Open Sky principals Suzan Jenkins and Willard Jenkins have amassed over thirty years experience as industry leaders in various facets of the jazz, arts, the recording business, and jazz media. With Open Sky Jazz, the possibilities are endless, just like the music.
Operating in our truly international city has given the DC Jazz Festival a unique programming perspective that reflects what we refer to as The International Language of Jazz. DC’s vibrant community of foreign embassies has been a blessing in our efforts at broadening our year-round programming profile. Our Fishman Embassy Series, named after DCJF founder Charlie Fishman, who early on recognized the possibilities for engagement of DC’s embassy community, has established very fortuitous collaborations with a number of foreign embassies, including the embassies of Switzerland, France, Japan, South Africa, Colombia, Spain, Korea, Singapore, Italy, Finland, and Canada.
Those partnerships have enabled us to expand upon one of our ongoing festival themes, to celebrate The International Language of Jazz through presenting artists native to those countries. There was a time, particularly back in the 40s-through 60s, when U.S. jazz musicians were hungrily sought after overseas, and in many cases their acceptance at foreign ports far exceeded the level of acclaim and acceptance afforded them in their own home country. Fast forward to the 21st century and through those many foreign tours (particularly across Europe) the gospel of jazz has effectively been spread globally. In an increasing number of countries this has included development of conservatory-level jazz education programs, many with curricular consultation from leading U.S. music conservatories and jazz educators. Consequently jazz artists and actual scenes are available pretty much worldwide.
I got a nice taste of that recently when I was invited to participate in the first Jazz Across Borders conference, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Encouraged and supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, and spearheaded by the country’s leading jazzman, saxophonist-composer-bandleader Igor Butman, “Jazz Across Borders (JAB) is a professional platform designed to assemble international and Russian jazz community representatives.” Igor Butman & the Moscow Jazz Orchestra
The core of the JAB conference was a series of panel discussions, round tables, workshops, and meetings of jazz industry representatives. Each late afternoon/early evening featured showcase performances by some of Russia’s leading and emerging jazz artists and bands in an atmosphere reflective of both the former Jazz Times Convention (reincarnated as Jazz Connect) and IAJE conferences. Also included were jazz club nights, and St. Petersburg does indeed have several vibrant jazz clubs, and a culminating gala concert that included performances by several featured Russian jazz artists and a collaboration between vocalist Kurt Elling and the Moscow Jazz Orchestra.
In somewhat the same manner of January’s Jazz Connect Conference (which in 2018 is being re-christened the Jazz Congress, in partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center) aligned itself with the big APAP performing arts presenter conference in New York City, Jazz Across Borders was held in conjunction with the larger (6th annual) St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum conference. Jazz Across Borders took place on the bustling floors of the St. Petersburg State Academic Chapel November 17-18.
Your correspondent was invited to participate in a panel discussion of festival presenters titled “Jazz Festivals: working with government and sponsors” that was moderated by Elena Zelentsova of Russia’s Skolkovo Foundation. Handheld translators with earpieces were provided as the dialogue shifted easily from Russian to English on the series of culturally diverse panel discussions. Our lively discussion included saxophonist Kent Sangster, producer of Canada’s Edmonton Jazz Festival; Michelle Day, vice president of the Thelonious Monk Institute detailed the history of the Monk Institute’s growing International Jazz Day observances, in 2018 to be held on April 30th in St. Petersburg, a point of obvious Russian pride; and our discussion was rounded out by two gentlemen from Russia’s burgeoning jazz festival scene, Andrei Levchenko, producer of the Kaliningrad City Jazz Festival, and Valery Korotkov, head of JIVE Group agency, which runs numerous festivals, concerts and club events in Russia.
Several other panelists were guests from around the jazz world, including such fellow U.S. participants as artist manager Pat Harris, booking agent Ina Dittke, JazzTimes publisher Lee Mergner, Berklee College of Music V.P. Dr. Larry Simpson, journalist Ted Panken, director of jazz programming at the Kennedy Center Kevin Struthers, international booking agent Katherine McVicker, and Adam Shatz, musician and co-producer of NYC Winter Jazzfest. Other guests in our group of international guests included Ros Rigby, president of the Europe Jazz Network, and producer of the Gateshead International Jazz Festival (UK), Carlo Pagnotta the founder and artistic director of Umbria Jazz (Italy), booking agent Catherine Mayer (Germany), Simon Cooke managing director of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (London), and Peter Gontha, founder & producer of the Java Jazz Festival (Indonesia). The lobby bar at the Hotel Krempinsky in St. Petersburg was a convenient hang for our group of visiting conferees from the US, UK, France and Italy during JAB
Throughout JAB the energy in the venues and the hallways was palpably high and there were an impressive number of millennials in the house; all were quite eager to soak in the jazz vibe. The White Hall room which hosted the various forums and panel discussions – on global issues ranging from festival, concert and club presenter concerns to jazz media and jazz education panels, to such more specific concerns as panels on “The peculiarities of working on tours for foreign performers in Russia and Russian performers abroad,” “The specifics of promoting jazz artists in Russia and abroad,” and “Russia: New opportunities. Infrastructure of Russian jazz market: myths and reality,” to an overview of “the history and development of Russian jazz art fem the 20s till present,” a discussion that included Igor Butman among its speakers. On the roundtable discussion on promoting jazz artists in Russia, agent-manager Pat Harris suggested that from her perspective one thing the fall of the record industry has done is to level the playing field. In this modern paradigm there is no longer a certain class of artists blessed with that label deal leg up on the field. Throughout the two days these sessions were packed with genuinely eager-to-be-informed and attentive conferees. Packed, attentive audiences like this were the rule during the Jazz Across Borders conference
The showcases featured many of Russia’s most talented ensembles, with a particular bent towards younger, emerging talent. The impressive LRK Trio (piano-bass-drums) concluded its set with the pianist strapping on accordion and the band adapting a traditional Russian folklore dance to its decidedly modern jazz perspective. Later, the Yakov Okun Quartet weighed in from a more traditional modern approach, in a relaxed, reflective manner. Throughout, the fresh, youthful energy of the attendees was quite refreshing, a sensibility which also permeated the clubs we visited, including White Nights Jazz Club. There was an energizing zeal for the music in St. Petersburg that was quite positively affirming. The showcase bands performed with a passion and desire to seek the original that was quite impressive. At the 6pm Black Hall showcase on Friday, Dock in Absolute brought the funk, opening with a nice balance of bass clarinet and electric bass with a fresh feel wrapped in old socks. Dock in Absolute showcasing
The closing gala concert featured Igor’s exceptional brother and sister-in-law Oleg (drums) and Natalia Butman (piano & voice) in trio, conference guest John Beasley conducting the Moscow Jazz Orchestra through one of his (Thelonious) Monk’estra charts, and the evening’s featured set with the roaring orchestra skillfully framing and accompanying vocalist Kurt Elling’s set. before yet another deeply attentive full house in the big hall at St. Petersburg State Academic Chapel. Yes, jazz does indeed live a charmed life in Russia! Kurt Elling and Berklee’s Dr. Larry Simpson chillin’ at the Hotel Krempinsky following Kurt’s conference closing triumph with the Moscow Jazz Orchestra
Q-Tip forged a productive partnership with Jason Moran in the debut of the Kennedy Center’s hip hop program [Photo: Kyle Gustafson/WP]
The current era of jazz musician-as-curator is arguably owed to Wynton Marsalis‘ remarkable success in establishing and building the Jazz at Lincoln Center institution. Examples include the SFJazz organization’s successful engagement of a rotating cast of curating musicians. Trumpeter Dave Douglas founded and curates the annual fall Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT). Yet another trumpeter, Sean Jones, was recently appointed as an artistic adviser to Carnegie Hall, principally guiding their youth jazz orchestra project NYO, which comes with implications for Jones as curator. An auspicious fine arts crossover found bassist-composer-vocalist Esperanza Spalding recently curating the “Esperanza Spalding Selects” visual arts exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan, an exhibit that will be on display through early 2018. Doubtless bassist William Parker‘s network of connections has played some curatorial measure at the annual Vision Festival, which is run principally by his earnest dancer-choreographer spouse Patricia Nicholson Parker. And as reported in a recent post in these pages, bassist Christian McBride, artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, even had festival founder – and the father of jazz festivals in this country – NEA Jazz Master George Wein motoring around the grounds marveling at hearing artists he’d not previously experienced in McBride’s first full-blown NJF curation.
The Kennedy Center built its laudatory jazz program on the curatorial gifts of Dr. Billy Taylor, the foundation being a series of concerts where the good doctor’s trio played host to a series of guest artists for performances and Taylor’s graceful and deeply informative meet the artist interview component, a series captured for posterity by NPR. Considering Mr. Taylor’s senior status keen observers had to wonder what would happen with Kennedy Center Jazz when he inevitably succumbed to the vicissitudes of age. Thus when the beloved Billy passed on to ancestry in 2010, those of us who followed the program wondered aloud ‘what now’?
The answer arrived in November 2011 when Kennedy Center Jazz chief administrator Kevin Struthers and the institution selected pianist-composer Jason Moran as artistic adviser to succeed and expand on Billy Taylor’s vision. Throughout his career up to that point the Houston-bred Moran had shown an impressive depth of ideas with a balanced inside/outside perspective – from sampling a Turkish telephone call to improvising on an inspiring speech as found objects for composition, to assembling one of the signature trios in American music, the Bandwagon with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Taurus Mateen, and challenging the band with fresh landscapes with every recording, to the record label Yes he is developing with wife Alicia Hall Moran, herself an impressive contralto vocalist.
Since building his Kennedy Center program Moran has significantly broadened the Kennedy Center’s definition of jazz, from engaging senior warriors identified with the so-called jazz avant garde who’d not previously played the KC, like NEA Jazz Masters Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton in concert (a Cecil Taylor booking was waylaid by illness), to presenting series of next gen jazz contributors at the KC Jazz Club, to Concert Hall intersections with artists in dance and classical music, to a recent triumph with the KC-resident National Symphony Orchestra for a live recreation of Moran’s score for Ava Duvernay’s much-acclaimed film Selma. Viewing the film for a second time, in a big hall with 2K in the seats, Jason & the orch onstage, was a rich experience. No two programs better illustrated Jason Moran’s range than last week’s Friday/Monday sequence which found Moran inhabiting freestyle hip hop and the Thelonious Monk Centennial in succession.
In addition to his jazz program curating, Moran has obviously become quite the artistic force across genres at the KC. Hip hop auteur Q-Tip, best known for his frontman work with A Tribe Called Quest, which established it’s jazz influences early on with their notable second album collaboration with NEA Jazz Master bassist Ron Carter on “The Low End Theory,” credits Moran for his appointment as the new artistic director for hip-hop culture at the Kennedy Center; thus the KC becomes the first major fine arts center to adapt hip hop as a core program. October 6th marked the official launch of the KC’s hip hop program and it was a special night from several perspectives.
That inaugural program coupled Moran and Q-Tip in duo, a format which likely raised questions in Tip’s legion of followers, but they packed the house nonetheless. Significantly the venue, the redesigned Terrace Theatre on the KC’s penthouse level, which had long served as the primary home of the jazz program, was also being launched following months of reconstructive surgery. In her introductory remarks, KC President Deborah Rutter, whose grasp and warm embrace of the complete thrust and responsibility of the Kennedy Center to reflect a broad sense of the diversity of fine arts presenting has been impressive since her 2014 appointment, enthusiastically lauded the Terrace re-design and was obviously thrilled in anticipation of this launch of the hip hop program, whose administrator is Simone Eccelston.
Appropriately though the entire thrust of the program clearly illustrated true partnership, Q-Tip delivered an opening solo sequence that completely enlivened the full house, most of whom had obviously come for his artistry first & foremost. His DJ set displayed impressive dexterity on the wheels of steel and various sampling and looping effects owed largely to popular dance grooves, which by turns he verbally cued as disco breaks. The crowd, though a more mature house that one might encounter at the club, took a minute to warm up but once they did it was definitely on, Tip eliciting amens with familiar refrains & beats. Q-Tip cannily and warmly recognized the significance of hip-hop’s evolution from street parties and basement jams to fine arts center in his accompanying dialogue, citing pioneer Bronx scenesters of the form as DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Baambaata in his running monologue.
When Moran arrived onstage almost immediately the scene shifted to beats meets virtuosity as Q-Tip crafted his beats to undergird and challenge Moran’s pianistics. This landscape was best exploited when Moran launched into a cosmo-electro-acoustic update on John Coltrane‘s “Giant Steps.” Taking the mic Moran made it clear to Q-Tip’s audience that he was no tourist, telling them that while his generation was addressing the challenges of Thelonious Monk, they were also by equal turns taking on A Tribe Called Quest as artistic sustenance, tacitly informing the audience that his was the first generation of jazz musicians to grow up under the influence of hip hop’s nascent developments & full flowering as a global artistic force, and embrace the form as one of the informers of their jazz expressions.
While there were some in the crowd – particularly those for whom Jason Moran was a new flavor – who were a bit quizzical about the hang-fly nature of this kinetic duo, those who gave themselves over to the impromptu nature (though at certain points it was clear Moran had some pre-planned sketches at his disposal) of this program were duly rewarded by their openness. After their first segment, Q-Tip exclaimed in genuine wonder that they had just free-formed for “about an hour!”
Two nights later Moran amply displayed the breadth of his musical mindset in black suit and bowtie for the Thelonious Monk Centennial celebration in the KC Concert Hall. When the lights dimmed the sound serenading the audience was Monk himself, piano soloing his signature “Round Midnight.” From there Moran essayed the master’s “Bemsha Swing” and introduced NEA Jazz Master pianist Kenny Barron for some solo “Light Blue”. The two pianists played alternating solo Monk before WPFW jazz programmer Brother Ah – who as his given name Robert Northern had contributed his french horn stylings to Thelonious’ historic Town Hall orchestral concert – eased out to reminisce a bit about a great memory of Monk wheeling his old upright onto a Bronx playground to practice. Moran’s idea for the Brother Ah playground reminiscence was spurred by his impression of a museum piece of an urban playground scene, which served to further highlight another constant character on this superb evening a running video installation. The first half closer was a brilliant, slightly puckish 4-hands Moran/Barron performance of “Blue Monk.”
For the second half Moran’s Big Bandwagon – his trio augmented by trumpet (Ralph Alessi), trombone (Houston homie Frank Lacy), tuba (the redoubtable Bob Stewart), alto and tenor saxophone
(Houstonian Walter Smith III) – reimagined selections from Monk’s Town Hall Concert, including a superb reading of “Friday the 13th”. These re-imaginations were not afraid to employ some dissonance in Moran’s mix. And this part of the evening is where the video installation really asserted itself. At one point as the band played on, the video streamed an evocative reminiscence by Moran on his personal Monk epiphany, how he first came under the spell of Thelonious from his parent’s record collection and the Columbia Lp Thelonious Monk Composer. At other points the master himself entered the hall, courtesy of his voice in studio conversations with other musicians and producers. In each case the audio was clarified by the conversation conveyed in video graphics, just in case ya’ll didn’t understand Monk’s unique hipsterese. “In My Mind” was the theme of Moran’s reimagining of the Town Hall Concert, a mantra Moran repeated on the video installation by W. Eugene Smith, in much the way Q-Tip’s mantra became “options” during their Friday coupling. As opposed to slavish re-creations, this was a masterful program, one Thelonious Monk would have danced on.
I’ve been fortunate to make scores of what, to paraphrase sports parlance, I consider scouting trips to jazz festivals large and small ever since the early 1970s; always an important part of my own professional development – as a media person, an arts administrator, and an arts presenter. And of course, there’s big fun to be had at jazz festivals large and small. It was in ’74 that I embarked on what became annual treks to the George Wein-produced summer festivals in New York. Depending upon underwriting sponsorship those festivals fell under the names Newport New York, Kool, and JVC Jazz Festival.
The reason Wein’s Festival Productions team decamped in NYC in the first place was a result of controversial jazz festival intrigue. His Newport (Rhode Island) Jazz Festival operation had been – what turned out to be temporarily – suspended by town gentry outraged at the actions of an unruly crowd. This was at a time when Wein was broadening the scope of NJF by seasoning his lineup with assorted rock and crossover acts of the day, something that has become common practice of even the highest profile jazz festivals. In short, some audience members drawn to the tony burgh located on the south end of Aquidneck Island on the shore of the Narragansett Bay apparently arrived expecting free admission and subsequently stormed the barricades in protest. So in the mid-70s Festival Productions built those major NYC festivals in the stylistic image of Newport, at venues ranging from Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Town Hall, to assorted clubs and university auditoriums.
Fast forward to the mid-90s when my 18-year tenure as artistic director of Cleveland’s Tri-C JazzFest commenced (which was augmented for a hot minute in the aughts by a couple of years artistic directing Boston’s Berklee-run Beantown Jazz Festival, an an advisory role in the development of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival). Currently three years in as artistic director of the DC Jazz Festival, jazz festivals large & small have been a passion for over 40 years, including more festivals than I care to recount here, both domestic and foreign. Visiting jazz festivals has been both immensely pleasurable and highly instructive, to the point where trips to the two grandaddies – the Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals – have become as mandatory as budget will allow. This year was no exception as we had another round of splendid and very instructive visits – actually they’ve become pilgrimages – to both. The Newport Jazz Festival audience enjoying a brilliant, deeply heartfelt tribute to Geri Allen
The scene at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival Garden Stage
The Newport Jazz Festival (presented by Natixis Global Asset Management), which about a decade ago expanded its staging from the traditional big stage abutting Fort Adams and facing the idyllic bay, to add a courtyard stage and a harbor stage, is now artistic directed by one of the busiest men in jazz, bassist Christian McBride. The Newport lineup this year certainly reflected McBride’s Philly pride, from his own soulful big band to his occasional Philadelphia Experiment trio with Philadelphians drummer Questlove (McBride’s high school classmate) and keyboardist Uri Caine and guest DJ Logic, to the Benny Golson Quartet, to pianist Orrin Evans playing solo and as part of trumpeter Sean Jones band, to the Roots closing out late Sunday afternoon.
McBride and festival producer Danny Melnick laid out a tasty menu that also included in addition to the Roots, the crossover presence of Afro-Americana vocalist-banjoist Rhiannon Giddens, funk master Maceo Parker, and Jason Moran‘s Fats Waller Dance Party. The Maria Schneider Orchestra’s sumptuous harmonic universe played the main stage, while Cyrus Chestnut‘s ever-swinging trio, and a quartet of trumpeters gave a virtual state of the instrument on the harbor stage, including Sean Jones, Michael Rodriguez (co-leading with his brother pianist Robert), Theo Croker, and Cleveland’s own Dominick Farinacci. Sean (from Warren, OH) and Dominick are always points of pride as both participated in Tri-C JazzFest from their grade school days onward. Branford Marsalis’ exceptional quartet played a robust set at Newport
The outer edges of the music were well-represented at NJF by Henry Threadgill‘s Zoid, pianist MarilynCrispell, the Wadada Leo Smith/Vijay Iyer duo, and composer Amir ElSaffar‘s Rivers of Sound Orchestra. Branford Marsalis highlighted the wisdom of keeping a stable quartet (Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis, Justin Faulkner), Cecile McLorinSalvant continued building her rather quirky book with ancient songs of politically incorrect origin (like the Mad Men era “Wives & Lovers”), and the super quartet Hudson (Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, John Medeski, Larry Grenadier) provided gourmet jam band food for the ears. A major highlight came in tribute to the sad recent passing of pianist Geri Allen. With Allen previously scheduled to join Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding to reprise their marvelous trio, instead TLC and Espe delivered a gorgeous, loving tribute to their partner with rotating pianists Christian Sands, Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer playing Geri’s compositions.
Young pianist Gerald Clayton joined his dad John and drummer Jeff Hamilton as MJF Artists-in-Residence
Difficult topping those Newport proceedings, right? Along came mid-September and the 60th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, which more than lived up to its superb tradition. The Monterey County Fairgrounds welcomed nearly 40,000 patrons to its main (Arena) stage and five grounds stages this year. Delights of the garden were plentiful, from three performances by Showcase Artist violinist Regina Carter (including her Ella Fitzgerald and Southern Comfort projects), to John Clayton‘s commissioned piece celebrating MJF’s 60th through the broad canvas of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. For that occasion Clayton was joined by son Gerald Clayton on piano, brother Jeff Clayton‘s tuneful alto saxophone, and partner Jeff Hamilton on drums stoking the fires. One artist common to both Newport and Monterey was Tony Award winning vocalist Leslie Odom, Jr. from Hamilton, who made scores of new friends with his gracious, sunny performances that included a Nat Cole medley. Another was Vijay Iyer, this time with his bristling sextet onstage at Dizzy’s Den to close out Sunday evening. MJF Showcase Artist Regina Carter honoring Ella Fitzgerald on the Jimmy Lyons Stage
In the run up to MJF 60 I asked John Clayton about his 60th anniversary commemorative commission and his overall impressions of the festival. “There is a shortlist of components to the festival and my attachment to the festival informed my composition. The fact that this is their 60th anniversary, my interaction as an artist in the festival for so many years, the village/community vibe that permeates the festival grounds, and a general love of the area, all guided my composition.” Asked what makes the Monterey Jazz Festival such a unique experience, Clayton said “The down-to-earth quality is unique. It is one of the most un-stuffy festival environments one can find. People dress comfortably, eat with each other at picnic tables, shop in the open stalls… it’s not a jazz festival atmosphere that you can easily find. Actually Monterey Jazz Festival is one of a kind.”
Saturday evening on the Arena’s Jimmy Lyons Stage (named for the MJF founder) delivered a masterful tenor sax summit, with Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, and Joshua Redman honoring SonnyRollins in royal fashion. Crossover delights came via rapper Common, who since his DC Jazz Festival appearance in 2016 has found a new home and creative environment on jazz festival stages, improvising his lyrical content to reflect the setting and giving ample space to the jazz-friendly soloists in his band, including one-to-watch flutist Eleana Pinderhughes. James Carter once again displayed his outrageous mastery of every saxophone nuance Adolph Sax could have ever dreamt up, Sean Jones made Roy Hargrove work hard for the money as guests on Kenny Barron‘s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie’s centennial, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen joined saxophonist Tia Fuller‘s hard driving quartet, bassist Linda May Han Oh (who had earlier collaborated with Fuller, Jensen, and Tia’s sister pianist Shamie Royston, DC Jazz Festival director Sunny Sumter, and moderator Suzan Jenkins for a Women in Jazz Panel that had the esteemed Angela Davis (a MJF regular) taking notes in the back of the room, delighted the Garden Stage with her quintet, and AngeliqueKidjo joined Pedrito Martinez for a delightfully successful partnership of Afro salsa. Four great tenors playing homage to Sonny Rollins
As has become MJF tradition, several first rate Bay Area bands delivered on Monterey stages, as did a nice slate of emerging units, including Monsieur Perine, Ranky Tanky, Con Brio, and assorted student ensembles. Sixty+ years into their respective illustrious runs, the Newport Jazz Festival and Monterey Jazz Festival proved once again why they represent the state of the jazz festival tradition.
What a treat it was to interview Dee Dee Bridgewater and Leslie Odom, Jr. in the Blue Note at Sea Tent on the subject of transitioning from a Broadway show to the jazz concert stage
Panelists for the Women in Jazz discussion L to R: Linda May Han Oh, Shamie Royston, Sunny Sumter, moderator Suzan Jenkins, Ingrid Jensen, and Tia Fuller. When Suzan introduced the great activist-professor Angela Davis in the audience, afterwards Angela came up and said she didn’t know she was gonna be called out, she was back there taking notes!
One of the MJF highlights came when Sean Jones and Roy Hargrove joined Kenny Barron for the finale in Kenny’s centennial tribute to Dizzy Gillespie.
[ALL MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL IMAGES BY GREG “FRITZ” BLAKEY/FRITZ PHOTOGRAPHY]
NYC-based writer Robert Fleming has been a good friend for many years, dating back to our Cleveland days in the 1970s. We spent many moons in his 3rd floor flat on 143rd Street on the city’s east side cogitating on the latest record releases. Included in our collaborative experience was a quite memorable 1975 interview we did with Miles Davis at the old Eastwood Motel in the midst of Miles’ weeklong stint at the late and now-legendary Smiling Dog Saloon, a time when Miles was sporting a raucously murky 3-guitar band (Pete Cosey Reggie Lucas, and Dominique Gaumont). The latest entry in Fleming’s growing bibliography is the new book Rasta, Babylon, Jamming (The Music and Culture of Roots Reggae), about which we had some questions for good brother Fleming.
Independent Ear: I recall rather vividly one of those nights spent at your place after you had your first interview with Bob Marley. Was that encounter one of the seeds of inspiration for this book?
RF: As a I write in my introduction, I was introduced to the musical concepts of roots reggae through the words of Jimmy Cliff in the early 1970s. It was during my time at Scene Magazine. He was very candid with a clear vision of the politics and culture of the music. Cliff knew black music and the plight of American blacks during the age of Nixon. I enjoyed our talk.
Herb, dreads, and all things Jah notwithstanding, Bob Marley’s interview came later as I was really immersed in reggae. He spoke openly between spliffs about the need for global healing and the political chaos going in Jamaica. Some of the talk didn’t make it to the tape. I had no idea how sick he was at the time. Also, this bookis a tribute to my sea-faring grandfather, Will, who lived there in Jamaica before settling in Mississippi.
Inevitably when one makes the list choices this book offers its readers, including “Pivotal Reggae Pioneers,” “16 Essential Reggae Films,” and “Vintage and Modern Reggae Album Collection,” there will be either naysayers or those who decry perceived omissions or question certain choices you’ve made. How would you, or how are you prepared to respond to such criticisms?
I made those choices due to production costs and editorial restrictions. Nobody can say that I didn’t touch on the key
cultural, political, and musical themes of roots reggae. Garvey’s proud teachings, the influence of Selassie’s courage, Seaga vs. Manley and the CIA’s cunning reach. The omissions were deliberate because I didn’t want the text to be overly academic or long-winded. I’m prepared for criticism. This is a primer of the music. This is a survey of the Jamaican music of the 1970s. Nothing more, nothing less.
In the same way some of those perhaps less thoroughly immersed in the contemporary jazz scene might lament that “…ain’t been nothing new in jazz since (Pops, Bird, Coltrane, Miles, Ornette… pick and era”), as someone less thoroughly immersed in reggae who feels that contemporary reggae just doesn’t stand up to the music that Bob Marley and his generation made, how would you respond in your defense of the contemporary reggae scene, or are you of that “ain’t nothing happening since Bob…” mindset?
Roots reggae is when Jamaica found its musical identity. I wanted to reinforce the importance of this period as a golden age in this book. Before this historic period, all that existed there were the producers of Kingston’s
famed “Beat Street,” who only imported American R&B songs. Then something changed and more musicians embraced the spirituality and race pride of the Rastafarian faith. It truly translated into the music and culture of Jamaica.
The music of Marley, Toots, Steel Pulse, U-Roy, Peter Tosh, I-Threes, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru – set the standard. It raised the bar like Bird, Dizzy, and Miles did with Bop. Or Ornette. Or Trane. All of the ingredients were there. There were pivotal moments, and and some of what followed paled by comparison. But never fear. There are some strong performers there now.
What would you say is the current state of contemporary reggae music?
Jamaican music is going through growing pains again. It’s on the brink of banning dancehall music. The media is full of Fiyah Roiall, the prince of conscious hip-hop rap and young stars such as Vyby Kartel, Movado, Gaza Slim, Gyptian, Aidonia, Denyque, and Chronixx. Supposedly Yashae, the new pop queen, will someday rival Queen Bey (Beyonce). Folks are singing the recent creation of young Alex Morissey, the world’s first virtual turntable, Virtual Disc Jockey. It’s where you can log on and create music mixes. Tech rules!
Given a choice of one reggae album to place in a time capsule, what would you recommend?
It’s a tie! I would recommend two albums: “Exodus” by Bob Marley and the Wailers and “Entitlement” by Ijahman.
Here are some additional titles by Robert Fleming:
Besides being a truly great trumpet player, composer and bandleader – and one that too many folks sleep on from the historical lineage of the music – Woody Shaw was a very important figure in my earliest stages of concert presentation and production. That work began back in the late 1970s/early 1980s as president of the former Northeast Ohio Jazz Society.
During that period the late Bruce Lundvall took advantage of what was apparently some unusually broad corporate latitude to sign and subsequently record several of the most vital musicians on the scene, including NEA Jazz Masters Dexter Gordon and Bobby Hutcherson, and such other singular masters as the late alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe and trumpeter Woody Shaw. When Dexter Gordon made his triumphant return to the U.S. after years in European self-exile, he arrived full force at the Village Vanguard in a highly touted week that found him riding majestically on the wings of a deeply complimentary band that had been the working unit of Woody Shaw, which certainly eased Dexter’s way back on the U.S. scene in superb fashion. I contacted Maxine Gordon, who at the time was representing both Dexter and Woody, and what quickly followed were very successful performances by both on separate dates at Cuyahoga Community College Metro Auditorium as part of NOJS burgeoning concert series.
I had first become familiar with Woody’s recorded work a few years prior when my brother George hipped me to his extraordinary 2-LP set Blackstone Legacy and was immediately hooked by his surging, questing sound and singular approach to trumpet expression. Years later we commemorated Woody Shaw’s rich legacy in concert at Tribeca Performing Arts Center as part of our annual Lost Jazz Shrines concert series. It was then that I first came in contact with the very earnest son of Woody Shaw, Woody Shaw III (www.woodyshaw.com/woody-iii), who as an infant and a young boy had appeared on two of Woody’s subsequent album covers for Columbia. Fact is Woody Shaw was our last great and true trumpet stylist.
Since his father’s passing Woody III has been busy with his father’s legacy, which recently has included plans to produce a Woody Shaw documentary. Clearly some questions were in order for Woody Shaw III.
IE: You’ve come a long way from that WoodyIII album cover photo with your Dad and Grandad. Talk about your evolution in terms of your education and more recently your Harvard fellowship. Woody Shaw III: Well, my educational background was in many ways shaped by a decision I made as a younger man, which was to acquire all of the tools necessary to interpret, organize, preserve and curate the legacies of my musical forefathers well into the future. And when I say my musical forefathers, I mean both my biological father Woody Shaw (1944-1989) and my step-father, Dexter Gordon (1923-1990).
Having grown up at the nexus of the artistic and the managerial domains of the jazz world [Woody lll’s mom the historian-educator Maxine Gordon managed both Woody and Dexter], it became apparent as I reached my early twenties that my future would require me to administer these legacies on a professional level, as well as to protect them from any foreseeably egregious forms of legal or economic exploitation, indefinitely. As a result, I wound up getting my B.A. in Ethnomusicology in 2001, my B.F.A. in Jazz Studies in 2004, I did a year of graduate work as an Associate Instructor under David N. Baker (a true pioneer in jazz education) in 2006-2007, and then went on to Columbia University where I received by Master’s in Arts Administration, focusing on intellectual properly law and business.
In 2014 I was awarded a Hutchins Fellowship from the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University to consolidate the research on my father’s music and life that I had been compiling since the age of 21 (I am 38 now), to complete a book, produce a documentary film, and to launch The Woody Shaw Institute of Global Arts. In essence this is a series of projects intended to preserve and present my father’s life story as embodied by the multifarious articles (both tangible and intangible) of his vast body of work, his artistic outlook, and his unique musical philosophy.
When and why did you establish the Woody Shaw Institute of Global Arts and what is your mission?
The Woody Shaw Institute of Global Arts is a vision that was birthed through the process of realizing the true depth and magnitude of the contributions of artists like Woody Shaw, who spent each and every day of their lives assimilating the subtle cultural nuances and influences of the world into their art. The full mission can be read at www.woodyshaw.com/institute, but in short, it is to preserve, present, and build upon the aesthetic as well as the symbolic and the social, within Woody Shaw’s worlds of creative thought.
The purpose is bi-drectional, in the sense that I am aware of the need to both preserve and nourish the history, so to speak, but also to keep reinventing, questioning, reexamining, and reimagining the propositions of my father’s art through the introduction and exploration of new interdisciplinary forms and relationships, sometimes cross-cultural, sometimes trans-idiomatic, which speaks to the “global” scope of this endeavor. What I am not interested in is trying to replicate or imitate, and do not think my father had much patience for that either. He was a constant researcher, student, and explorer when it came to music, to sound, symbolism, message, meaning and the organization of his ideas.
My mission is to present a model that serves as an alternative to our conventional institutional and educational formats; that treat the arts and humanities through the often blurred lens of social science, or that entrap the biographical narratives and obfuscate the brilliance of deceased artists to forgone conclusions of tragedy for the sake of sensationalism, or to some clumsily misaligned political or social ideology. I think many of the institutions that have appropriated the world “jazz” have rendered the word almost entirely devoid of meaning by completely overlooking the tremendous sacrifices undergone and pains suffered by the countless human beings who gave so much of themselves, and who were so committed to expressing their unique forms of intelligence and individuality, literally at all costs. I think it’s time to start shining a much brighter light on the humanity of the many long lost and forgotten originators who paved the way for what today gets called “jazz,” with so little if any soul or respect for the history behind that word, which it seems any and everyone can just appropriate, redefine, or oversimplify for their own personal or professional benefit.
There is a suggestion, at least in the complete name of the Woody Shaw Institute of Global Arts that your goals for its establishment go beyond the jazz music your father embraced and mastered. Talk about what appears to be your broader perspectives on the development of the Institute.
The institute will draw from Woody Shaw’s body of work not as a rhetorical or cultural cliche of jazz’s “greatness,” or as evidence of its own ingenuity alone, but as part of a starting point to inspire perhaps new or newly-inspired trajectories of thinking, hearing, listening, and creating art, including but not limited to music. I am interested in interdisciplinary and complementarity when it comes to the arts and artistic re-interpretation. Given the broad range of creative and cultural influences that Woody drew from, I have no doubt that he would have wanted his music to inspire and be applied within many other domains of creative self-expression than what the jazz CEOs and professors of the world call “jazz.”
When it comes to the essence of what this thing once was, if Woody Shaw is to be regarded as one of the “last major innovators,” which we know he was, then his music alone should have enough to teach us about what jazz actually is, not to mention where it comes from, and where it can still go. We don’t need to try to play “Woody’s greatest hits” or to run his arrangements into the ground at a much lower level of artistic ingenuity and quality than what he already originated in order to convince ourselves that we are doing justice to the “jazz” agenda. His music speaks for itself, as well as for the music’s entire history. He made certain of that, and both his predecessors and successors loudly attested to that fact.
I am of the belief that there is no sense in calling something by its name, especially if I already know what it is. However, I think many people would agree that the name Woody Shaw and the word “jazz” in its most indigenous sensibility, are fairly synonymous. But at the same time, Woody Shaw strove to transcend any cliches or limitations that were placed on his music or on his artistic identity. That was something he had to fight against throughout his entire life and career, and it is precisely because of his willingness to endure that artistic plight that many people have been able to legitimize themselves as “jazz musicians.” It is because of those sacrifices to be an individual artist at all costs that certain people have been able to validate themselves and their musical ideology without taking half as many risks or paying a fraction of the price to be truly great. So basically, while the essence of our music and where it comes from will always be present, the plight of evading contrivances and defining ourselves on our own creative terms continues.
More recently you’ve launched a campaign to fund a Woody Shaw documentary. Where are you with that project and how might folks continue to assist those efforts?
The campaign has gone very well. I’m not able to disclose numbers at this time, but the project received some very generous support and was backed by some generous and well-respected individuals in the community such as Steve Coleman, Jason Moran (both Associate Producers of the project), Brian Lynch and others.
I have been very inspired to receive constant offers from up and coming filmmakers and film crews who are eager to be part of this project. So I’m currently recruiting, conducting interviews, raising some additional funding, and expect to complete a rough cut by spring 2018.
I was honored that the project, titled Woody Shaw: Beyond All Limits…, was recently chosen as an official selection for the Works-in-Progress (WiP) program at Cucalorus FIlm Festival in Wilmington, NC (Nov. 8-12, 2017). I’m feeling pretty inspired by that, and look forward to a few more developments by the end of the year as well. Read more about the program at www.woodyshaw.com/cucalorus
To support the documentary project, visit www.woodyshaw.com/film.
Woody’s recorded legacy has lately been enhanced by several posthumous, previously unavailable releases. Are there other previously unreleased Woody Shaw recordings in your pipeline?
Well, The Tour (Vol. 2) with Woody Shaw and Louis Hayes is due out on August 25, 2017. I produced and wrote notes for this series. The CD is on HighNote Records, formerly Muse Records. As you probably know, we recently lost a very important figure in the jazz world, Joe Fields, who originally signed my father to Muse in 1974 and recorded Woody all the way until he signed with Columbia Records in 1977. That Muse period is a very historic era in jazz, marked by so many great recordings by Woody Shaw and his contemporaries. The sound of that era lives in those recordings and so much can be learned, felt, and remembered about where this country was at that time. I will do what I can to make sure that music continues to be heard and re- released.
As far as other previously unreleased material goes, well, I think you know the answer to that… Yeah, there are plans.
Beyond where you’ve ventured with the project thus far, what would you like to be remembered as the impact Woody Shaw made on the music?
Woody Shaw’s impact is only now being realized for its importance, really. The inherent musical complexity, the creativity and philosophical depth of what Woody put into his art and what he expressed is, quite frankly — epic. And he meant for it to be. It captures precisely what he was encountering as a human being; as a Black man, a creative artist, and as a deeply thoughtful and proud musician concerned with the state of affairs in the world and equally committed to improving his environment, and the human condition, through his art.
As part of DC Jazz Festival’s ongoing series of Meet the Artist interview sessions, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with newly minted class of 2018 NEA Jazz Master Pat Metheny. This interview was conducted at the Abramson Family Auditorium of NYU in DC on Monday, June 12, 2017. That evening at his DCJF concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, to the audience’s delight and surprise, Pat Metheny was introduced by Ann Meier Baker of the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the 2018 class of NEA Jazz Masters. Although Pat had been notified in advance as part of the NEA’s process. he was clearly humbled by the experience of being introduced to our DCJF audience as a NEAJM. Obviously he was inspired because what ensued was a blistering performance just short of 3-hours with his latest quartet: drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and keyboardist Gwilym Simcock, about whom he speaks glowingly in our interview:
Salon Series: A Conversation with Pat Metheny - YouTube
California-based veteran jazz writer Josef Woodard has contributed his prose to a prodigious list of periodicals, including the LA Times, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and the usual suspects… DownBeat, JazzTimes, and Jazziz. His current book, released last January, is the very revealing volume “Conversations With Charlie Haden“. One of the most complex, fearlessly and passionately human rights-astute of all jazzmen, the late NEA Jazz Master bassist-bandleader-composer was more than a little candid in his various conversations with Woodard, which span a considerable segment of Haden’s autumnal life in Los Angeles. The book was such a rewarding read we sought out Joe Woodard for some insights into his many encounters with Charlie Haden.
IE: When did you first become interested in learning more about Charlie Haden?
JW: Although my first interview and years-long relationship with Charlie didn’t begin until 1987, I realize that his sound has had a strong impact on me going back to my early days as a young teenager, discovering the power and breadth of jazz and other related musics. His unique voice and presence on those early records by Ornette Coleman, and on the “American quartet” records by Keith Jarrett in the ‘70s grabbed my ear, and not always in an obvious way. His sense of time, his folk-like directness and blend of freedom and solidity had a strong stamp on what he touched, and spoke to my own sensibilities as a music-lover and also a musician.
As I delved deeper into the music, and became a nerdy student of liner notes, album credits, avid concert-going, and family trees of who-played-with-whom-and-when… and why, I grew to have greater respect for Charlie and his distinctive place on the jazz—and indeed, musical–landscape.
THE INTREPID INTERVIEWER HIMSELF
IE: What was your interview experience with Charlie?
JW: I first encountered Charlie when I was a young-ish music journalist, in my late 20s, and when he was settling more deeply into life in Los Angeles, where he had moved back to be close to his children and to tend to his job as the founder of the CalArts jazz program. I had been writing for music magazines since the early ‘80s, and was just starting to focus more on specifically jazz magazines, pursuing my passion for that world.
I interviewed Charlie at the old At My Place in Santa Monica, where he was launching his new band Quartet West—which would fare well for him for over a quarter century. I was there to write a cover story on him for JazzTimes, my first story for that magazine. We immediately hit it off, I felt. Sometimes, an interviewee keeps a certain distance in an interview situation, which is understandable, but he was very warm to me from the outset—I think especially when he discovered what a long and deep fan I was of his work. I do remember a bit of tension when I expressed my surprise this new band would be a “straighter” endeavor than what I was used to from him, but that also became a point of reference in what was really a transition moment in his career.
After that point, around the age of 50, Charlie’s life as an artist who took charge of his own steady flow of interesting new projects, many under his name or creative guidance, really took off. And, partly because I was a member of the thinly-populated ranks of jazz journalists who actually live in Southern California, I was there to talk with him about many or most of these projects for the next twenty years. I think it was clear to him that I was particularly thrilled and plugged-in to his life with his greatest band, the Liberation Music Orchestra, and also plying him with yet more questions about Ornette, the man, the myth, the musical visionary. Charlie was happy to oblige.
IE: As opposed to the usual book of interviews, the title of this book is certainly an accurate reflection of its tone; over time these are indeed more conversations than interviews. Does that reflect an evolution of your relationship with Charlie, or was it pretty much always that way?
JW: This was my second book for Silman-James Press (well, third, after a book on the Montgomery Brothers, which is still on the shelf, but hopefully will see the light of day at some point). After the arduous process of writing my book on Charles Lloyd, which took seven years, I couldn’t really see going that exhaustive route again with Charlie Haden. As I went through my trove of interviews with him, and discovered more lurking on hard drives and in piles of interview tapes (cassette mode), I realized that our interviews really did have a more conversational quality than many of the interviews I’d done, borne of the easy rapport we had.
After discussing it with my editor, I decided to go for the “Conversations with Charlie Haden” approach and title, and keep the book in a fairly straight, chronological and academic format, with my own introduction and minimal intrusions on the back and forth between us. To my surprise, I thought the format worked nicely, and Charlie managed to cover the spread of his amazing, meandering and mercurial life over the course of those interviews/conversations.
IE: One year I had Charlie do a residency at the Tri-C JazzFest (Cleveland) where he played two concerts: Quartet West with Joe Lovano subbing for Ernie Watts, and a Liberation Music Orchestra concert with an exceptional group of Cleveland musicians under the direction of the saxophonist-educator Howie Smith; Charlie was extremely delighted with both evenings, particularly with how the musicians played his Liberation Music Orchestra selections. My wife still recalls times when Charlie called the house looking for me, she’d answer and hear “hey man, this is Charlie, is Willard there?” I’d imagine you were the recipient of such calls considering your many conversations. What were some of your more memorable personal moments with Charlie and Charlie Haden stories?
JW: I know exactly what you’re talking about, concerning Charlie’s social ease and flow. He lacked pretension and was happy to converse on matters of music, politics, the news of the day, or the history of his musical life going back to when he was a two-year old radio star, singing on his family’s influential Midwestern radio show. I think he would avoid idle chatter, but was happy to befriend true music fans and musicians far and wide—and from many cultures.
Personally, he would call up, outside of our official interview sessions, and want to share some new news, or ask if I had any pull with NARAS (he was fairly obsessed with the Grammy Awards, seeking to be represented for his work, especially once he started his Haden-led career chapter in earnest). I think he liked the fact that I was also born in Iowa (though have lived in Santa Barbara, California since I was one) and that I was a musician with a record label and was always working on some musical project or another.
“Hey, man,” he said more than once, “how’s your band Headless Horseman?” I kept correcting him: “thanks for asking. Actually, it’s called Headless Household.” And he’d say “oh, man. That reminds me: people always call my album Haunted Heart Haunted House,” with that classic, Haden-esque belly laugh.
I highlighted one passage in the book that really strikes to the essence of Charlie Haden’s diverse interests: (pg 225) “Whether it’s tango or bolero or fado or whatever it happens to be, I try to do it, and I’m not happy until I do everything that I’ve been thinking about.” I’d have to say Charlie Haden never half did anything. Is that an apt summation of the man?
That quote does get to the heart of what made Charlie such a unique and can-do figure in jazz, and music at large. He would just follow his heart into areas he might not know much about, at first, but his infectious passion drew musicians and record company execs, festival heads and other facilitators into his machinery in the making. He fit beautifully into the contexts of fado, with Carlos Paredes, and boleros with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and assorted genres folded into the wonder of his Liberation Music Orchestra projects—with the generous help of his great arranger-allie Carla Bley. And he had some truly magical piano-bass encounters during his lifetime, with Jarrett, Kenny Barron, and Hank Jones, to name just a few.
Ironically, one album which some thought was another stretch for him—his fantastic old school country project Rambling Boy, from 2008—was, in fact, a return to some very deep roots, going back to his family’s radio show in Iowa and Missouri. Ironically, again, that album—an amazing live show of which I caught at Disney Hall in Los Angeles—was also one of his best-selling albums. So much for genre-tagging, especially for an open-eared, open-hearted artist like Charlie Haden.
IE: If someone were new to Charlie Haden, what would you recommend they listen to in order to get the essence of the man?
JW: He has such a vast discography, as a sideman and under his own name—as well as with his bands Quartet West and the great Liberation Music Orchestra, it’s hard to whittle down to an essential list. To come up with a Top Ten—at least from what strikes me as the essential core of who he is—is a subjective thing. These are projects in which he was clearly the conceptualist and leader, but listening to his work on the early Ornette Coleman records or any to the ‘70s work with Keith Jarrett and Old and New Dreams are important.
Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!), 1969
Folk Songs, with Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti (ECM), 1979
Liberation Music Orchestra, Ballad of the Fallen (ECM), 1982
Quartet West, Haunted Heart (Verve), 1991
Haden with Hank Jones, Steal Away (Verve), 1995
Haden and Pat Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky (Nonesuch), 1997
Haden with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Nocturne (Verve), 2001
Liberation Music Orchestra, Not in Our Name (Verve), 2005
Rambling Boy (EmArcy), 2008
Haden with Keith Jarrett, Last Dance (ECM), 2014
Spurred in part by artist manager and dear friend Gail Boyd’s Alternative Venues for Jazz Facebook page, this is the third installment in an occasional focus on alternative jazz presenters and their art of presenting. The benefits of having begun my career in jazz presenting as a founding member and later concert curator of the former Northeast Ohio Jazz Society gave me invaluable grounding and insights into presenting jazz performances, starting in 1977. We built up from presenting the late David Chertok’s wonderful jazz-on-film programs to packed, enthusiastic houses at Cleveland State University Auditorium (I fondly recall encountering an eager audience awaiting entry to the auditorium that snaked down the hallway all the way down the stairs, then proceeded to clap and cheer wildly during the program… for great jazz performances on film no less) to presenting such artists as Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw, the Heath Brothers (very near annually for awhile), Arthur Blythe, Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton (all coincidentally were recording for Columbia Records at the time; the label was virtually cornering the market on jazz mastery for a short window under Bruce Lundvall’s brilliant stewardship), a typically memorable experience with the Sun Ra Arkestra where afterwards Ra held court for a rapt crew of celebrants in his dressing room for hours), and a host of others, at CSU and later at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C, host of the long-standing Tri-C JazzFest, where I had my initial contracted experience as a jazz presenter).
Always anxious to connect with others who were presenting jazz in the not-for-profit arena (the organization featured in this interview’s not-for-profit is Audiences for the Arts), I was an eager registrant at both the JazzTimes and NAJE (later the ill-fated IAJE) conventions. One guy I’d generally see at those conferences, one who would always be in the same room for any panel discussions or lectures related to presenting jazz performances, was Julie Lokin, who was one of the principals behind the NYC-based not-for-profit presenting organization known as New Audiences. As part of our ongoing Independent Ear series on jazz presenting and presenters in the not-for-profit arena, through that ubiquitous 21st century connector known as Facebook, I sought out Julie Lokin for some questions on the whys and wherefores of New Audiences. But first, here’s a thumbnail sketch of how New Audiences began (you can read the complete account of their initial foray into jazz presenting at www.newaudiences.com).
Julie Lokin (left) with one of the Godfathers of jazz presenting, NEA Jazz Master George Wein
Julie Lokin, Art Weiner and Seth Willenson were all friends and jazz freaks who during the sixties had produced jazz concerts in college. Art and Julie met as members of the Jazz Society of Hunter College and Seth produced concerts at Cornell University. In 1971 while they each worked in related aspects of the motion picture industry, all three remained dedicated jazz lovers and decried what appeared to be the demise of jazz in the Big Apple. With youthful naivety and unbound enthusiasm, they decided that they would trigger the return of the New York jazz scene by organizing a major jazz event at a major New York venue. That event would prove to be a truly historic concert performance by the great Charles Mingus.
They sometimes call it the “jazz capital of the world, ” but in 1971 the scene in New York for live jazz was pretty dead. Thankfully, today a myriad of clubs in New York feature jazz, and jazz fans enjoy a regular cycle of jazz concerts in major venues. But in the early seventies there were only a handful of jazz clubs, notably, the venerable Village Vanguard and Slugs (known for being the place where Lee Morgan was shot and killed). There were virtually no jazz concerts of importance taking place. Somehow we got the idea that we could do something to bring jazz back. We decided to produce a week-long series of jazz events at a major concert hall, combining jazz with other arts and media.
We struggled with the selection of an artist with whom we could sell enough tickets to cover our investment and whose performance would attract the public attention we were seeking. As each of us had been fans of Charlie Mingus’ music, we talked about presenting him, but there were a host of reasons for rejecting the idea. Mingus’ reputation for being a volatile personality was well known. In the sixties, at the old Five Spot on the Bowery, we ourselves had witnessed Mingus storming into the club well after the time scheduled for the set and watched with amazement as he berated musicians and patrons alike. I had heard the story of his punching his trombone player Jimmy Knepper in the mouth. His famous Town Hall concert of 1962 was also on our minds, where Mingus continued to write out parts for his musicians on the Town Hall stage in front of the amazed paying concert audience. We recalled our experience in 1965 when we actually had a brief telephone conversation with Mingus. We were inquiring about Mingus’ interest in doing a concert for the Hunter College Jazz Society and it was a conversation, filled with nonsequiturs, which seemed to go nowhere. Mingus was saying that he didn’t want to do concert music, he wanted to play music for dancing. “I don’t mean any of that Lester Lanin shit,” he said, but he didn’t seem to grasp the great opportunity that the Jazz Society believed it had to offer.
The concert was a great success, both musically and commercially, and was the forerunner for many more great things in jazz. George Wein was so taken by the success of the event that it solidified his own thinking about bringing the Newport Jazz Festival to New York. Not long after the Philharmonic Hall concert Wein announced the inauguration of the Festival in New York which was to become an institution, a multi-venue two week event which, as it turned out, had many similarities in scope to our original concept for bringing jazz back to New York. Well, with Mingus’ help, perhaps we did. The concert reignited Mingus’ recording and performing career. Columbia produced a great 2-LP recording. Lokin and Weiner started a concert production company called New Audiences which for more than twenty five years has presented virtually every major jazz artist in concert.
Independent Ear: With the obvious and surprising success of your Mingus concert, what were your next steps? Julie Lokin: Given the success of the Mingus concert, we immediately took the profits and put deposits down on two more dates at Philharmonic Hall (later to become Fisher Hall, now Geffen Hall). We presented Miles Davis on the next date. To change things up, on the third date we did a folk concert with Phil Ochs, Doc Watson and David Bromberg. All three shows were sold out. At this point Art Weiner, my long time friend and college buddy decided to give up our “day jobs” and tried to make New Audiences into a full time concert production company and music public relations firm.
Was New Audiences incorporated as a not-for-profit and when did you form your organization?
We incorporated New Audiences as a for profit corporation. We also incorporated a not-for-profit called Audiences for the Arts, Inc. with the thought of going after grants. The name actually belonged to my original partner, Art Weiner. He had a music and film PR company. When we together started the concert production company, we took the name. In our first concert with Mingus, we didn’t use the NA name. The ads said Bill Cosby presents… since we thought adding his name would lend credibility to the show.
We decided to go with New Audiences after that rather than using Lokin and Weiner Present since it created the allusion that we were big. We also, and perhaps the main reason, was that we wanted to attract folks to music they didn’t necessarily get exposed to in usual concert scene. It seemed to work. BTW I keep saying music but we did so much more.
We did comedy, dance, and various combinations. Like jazz and dance. We used blues and jazz on the same bill. We combined three styles of blues on the same bill. We combined jazz and classical. It was fun and we loved what we were doing.
New Audiences has presented a diverse mix of artists. What’s been the mission of New Audiences?
Our mission if you want to call it that, was to present concerts that people wanted to see. When we started, no one was catering to jazz, folk, world music fans. In the beginning we were very fortunate in doing shows with artists who’s music we personally liked. Also, there was an audience who enjoyed going to reserved seat, prestige concert venues like Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. Later, the Beacon Theater. Our audience and the artists were looking to enjoy performances out of smoky, uncomfortable, expensive clubs.
Is New Audiences still active in concert presentation?
Unfortunately the concert industry has changed dramatically. With major corporations like AEG and Live Nation it became hard to compete. Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Blue Note have become very active in concerts and have very deep pockets. After 40 plus years, it was time to move aside. Also, the real headliners grew fewer and fewer. We used to headline and sell out major venues with artists like Miles, Sonny, Monk, Mingus, B.B. King, Jobim, Nacimento, Muddy Waters, Weather Report, RTF. Now, there are very few legitimate headliners that can sell 2800 seats. The artists who can like Herbie, Chick, Metheny, Krall are often presented by the large rock promoters today.
What’s your sense of the whole jazz concert presenting scene in New York these days?
New York City is probably the most competitive markets in the country. There are about 10 clubs who compete for jazz groups. They are at a great advantage since they own their own real estate. It costs a fortune to pay the rent for the major concert halls. The concert halls all have contracts with the stagehands union. The clubs don’t. Also, as the jazz audience decreases, a club is a safer play. No performer wants to look out at half empty concert hall. Most New York clubs have much smaller capacities. A major factor is that smoking is prohibited so it’s a better environment to play a club.
Talk about your own current activities.
I love the music and go out as often as possible to see new artists. I like all kinds of music not just jazz.
Beyond music it will probably surprise folks to know I am very active as a volunteer EMT (emergency medical technician). I just completed a 15 year run as a commissioner in the Fair Harbor Fire District. My wife and I own a house on Fire Island. I was a volunteer firefighter but just do the medical work now. I also volunteer with the Central Park Medical unit. For a 5 year period I taught concert management in the music business department at NYU. I’d love to teach again.
There have been many DIY jazz presenting efforts at diverse places across the country; there is even a Facebook conversation page called Alternative Venues for Jazz as folks contemplate creating performance spaces for jazz. What advice would you give to anyone contemplating becoming a jazz presenter, whether at traditional venues or alternative spaces?
Gail asked me to join Alternative Venues group. I wish I could be more helpful there but my experience is in the established big venues. I think it’s a wonderful idea to present shows in alternative venues. of course, the artists need to compromise on their fees.
Several years ago as part of a jazz oral history project exploring the rich history of the music in Brooklyn’s historic Bedford-Stuyvesant community, I conducted a series of oral history interviews with friend and colleague Jennifer Scott for the Weeksville Heritage Center. For those not familiar with Weeksville it is the oldest African American community in Brooklyn. Three of those interviews focused on the vibrant alternative space for jazz known as Sista’s Place, located at 456 Nostrand Avenue at the corner of Jefferson Avenue. You can find Sista’s Place complete Saturday night jazz schedule at:http://sistasplace.org.
Trumpeter-composer Ahmed Abdullah, a veteran of the Sun Ra Arkestra and music director of Sista’s Place was the subject of our Pt. 1 interview in this ongoing series on alternative venues for jazz (scroll down for that one). This second part includes excerpts from our wide-ranging interviews with longtime political activists Roger Wareham and Viola Plummer. These two no-nonsense human rights activists were part of a NYC movement known as December 12, which begat Sista’s Place. Fittingly, as part of Sista’s Place’s Saturday, April 22 evening, Viola Plummer will be honored with the Jazz Journalist Association (JJA) Jazz Hero of Brooklyn award.
ROGER WAREHAM In the whole development of your efforts through the December 12 movement, what have been your activities in the area of arts and culture?
Roger Wareham: Politically one of our slogans or mantras is that “culture is a weapon.” For every struggle for liberation one of the most important components, if not the most important component, is culture. And that takes many forms. I always remember a lecture that Amilcar Cabral, who led the liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau gave in the Cape Verde islands; he started off the discussion talking about Goebbels, and how whenever the Nazis had a discussion and the issue of culture came up, Goebbels took out his gun and put it on the table because he was really clear that if you were going to suppress a people, to conquer them you had to destroy their culture. So we always saw culture as a key component for our struggle for liberation. So the theme of Sista’s Place is “culture is a weapon.” We opened up on September 23, 1995 on John Coltrane’s birthday; we start our [Sista’s Place jazz presenting] season around then and we’ve always had artists who reflect some degree of consciousness of the nature of our struggle.
So when we came here… our first music director was [saxophonist] Carlos Garnett, and certainly with [current Sista’s Place music director] Ahmed [Abdullah], I became aware about the places, and when the musicians started coming in and talking about the older [Brooklyn jazz] places, like the Blue Coronet and the different spots where people used to play [in Brooklyn], I became much more aware of the history [of jazz in Brooklyn]. I don’t know it chapter and verse, but I understand the richness of Brooklyn’s contribution to jazz and maybe more so than Harlem because a lot of folks who played there weren’t indigenous to Harlem, whereas a lot of folks emerged out of Brooklyn.
Our first spot [Sista’s Place] was on the corner of Jefferson and Nostrand. Jefferson begins at Claver Place, and Claver Place is where the East was, at 10 Claver Place. So you just walked from the East right up to Sista’s place, so its almost a geographic and physical part of that [East] legacy.
Many of the artists who have played [Sista’s Place] talk about the atmosphere when they play here, that they feel so comfortable they just enjoy playing. The artists are treated like royalty, they’re not background music for people’s discussions, people come here to hear the music. I remember when I was in college and I went to visit Cornell for some reason and we heard [poet-author] Don Lee reading – he hadn’t become Haki Madhabouti yet. I remember during his reading he had to stop at one point and tell [the audience] they had to shut up and listen because people were talking, it was disrespectful, and that was the first time I thought about that. People ought to respect the art, and so that’s what we do at Sista’s Place; the most important thing we have are the artists. We don’t always have the resources to pay them what they’re worth, but we always make sure we pay them what they agree to. Over time there have been a few grants that have helped out, but it’s really what walks in the doors that pay the artists.
Is Sista’s Place a not-for-profit?
RW: Yeah. And if not enough people walk through the door [artist fees] come out of our pockets. Like Abbey Lincoln said, ‘the artists gotta get paid’, so that’s our position. And I think the artists appreciate that, they know when they come here that they are treated and regarded as the important contributors and continuum of our culture.
What you’re saying about the artists’ perspective on a place like this – and there have been so few in this country – we got a good measure of that when we interviewed saxophonist (and Brooklyn resident) James Spaulding. He talked about playing at the East and playing at Sista’s Place. The first thing he talked about was looking out at a sea of faces that look like him. And he talked about the audience interaction. For him Sista’s Place felt much the same as playing at the East. This strikes me as a 21st century continuum of the whole idea behind the East. How would you compare the two?
RW: [James Spaulding is] great. I think it’s true. I went to the East a couple of times. The first time I saw Betty Carter, and the East was cultural nationalist with politics on the line and the whole atmosphere there was something that you immersed yourself in and you felt very comfortable, and it emerged out of the struggle of the 60s around black power, black nationalism, and black culture.
People come in [to Sista’s Place] and they feel almost like they’re listening to live music in their home. That’s what a lot of the artists say, that’s what people say, that ‘I feel at home here.’ We had a birthday celebration here for James Spaulding and he was so ecstatic. They performed and we had birthday cake and everything and the glee on his face was ecstatic, you can tell that he really enjoys playing here, and it is reciprocated – and that’s the continuation of the East. The performances here are a living interaction; the performers feed off the audience and the audience feeds off the performers.
Things have changed in a number of different ways since the East. Back then they established the place as purely for African Americans. That apparently isn’t the policy at Sista’s Place. Given the fact that Sista’s Place audiences are not exclusively black, does it still engender the same type of atmosphere?
RW: Yeah, because most of the time the white folks that come here are in the minority; this is not an organization or place where a minority can come here and dictate the atmosphere for the majority. And as long as folks don’t act rowdy, there’s not a problem. It helps pay the band. That’s not really an issue because the audience is predominantly black and we set the tone of what happens here. There are some [white] people who come here who are regulars and they’re real cool. Sometimes we get people who come here from abroad and there really haven’t been any problems.
Its gotta be a bit of a revelation for people who come here from abroad to experience a typical Sista’s Place audience, as opposed to going to some of the more traditional jazz clubs in Manhattan.
RW: Yeah, I guess for them it’s sort of like when they go to black churches on their tours. When we first started people would come here and say ‘oh, this place should be in the Village…’ Why can’t this place be in the black community in Brooklyn, why’s it gotta be in the Village?!? Why can’t we have this quality in our community? We charge $20-25 for what they charge $50 plus a minimum for at the Vanguard.
What is your jazz presenting season?
RW: Our season runs from Coltrane’s birthday (9/23) through the first or second weekend in June, then we shut down for the summer because there is so much stuff happening. But we usually do one or two shows during the summer. We open for the season on September 25. When we first opened I think it was Leon Thomas in ’95. Sista’s Place has become an institution in Brooklyn as a cultural spot. We’re going to continue it regardless of the intentions of the landlord or the powers that be; it is a continuation of a legacy of “culture as a weapon” that Brooklyn is famous for.
VIOLA PLUMMER What was the decision behind determining that this place was going to have a real strong jazz presence?
VP: We thought that in this community, after the East was gone, after all the music places were gone… and remember, we had started that in Harlem with “Jazz Comes to Fight Back”, because we feel that it is jazz that really expresses, at least for us old people, our culture; it’s the music that grew out of struggle, that got interpreted, and that some of the brothers and sisters [jazz musicians] that are still alive didn’t play in our community, because there was no places to play when we started. I said the music I like best is jazz, so they called me the jazz policeman; I thought that was the music that was needed in our community.
When we were in the former location down the street, there was a brother who worked for the railroad who had three boys and he would bring them every night. Then there was another lady who has passed away, her nephew would come and they would be awestruck at how these brothers had conquered their instruments, and they would listen… they HEARD the music.
How is the audience at Sista’s Place different from the audiences at other places you’ve been?
VP: People come to hear the music, they experience the music, they understand what the music is saying, they celebrate the musicians… Other places I’ve been people pay their money and sit and talk and clink glasses and that kinda stuff… One night we had a fantastic band and there was a Chinese man who was visiting. I went up on the stage and he looked, I said CLAP… you didn’t like the music? So then everybody stood up and applauded. People really get into your being; say the sisters who are showing people to their seats, its like ‘we want to share this [music] with you.’ It’s something that is of great value to [the audience].
What’s the reaction from musicians who play here?
VP: Everyone says this is it, this is one of the best places they’ve ever played. Because #1 they get paid, #2 they appreciate that the people listen to their music and that we treat them like they’re artists, and like they’re contributing to our struggle, and then the way the audience responds to them.
I think Sista’s Place is wonderful, it has had the benefit of the history of the East; it has had the benefit of the coming together of jazz and poetry, and history… I think what Sista’s Place enabled us to do – the comrades that I worked with – it enabled us to meet people that they only read about. We do this thing for ‘Trane and people are so engrossed with the genius; and we did this thing for Miles, and now my grandchildren can now talk to me about some real music. Nobody gets paid here… we do it for the music; if we could just keep pushing this kind of network, it would be our path towards freedom.
Learn more about Sista’s Place, including their complete Saturday night jazz performance calendar here:http://sistasplace.org
This must be the season for deeply penetrating jazz documentary films! In the midst of much – and well-deserved – positive buzz about the current Lee Morgan doc “I Called Him Morgan” comes the John Coltrane documentary “Chasing Trane”. Last weekend I had the pleasure of serving on a post-screening panel discussion following a “Chasing Trane” screening at the annual Annapolis Film Festival. For much of the audience that packed the house that evening, “Chasing Trane” was a real revelation, offering an in-depth look at a man many in the audience knew of as a jazz legend… but not much more.
The film follows Trane’s humble North Carolina family roots north to Philadelphia. The telling of his family bio offered such keen insights as the fact that both of John Coltrane’s grandfathers were preachers, which in at least one of the film’s testaments from the exceptional legion of intimates, scholars, writers and enthusiasts who offered their take on Trane’s impact, indelibly influenced the storytelling inflection and cadence of the man’s horns.
Filmmaker John Scheinfeld assembled a prodigious cast of talking heads to testify to John Coltrane’s greatness from several angles, including sons Ravi and Oran Coltrane, and his stepdaughter (daughter of first wife Naima; for whom Trane dedicated his piece “Sayeeda’s Song Flute”); musical intimates Sonny Rollins, Philly homeboys Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson, and acolytes Wynton Marsalis and Kamasi Washington; such writer-critics and historians as Ashley Khan (another who sat on that Annapolis panel), Ben Ratliff and Lewis Porter; Coltrane enthusiasts from across the imaginary musical divide as Carlos Santana, Common and Doors drummer John Densmore; and such socio-political figures as Bill Clinton and Cornel West. With such a broad cast of dialogue contributors, one might get lost in identifying each cogent bit of testimony; thankfully Scheinfeld cannily employed the introductory graphic each time this crew was called upon to offer their take on Trane’s arc, which may seem an insignificant touch but proved quite effective in enabling viewers to keep up with the source of such insights.
Apparently not enough useful footage exists of John Coltrane’s voice to include in this film (though one wonders whether they checked Frank Kofsky’s Coltrane interview from the Pacifica Radio Archives), so the actual words of John Coltrane were effectively narrated by actor Denzel Washington. Hearing Denzel express Trane’s words took this viewer back to the potent sequence in Spike Lee’s jazz film Mo’ Better Blues where Washington’s character rehabs his assault & battery ruined trumpet chops to a recording of Coltrane’s powerful spiritual gemstone “Tunji”.
John Coltrane’s career is detailed from his days as a road warrior and sometime bar walker on the chitlin’ circuit as an itinerant section tenor, to his time in Dizzy Gillespie‘s bop orchestra, to his early development as a recording artist, and his signature moments with Miles Davis quintet and sextet. That Trane succumbed to hard drugs was not surprising given the times he came up in, and how he triumphed over his habit is given new detail, including particularly poignant testimony from his stepdaughter on his cold turkey battle at home with the twin demons of heroin and alcohol abuse.
Among the more warmly revealing elements of “Chasing Trane” are the frequent glimpses of John Coltrane the family man. His life with Naima is explored in greater detail than previously known, expressed most lovingly by his stepdaughter. John meeting and courting his second wife, pianist Alice McLeod, is beautifully detailed, as is their married life together. Included are lovely still photographs of John Coltrane the family man, including family life in the home they shared in Dix Hills on Long Island.
We tend to think of John Coltrane in terms usually reserved for deities, but “Chasing Trane” provides a more nuanced sense the humanity of John Coltrane. There are several sequences of home family movies included in the film, including shots of an everyday John Coltrane enjoying his family, playing in the backyard with his dog, even a sequence of him taking a road trip respite at the side of some turnpike with Alice and one of their children. This film does much to humanize John Coltrane the man.
Each of John Coltrane’s musical touchstones are explored in this film, from the influence of Charlie Parker (the erudite Benny Golson recalling the impact of Bird when the two of them first saw Parker on the bandstand in Philly), to his Dizzy Gillespie tenure, to his early days as a recording artist, to his two Miles Davis band stints (the first sequence ending with Davis firing a drug-addled Coltrane, the second introducing a drug-free Coltrane invited back into the band and including Davis’ “Kind of Blue” monument). The passage detailing his hit recording of “My Favorite Things” elicited a moment of knowing recognition from the Annapolis screening audience as they recognized that familiar melody. Trane’s enduring classic spiritual high point, “A Love Supreme,” is explored in rich detail from his home sequestration as he developed that deep meditation, as is his assembly of the classic quartet of McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison who helped deliver that classic.
The impact of the final Coltrane working unit of Alice Coltrane on piano, Rashid Ali on drums, Pharaoh Sanders on second tenor, and holdover Jimmy Garrison on bass, which ushered in the freest of John’s music, was to some a bit unsettling. In the film Cornel West throws up his figurative hands at this period of Coltrane’s artistry, respecting Trane’s intentions but admitting lack of true understanding or appreciation for this late period Coltrane.
Another of the film’s laudatory sequences occurs as Coltrane is struggling with the liver cancer that took him out (with testimony from intimates about his noticeable health decline and the fact that he was often seen holding his side in pain, which is illustrated by a still photo of Trane doing just that), but not before a grueling but ultimately rewarding final tour of Japan. In Japan we see Trane praying before a Nagasaki memorial to victims of the devastating A-bomb, in part a testament from a Japanese survivor of that horror who ironically assisted and accompanied the band on their final tour, as well as somewhat humorous commentary from a Coltrane obsessive who amassed so much Trane memorabilia he needed a separate building to house it all!
Ultimately both “Chasing Trane” and “I Called Him Morgan” should receive serious consideration when the next film awards season rolls around. Kudos to the Annapolis Film Festival for bringing “Chasing Trane” to its audience. For those of you in the DC area “Chasing Trane” will screen April 28-May 4 at the E Street Cinema. For a schedule of U.S. screenings and additional information on “Chasing Trane” visit www.coltranefilm.com.
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