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Marty Khan Interview: About His Book "Straight Ahead"

By Published: March 22, 2005

MK: Look, I blame Bush and his cronies for destroying our economy and environment, disenfranchising most of America with their "starve the beast" philosophy of government, and making us all complicit by our tolerance of "pre-emptive" war, while making us all more vulnerable to terrorism. But I blame us for letting them do it. That's how I feel about Lincoln Center.

Musicians have allowed a man who's never gained the true respect of his fellow musicians to be sold to the public as an Ellingtonian visionary. Funders have poured millions of dollars into a boondoggle that only delivers a tiny fraction of the booty in meaningful returns. Fine Arts sponsors pay its stodgy orchestra one-night sums that could underwrite a great jazz artist's entire tour, and then force that tripe down the throats of audiences unfamiliar with the art form, who would be infinitely more enriched by listening to any Duke Ellington album than hearing the LCJO. Worst of all, jazz "advocates" point to it as some great model that proves the acceptance of the art form and an economic ideal to which other musicians and facilities should aspire.

SR: Let's examine that last statement. Couldn't an argument be made that Lincoln Center is an example of the potential for jazz?

MK: Empirical evidence says otherwise. The music is being marginalized in every walk of life. Not just in major media, but even in the industry realm. Virtually non-existent on television, even cable and satellite—Yeah, I know BET; don't get me started (laughter)—disappearing on radio, where even the few NPR stations that have been playing it are dropping or cutting programming. Invisible in mainstream magazines and sharply trivialized in music magazines. Even jazz rags are turning their focus to artists who are only marginally valid as jazz artists. The same can be said for many festivals that claim to be jazz, and are increasingly bringing more and more artists of other popular genres into their programming. The Ken Burns extravaganza didn't even cause a blip on the radar screen—except for his own CD marketing. Don't get me started here either!—and in the eyes of Public Broadcasting, Wynton is virtually portrayed as the last living jazz musician.

SR: But he draws audiences wherever he plays. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra sells out all over the country. Why is that?

MK: Marketing, man. They thrive on the strangling of the scene, and that's what's happening all over. Facilities draw audiences, not necessarily the artists who perform at them. In Tucson, Wynton and the various big names and all-star aggregations that almost exclusively make up today's touring jazz artists can draw 1500-2500 people at the University of Arizona, our arts monolith, at ticket prices of $24-50. Other internationally-acclaimed jazz artists playing here at $12-20 a ticket will draw as little as 60 people, at best 300-400.

This isn't just true of jazz, but all of the performing arts. The Buena Vista Social Club has played here every year for the past four or five years, selling out two or three shows each time. 5000-7500 people at $25-$60 a head. Another excellent and reputable Cuban group comes to town and draws 75 people at $10. We saw the Blind Boys of Alabama at the U of A with 2200 people in 2000. In 2002, we saw them at a beautiful, intimate hall with about 80 other audience members in a 500 seat facility.

This situation is being replicated all over the country. We recently traveled to Albuquerque to see Randy Weston in a wonderful theater. There were less than 100 people there. Two weeks later Wynton sold out 1400 seats at the same theater in two shows—and another 1400 in two shows in Santa Fe, about 60 miles away. Of those 2800 people in that single market who attended Marsalis' gig, not even 100 were interested in one of the true jazz greats? Doesn't make sense.

Funders perpetuate this situation through facility-based funding. People like Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg and Willie Nelson contribute their efforts to fundraising events for Lincoln Center. These are concerned and generous individuals who think they're contributing their efforts to a worthy cause. If there was an entity in country music or society in general that was doing the equivalent damage that Lincoln Center is really doing to jazz, Willie Nelson would be in the front line of protestors.

SR: It sound like you do blame Lincoln Center.

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