz is either alive and thriving or it is dead and commodified [there are of course exceptions].

Creative Improvised Music (whose genesis is in Jazz) is now a worldwide phenomenon, very decentralized, marginalized, and so diverse that more often than not the various media covering it (even when inclusive) very often have little overlap in their coverage as there are so many decentralized outcroppings, many who have little concept (perhaps need?) on how to promote or publicize their efforts past the bandstand. I would estimate there are now probably well over 5,000 new releases a year in the Creative Improvised Music area. Add in reissues and it may well triple that number. It is a huge aggregate business and yet more of a cottage industry than ever before.

Wynton Marsalis has (re)blazed a trail. He is the leader of repertory, of a social and musical cotillion that has gained entry finally to the "big house” – but at a cost. Long live Wynton and the tradition of largely pre 1960's music he champions. But for the state of the art of Creative Improvised Music, you will have to look elsewhere. Sorry, Mr. Warfield, the U.S. is no longer "the spawning ground for the most dynamic of musical innovations."

Dennis González: There is so much jazz and improvised music “out there” that it is difficult to see, from inside the music, the totality of the music. Of course, all musics are exploding at incredible rates for many reasons: accessibility to once-hard-to-get-to places on the globe, accessibility to technologies for playing as well as recording music, mobile societies, the Internet, and so many other factors of which these are but a few examples. But the question in my mind is not so much whether jazz is holding its own, but whether the heart is still within jazz, and indeed within mankind. If jazz is indeed going over the cliff, it’s not that it is dying from lack of numerical indicators that prove that it is there, it is from the internal sub-divisions within the pool of musicians and the splintering of the audience because of micro-definitions of the meaning and legitimacy of the various genres that make up jazz. It’s almost as if jazz itself, in its purity, is open to almost any influence, and we in turn put on this musical form our addiction to niche thinking. We misuse the concept of tolerance and weigh down the music with substandard variations on a theme, and then jazz ceases to be the ritual it once was. It becomes too informal and too casual, and we lose the awe and the wonder of this magnificent music. And with the Internet now available to almost everyone in almost every place, we yield easily to the norms and standards of the marketplace, and in an inundated marketplace, the music becomes cheap.

Uri Caine: I prefer to be optimistic and realistic about the state of jazz and improvised music today. In the past 30 years certain things have changed radically while other aspects have remained the same.

Jazz is not dead and will not die soon-there are too many individual musicians young and old playing in many styles who are obsessed with keeping this tradition alive. There is also an audience (sometimes small) that is interested and passionate about the music. There will always be those who lament that the jazz scene has run its course, is not innovative anymore and is stagnant. My impression is that today there are many individuals young and old who are composing and playing interesting and vital music all over the world. Some of this music is receiving some measure of attention but a lot is being ignored. In the USA a lot of this music exists on the margins of the larger commercial scene but there are fanatic devotees who follow and support these various underground scenes. From time to time various artists and styles break through and find a certain amount of attention and popularity but the majority of the music and musicians exist in a subculture that is basically ignored except by the passionate minority. This enthusiastic audience exists all over the world and has sustained musicians throughout the history of Jazz.

While it is true that today there is a lot more government and institutional support for presenting concerts of improvised music in Europe than exists in the USA, I would not say that there is inherently more creativity today in the European scene than in the US. Rather than try and make such overreaching generalizations, my impression is that there are fantastic musicians creating interesting music in many countries around the world and that these various scenes need to be celebrated. Rather than generalize about scenes and cities where the music is happening I prefer to focus on individual musicians and their groups and appreciate their individual accomplishments-Some of these musicians base their improvisational art on their local traditions and incorporate aspects of folk music from their cultures while others are influenced by contemporary music, electronics and studying recordings of the past. Young musicians continue to enter the scene and bring a new energy to the music. It would be wonderful if there existed a higher consciousness in the US when it came time for support of the arts-The cost of one day of war in Iraq could support any number of performers, composers, orchestras, music schools, educational programs for students in elementary and high schools, touring grants for ensembles and big bands, festivals of different styles of improvised music in cities around the country, research grants for scholars and music historians, grants for younger and more established musicians and groups to record and document their music, etc but for various reasons this is much more difficult to achieve in the US. Nevertheless, American musicians have struggled, persevered and achieved without the help of government and grants and they will continue to do so in the future.

The attempt to impose a corporate mindset when selling jazz has always existed with mixed results. The attempt to make music more commercial and to sell jazz and improvised music as if it were pop music can succeed from time to time but often creates a false impression that what sells the most is the best music. The fact that today the big corporate record companies are forced to downsize and Tower Records is going bankrupt is not necessarily a bad thing-Technology has empowered artists to record and present their music without the recording companies as middlemen. Artists can sell their music in various formats directly to the consumer who can download or order CDs directly from the artists' web site. Listeners can find the most obscure music from many eras and purchase this on the internet. There has never been a time when so much different music has been available (from music around the world to historical reissues, complete boxed sets, etc.) for study and enjoyment. Whether this translates to real financial benefit for the artist remains to be seen. I think this new technology has been the greatest change in the past 30 years and allows artists a more direct relationship with their audience and more self determination in creating new musical projects.

Past and present stylistic streams coexist simultaneously in today's music. There are musicians today who base their art on music from the past – the swing era, the bebop era, free jazz, electronic music and fusion, funk, rock, various folk musics, etc and in their attempt to update and keep these styles fresh sometimes something new is created. Other musicians consciously reject past traditions as archaic and experiment with new forms and grooves in the hope of creating a music with fresh innovations. And yet other musicians combine various aspects of both approaches. My impression is that Jazz and improvised music are a big river that can include and embrace many styles simultaneously- the tradition of innovation is central to jazz history and experimental and non conforming  artists with new things to say must be encouraged. This search for the new can coexist with those that choose to celebrate the innovations of the past from Armstrong, Ellington, Miles, Coltrane and Monk etc .There will always be discussion and disagreement among the audience and critics about what direction the music is going in and which musicians are the most original and innovative but it has always been this way – this never-ending discussion is part of the vitality of the scene.

Shoemaker: The idea that jazz in Europe is subsidized by government and is not in the US is a canard. On a per capita basis, support for jazz in the US is nowhere close to Norway, for example. But, on a gross dollar basis, there’s a lot of money floating about. My critique of the US model centers on its priorities – reaching the underserved audience, which can be defined either by demographic and geographic criteria. In fundingspeak, underserved can mean middle class couples towing kids or grandkids to a family jazz event or suburbanites or Oklahomans. The flaw of this strategy is that assumes that their exposure to the music will result in commitment to the music at some level, be it through repeat concert attendance, CD purchases, whatever. I think that the vast majority of people who experience jazz through these means, particularly those folks who are experiencing for the first time, simply come and go. Beyond that, I just don’t buy the idea that you can – or should for that matter – nationalize an art form, all of the talk about jazz being an American art form and the country’s gift to the world notwithstanding. Nor does the NEA and its constituent funding bodies, I surmise – otherwise, they would be funding bluegrass bands to play in Harlem, and hammer dulcimer concerts in Miami’s Little Havana.

For me, the bottom line is that you can’t cross market jazz out of its niche market condition, nor can you grow an audience significantly beyond its current numbers. The task, then, whether you’re a label, venue or festival, is to maximize participation of the existing audience, be it getting most if not all of the 2,000 potential buyers of a CD by Artist A to buy the new release, or to get most or all 100 potential gig-goers in Anytown out on a Friday in February for Artist B. In short, rally the hard core.

Is this the way to go, and what strategies best serve this end?

Rusch: I am in almost complete agreement with Bill's declarations - the market is what it is and Jazz (or creative improvised music) at its best, is going to fall at the end of the bell curve of popularity, especially in its own time.

My complaint about the grants and awards that go to individuals is that more often than not they are acknowledgment of work done and not supportive of work to be done. Acknowledgement of work done well over the years is welcome and nice but does the average recipient of some Jazz Master award really need the money at this point? In addition, grant receipt too often is a case of the tail wagging the dog and/or an award for knowing how to play the grant game. That was the beauty of the MacArthur grants in music (before the criteria became somewhat politicized). They were an investment in both ability and future potential.

Most grants would do best if they were decided by a blind process. (Then again, so would most reviews - but that's another story.) Basically, to the extent possible, assessment and support of art should be based on artistic criteria.

Bill asks: "Is this the way to go?" As a producer, I concern myself first and foremost with artistic concerns and am willing to trust the body of work and an audience which will eventually discover the work. And until then (or even if it never happens), I remain successful to my mandate for artistry.

Gonzalez: I have not used or received grant money to further the influence of jazz, though I have received grants for playing jazz-influenced musics – the one exception being a grant from Downtown Music Gallery to perform at The Stone in New York in December of 2006 with my trio Yells At Eels and a group of British improvisers. On a local level, getting grants from the City of Dallas Cultural Arts Office was a great step forward for the audience and for getting my name and music “out there” in my own community, but after a while I was no longer an “up-and-coming” artist, and my awards declined and available grants began to go to other deserving musicians. I still see, after all these years, where the money was put to good use, and most of this good use came from reaching out to the young listener, and from my being noticed by people in positions to hire or recommend me as a source of new music to organizations who support that sort of thing…a very practical thing indeed.

I have seen some musicians receive grants for a good cause – the use of monies to spend time composing new works and then going out and enriching our lives on tour with that new music, for example. But I have also seen grants and awards go to people who are already at the top monetarily and in terms of being known. Politically, it makes sense for grant organizations to have their names seen with those who are best-known, since the organizations and foundations, in turn, will continue to receive more funding from their sources to continue this sort of activity and giving on their part.

There is another possibility out there that works well in certain places, and that is the phenomenon which sprang up with the AACM in Chicago, BAG in St. Louis, DAAGNIM here in Dallas, and other such grassroots organizations around the country. It’s a hard thing to continue for years, as was the case here in Dallas, since most of these groups are made up of mobile musicians, many of which make their money in playing non-jazz music, and a few who become known outside the circle and move on or decide to spend their money in other ways. But it’s a great model to work with, and the promise is there.

Yet another possibility is what we have done here, and that is to reach out to listeners and musicians who play and listen to other, “newer” forms of music – turntableism, punk, cross-genre fertilizations – and actually work to strengthen the ties that will keep us moving forward and putting together events and concerts that will expose newer listeners to our music, again, on the grassroots level.

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