Monday, May 28, 2007

Aging audience?

Mark Sandow has an interesting piece on his blog about the aging audience for classical music, and the various reactions people often have, such as denial. It's a major issue that faces almost all arts organizations to some extent, but really is not even an arts issue any more - overall our population is again. Teachers, government officials, corporate types - just thumb through any national publication and you'll likely see articles about how some remarkably high percentage of the population of _______ is aging, about to retire, not being replaced by new workers, etc.

But classical music is especially challenged in this area. Jazz is too. Just go to a jazz concert or a festival, and observe the audience. It's not the most youthful group. Thankfully, the jazz audience isn't quite as old as the classical audience, and it's certainly more diverse. A recent study (2006) by the Jazz Alliance International (PDF download) says that 41 percent of the jazz audience is under 39 year old, which quite frankly surprised me. Another 37 percent are between 40 and 55. I had expected the numbers to be much older.

Now let's think about those numbers and ages for a moment. Those 41 percent of people under 39 years old, did not grow up in a world where jazz was popular music. And most of those in the 40-55 age group didn't either. These are children of the rock and roll generation. They obviously came to find out about, or enjoy jazz at some point - but when? And how? This is the information I'd like to find out. I often ask people who become members of the station how they found out about the station, and how they got into jazz. Some have stories of growing up listening to mom and dad play records by Dave Brubeck and Shelly Manne, or going to see the CTI All Stars at the Warnors Theatre as teenagers. But most of them seem to have stumbled across the music as adults. And I say "stumbled" because it often seems more like an accident, as opposed to "seeking out" the music. They happen across the radio station, like the music, and get become "jazz fans". Maybe they had some early exposure to the music at home, but most of them probably (my conjecture here) we're active jazz fans in their teens or twenties.

If true, this dispels the myth that jazz has no future if it's not "pop" music. Pop is targeted to a teen audience, and if yesterdays teens of the (1960's and 70's) are becoming jazz fans in their 30s or 40s. It also dispels the myth that adults musical tastes are set in stone by the time they reach adulthood.

It also raises some interesting questions, such as: If most jazz fans become jazz fans as adults, and most are doing so in some sort of accidental manner, how can we "nudge fate" a bit and make things a little less accidental, and do some real audience development? Another interesting stat: 41 percent said that the reason they don't attend more jazz events is... inconvenient location. Again, not what I expected.

Sandow also raises another issue that I've been thinking about, and I'm not sure if I agree with him. He says there is a ray of hope, because the number of young people PLAYING classical music has stayed the same over the years. Conventional wisdom would lead one to believe that those student musicians would then become the next generation of classical fans. First, if this was the case, wouldn't we see less of an overall "aging" of the classical audience, if all those young students from 20 years ago are now active in the classical "audience?" Second, and more important, I'm not sure that most young people who are in a jazz band, or classical ensemble are interested in the music itself. I had a discussion with a local high school band director a few days ago. Keep in mind, this is a school with a very distinguished music program in both classical and jazz. I asked him how many of his students in his jazz band would be jazz listeners in 10 years. He said maybe three or four. Now that's certainly higher than the average high school population, but it's still not great. The same goes for the kids in their classical ensembles. They may play Mussorgsky or Holst, but they have no interest in going home and listening to classical music, or going to hear an orchestra or chamber ensemble perform.

Also, another question that turns conventional wisdom on its ear: Are jazz musicians part of the jazz audience in a significant way? I always remark at the relatively small number of musicians I see at local jazz events. Maybe they all have gigs on those nights, but I doubt it.

All of this, to me, points to the need and importance of a strategic effort at audience development for jazz. It can target young kids, the pre-teens who don't yet have closed minds to something that sounds "weird." It can also target adults who might someday "accidentally" find out about jazz. But instead of waiting for fate, it can be proactive, and get in front of them, in an accessible, yet not "watered down" way. It can show them that jazz is something they already like, and enjoy, they just don't know it. It can show them that jazz doesn't have to be dry, boring or stuffy. It can show them that jazz is relevant and a lot of fun. But as long as the majority of our effort at jazz education is focused on attempting to crank out the "next" John Coltrane, we might be missing the point. Of course traditional jazz education is VERY important. But we have more musicians today than ever before, a record number of jazz CDs released every year, and fewer and fewer venues and listeners to support them.

Now, I'll admit there might be some problems with my conclusions. The jazz radio audience, the jazz purchasing audience and the jazz event audience aren't necessarily the same audience. The JAI survey was apparently some sort of web survey, so I don't know how accurate it is. Nor are my anecdotal observations reliable in any sort of statistical method. But at the very least, I think this is an issue that needs to be discussed some more. We need some reliable research on where jazz listeners come from, when they become jazz listeners, and why. I've only begun looking into this issue, so I'll keep you up to date with anything else I come up with.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Latin jazz vs. the jazz establishment?

Pete Escovedo Orchestra @ Arte Americas - May 25, 2007
Latin jazz bandleader Pete Escovedo performed last night at Fresno's Arte Americas, a local Latino cultural arts center. Every Memorial Day weekend, they kick off their summer long Friday Night concert series with a Latin jazz headliner. Last year, it was Poncho Sanchez, the year before that it was Eddie Palmieri, before that the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, etc. It's always a fun event, with great music, food, people dancing, and all of that stuff. It was a good concert, maybe not as good at the Palmieri or Sanchez shows, but it was without question a good time, and the very diverse crowd loved it. Latin jazz seems like a good entry point into the world of jazz for a lot of people, and I think presenters and radio should keep this in mind, especially with the growing Hispanic population in the US.

Too often, jazz venues and promoters and radio treat Latin jazz as a stepchild to "real" jazz. I had a promoter the other day react in shock (in a positive way) when I told him our station would be playing the new Spanish Harlem Orchestra CD quite a bit. He said he wasn't sure how radio would respond to it, or if stations would even play it (it's a pretty straight ahead Latin jazz/salsa album, with one odd track featuring Paul Simon tacked on the end of the CD). It's not the first time I've heard this sort of thing from promoters. I guess this is because a lot of radio stations just won't play it, especially if it has Spanish lyrics. A few artists have been able to break through. Arturo Sandoval always gets good airplay on jazz radio, and Poncho Sanchez, through relentless touring and a string of well produced CDs that have crossover appeal (and guest stars), gets good airplay.

But overall, I don't see the jazz establishment embracing Latin jazz. In 2002, Jazz at Lincoln Center founded at Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by pianist Arturo O'Farrill (son of legendary band leader, composer and arranger Chico O'Farrill). A couple of years ago, the group released a fine album of Latin jazz big band classics, Una Noche Inolvidable, on Palmetto Records. But just this April, it was announced that J@LC was cutting its ties to the band. (NY Post Article) According to another article on the website, it came down to money.
“A year or two ago we all sensed a diminishing lack of resources for the orchestra,” said O’Farrill.

He says about a month and half ago he sat down with JALC Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis.

“He said that that he loved us,” said O’Farrill. “That he was sorry that it wasn't enough of a platform on which to continue the orchestra.”
But this doesn't mean that ALJO is no more. Instead, O'Farrill is going to forge out on his own, and try to become its own institution. And for now, it's forging ahead, with a fall season at Symphony Space, starting in September. I wish Arturo and his band the best of luck, perhaps they'll come out of this as a stronger band, and with an enhanced image. I can't imagine ANYONE in jazz attempting to lead a big band at J@LC, trying to get publicity and recognition while basking in Wynton Marsalis's shadow. I must admit I was surprised when they created the ALJO, but I wasn't nearly as surprised when they parted ways. Such is often the case when the jazz "establishment" deals with Latin jazz.

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Abbey Lincoln's songs

Abbey Lincoln has a new record out, "Abbey Sings Abbey" with guitar-centric remakes of many of her most well know original songs. Some might say it's not really a jazz album, or at least the sort of jazz album we've come to expect from Abbey Lincoln over the past 15 years or so in her affiliation with Gitanes/Verve Records. Most of those were straight ahead affairs with the likes of Stan Getz, Hank Jones, Charlie Haden and co. This one is mining the musical terrain most often occupied by people like Cassandra Wilson, in a jazz/roots/folk sort of sound, with pedal steel, dobro/resonator guitar, accordion, etc.

Nate Chenin of the New York Times points out that this new setting makes sense, as Lincoln's songs often follow the verse-chorus-verse structure we associate with folk music. But to my ears, more than form, it's also Lincoln's melodies that have a strong folk element to them. They most often have very simple and predictable melodies, with a sort of "singsong" quality to them. They usually take one short melodic fragment, and then develop it through the song, either ascending or descending through the chords (Throw It Away, Down Here Below, Bird Alone, etc). If I could level one complaint at Lincoln's compositions, it's that they have a tendency to sound the same, to draw upon the same melodic ideas and similar chord progressions. In some ways, I think they work a better in this new context. The first time I played this new version of "Throw It Away" the phones lit up with people wanting to know who and what it was that played, so perhaps "Abbey Sings Abbey" will bring her talents to a new, larger audience. I know I appreciate her music in a different way now, after hearing this album.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bill Charlap - Live at the Village Vanguard

You'd think that in 2007 it would be hard for a jazz pianist, working in a standard trio format, playing primarily standards and tunes by well known jazz composers, in a largely conventional manner, to find a new niche in the sonic landscape, a personal sound. Well, Bill Charlap certainly has done that. It may not have been easy, Charlap is just now finally enjoying the kind of acclaim that many lesser pianists got in the 1990's "young lion" era, and Bill is doing it at a much older age.

There's something fresh about Bill's playing; his fleet right hand lines that would make Bud Powell (at his best) proud, and the percussive attack of his left hand that brings to mind everyone from Monk to Silver to Brubeck, while sounding like none of them. And then there's his trio, Peter and Kenny Washington, bass and drums, both understated masters, maybe the best of their generation at what they do, as tight of a rhythm section as you'll find.

Unlike many of those "young lions" who got the big record deals, magazine covers and Brooks Brothers contracts in the 90's, Charlap never sounds like he's ripping off the style of any of the master pianists who he certainly is a big fan of. He truly has a personal sound, and this new CD captures it as well as I've heard on any of his records. The Village Vangaurd may not have been made to be the defintive recording spot for the top piano/bass/drums trios in jazz, but it sure has become just that. Add Charlap's name to the lofty list of excellent trio recordings to come out of the famed basement jazz venue.

Tony Bennett called Charlap "the next Bill Evans." That's high praise, especially coming from Tony, who worked with Bill and knows a thing or two about piano players. Maybe it's unfair to Charlap, in the same way that the critics who said Cannonball was "the next Bird" were being unfair. But if you look at it as a vote of confidence in Charlap's musicality and talent, it makes sense.

RIYL: Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Barry Harris, Bud Powell

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Joyce Hatto Scandal and Jazz?

By now, you've probably heard about the big Joyce Hatto scandal in the world of classical piano recordings. If you haven't, Newsweek has a nice rundown of the tale. Basically, Hatto's record label (run by her husband) sold and marketed other commercially available recordings by other pianists (without any permission) as Hatto's. Some tracks got a little bit of EQ here and there, a boost to the low end, some were cleverly stitched together in the editing process, others were resampled, to speed up the performance, without changing the pitch.

All of this got me thinking about if anything like this has gone on in the jazz world, and how might it be dealt with. The thing about this that amazes me the most is that thee vaunted classical critics who praised Hatto's playing didn't notice that it was someone else earlier. It took Gracenote's CD ID technology, which determines the names of your songs in programs like iTunes by scanning the lengths of the tracks on the CD, to figure it out.

Perhaps some of it is due to the sheer volume of material the critics and classical aficionados listen to, or perhaps it's that they don't really listen all that much after all. If a jazz artist released a CD that was someone else's work, I think (or at least would hope) that most jazz critics would pick up on it, and say "haven't I heard this before." Again we all know the jazz and classical worlds are different, but still, is jazz immune from such a scandal. I can foresee a future where something like this does happen in jazz, but perhaps in a different way.

We've already seen Concord Records market "Ray Sings, Basie Swings" an album that contains not a single note of music from Count Basie (modern day Basie tracks were dubbed in to cover up Ray's original backup band). Supposedly a new project (also from producer Greg Field) is on the way that brings Ella Fitzgerald (back from the grave, or at least the vault) together with new tracks recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.

These recordings are very profitable for the record companies and estates. Finding new "gems" from the vault by big names, who are dead, and thus not producing new content, is one of the only sure ways to make big money in today's music business. While there seems to be an almost inexhaustible supply of vault material, perhaps someday, might we see fake recordings marketed as the "long lost work of jazz great XYZ" but which are in actual fact, mere modern recreations of such.

Uncertainty of the provenance of jazz recordings is also nothing new. Jazz discographies are notoriously murky on many early sessions. Experts often try to discern if that really is Cootie Williams on that track or did so and so take his place that night, etc. Likewise, many jazz musicians have made their mark imitating the work of others, sometimes so closely it's hard to tell master from pupil. It is entirely conceivable that jazz could one day face a situation similar to the Joyce Hatto case. Let's hope it doesn't come to that though. And if it does happen, let's hope jazz listeners are more astute than their classical peers.

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Anthony Wilson & Chico Pinheiro - Nova

Anthony Wilson
Anthony Wilson has long been one of my favorite jazz guitarists. His playing is supremely lyrical, has a warm tone, and excellent taste. He's also one of his generation's most gifted jazz composers. He has a new project now, and record forthcoming with a group called "Nova" - a collaboration with fellow guitarist Chico Pinheiro from Brazil. Chico isn't yet very well known in the US, but that will soon change. He's a phenomenal talent, a post Metheny guitarist equally at home in jazz or Brazilian contexts. Like Anthony he's a very lyrical player, with a wonderful tone, perhaps a bit more flashy in terms of technique, but as Anthony commented in a pre-concert phone interview I did, they have similar ideas and sounds, musical soul mates you might say.

Anthony Wilson & Chico Pinheiro Quartet "Nova"

The concert was excellent. Since I was involved with producing the event, as a board member of JazzFresno, I wasn't able to focus too much on the music (as much as the listener in me might like), but what I heard was excellent, if a little less fully textured as their forthcoming CD (which features a keyboard player, and special guests like Ivan Lins, Dori Caymmi, and many others). There aren't too many groups in jazz with a two guitar front line, but Anthony and Chico make it work. They're currently shopping the CD to different record labels, and hope to have it out later this year. I'm eager to see what the general reaction to this group is in the larger jazz world. The Fresno audience loved it, and our on air personalities are really into the CD. Sometimes it takes an unknown name such a Chico a few records to really break into the saturated market that is the world of new jazz albums. Hopefully this one won't be lost in the flood.

In case you can't wait for Nova to be released, you can download some live tracks from Chico's other bands on his website here.