THURSDAY, JANUARY 6 The International Association for Jazz Education's annual conference is one of the jazz world's signature events, drawing thousands of musicians, educators, students, industry representatives and others together for four days of continuous activity. The SF Bay Area contingent at IAJE is always strong, but this year particularly so; not surprising since the conference is just a day-drive down the coast in Long Beach rather than a transcontinental flight away. It's easy to get into the game of people-watching and name-dropping at a big event like this (in one short stroll between panel discussions today, I spotted Dr. Billy Taylor, Jon Faddis, Herb Wong, Mark Levine, Pete Douglas of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, Mark Elf, several local media people, and two guys who may or may not have been Phil Woods and Ndugu Chancler). But that's not what this column is about. If you're wondering who was there, just assume it was everybody and you'll be close enough.
Mimi Fox gave a well-attended clinic on the art of solo jazz guitar in a low-lit upstairs room just above the din of the convention center lobby. Before launching into a technical discussion/demonstration of arpeggios, harmonics, and the use of open strings as pedal points, she showed off her chops on a couple of standards. Fox's take on "Willow Weep for Me" was especially impressive, as she took the repetitive melody and gave it a rough-edged, bluesy feel full of shifts and surprises. With the melody strutting like an alleycat, then scurrying away in fast and slippery interludes, Fox displayed an expressiveness and color that probably earned her a few new fans.
The afternoon offered a wealth of Bay Area personalities, starting with singers Madeleine Eastman and Kitty Margolis. The two have been joint operators of the independent Mad-Kat record label for sixteen years, and in that capacity co-led a panel discussion called "Declaration of Independence: Creating Your Own Career Path." The discussion was light-hearted but informative, bringing together artists, management, and club and label reps.
Although the talk was wide-ranging, in the end it all revolved around one key issue: the need for artists to clearly define their identity and creative vision before they can become successful as independents.
As panelist Michael Wolff pointed out, "being the leader of a band is being a business. It's being a CEO." However, the business side of the job can take a lot out of artists creatively, and that's a serious problem. "Before it's a business," argued Margolis, "it has to be an art, a passion."
By the same token, Wolff suggested that many new artists rush to record before they are ready, or as Margolis put it, without "dedicating themselves to mastery" first. It was generally agreed that first, an artists must seek to create their own scene or momentum, drawing on personal networks of friends and associates, gigging as much as possible in a side role, and working on that definition of who they are and what they do.
Peter Williams, artistic director of Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland, addressed the glut of requests clubs get to book unknown artists. It takes "probably more money than you're going to make doing a gig at Yoshi's" to effectively promote a show, especially without established media support. Diana Alden Lang, a singer who now represents Dena DeRose, supported this notion: "It's not enough to make a great CD or know five good clubs... you have to build relationships" with media and the local jazz-loving public first.
One of the highlights of the conference was tucked away in a 3:00pm slot Thursday afternoon, as Claudia Villela's dynamite quintet played an exceptional set of modern Brazilian jazz in the relatively remote (and thus ironically named) Center Theater. Vocalist Villela uses the whole of her instrument, launching from sweet melodies into extended periods of percussive, scat-like improvisation replete with clicks and growls. When she follows one of these flights with a rattle or tambourine break, it's a natural extension of her own vocal lines.
Villela's guitarist-collaborator Ricardo Peixoto provided perfect support, alternately tender and driving, as light sambas were transformed into dark-tinged grooves. Nobody in the audience was Brazilian Villela asked from the stage but they didn't have to be to enjoy the wildly inventive and inviting music on display.