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Mervon Mehta: The Inside Story of Concert Hall Jazz

By Published: January 5, 2006

MM: You know, there's a show that has a potential to really blow the roof off this place. But it also could be a big disaster. Tony Miceli playing Mozart is going to be interesting to hear. A steel drum band playing Mozart is going to be interesting. But how can you tell in advance? I remember sitting at an Ornette Coleman concert with a pianist friend. Two hundred people walked out of the auditorium. Someone asked, "Were you disappointed?" I said, "There were still 1,700 people who sat through Ornette Coleman playing some pretty "out there" stuff with two bass players sometimes playing in different planets, him playing violin and sax, and his son Dinardo on drums. Here's a legendary figure in the music world, certainly not for all tastes. So I was ecstatic that only two hundred people walked out.

I turned to my friend who is a jazz pianist, and I said, "What did you think of that?" And he said, "They can't all be Dave Brubeck and George Shearing." And thank God! We got a few complaint letters from people who came to hear Ornette. One asked for his money back, and I said we don't refund concerts after the fact, but why don't you come to another concerts, and I gave him two free tickets to a show. He came to me later and thanked me. It was much better, he said, "than that Coleman Hawkins show—I still can't understand it." He confused Ornette Coleman with Coleman Hawkins! class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

The Future

AAJ: Let's close with your wish list.

MM: I wish we can continue with as much jazz as we've been doing. I wish the audience stays with us—so far they have. And I hope that the audience will start to throw their allegiances to some of the younger new players, because Brubeck and Sonny and Wayne and Herbie are still playing at the top of their game, but they're not going to be around forever. So people need to come around to see players like Danilo, and David Sanchez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and those folks. If the audience doesn't come, it will spell the death of concert jazz, and we'll go back to clubs, which isn't necessarily bad in itself, but there are not enough clubs out there. The really bad thing is the mediocrity that is competing for those listeners. So when you have a James Carter doing incredibly inventive things selling a fraction of the records that Dave Koz is doing, God bless James that he's still doing it, because I would be very discouraged. It's a difficult time to be a serious musician. And there's all these new players coming up out of school. That's what keeps me up at night, trying to figure out a place for all these new guys.

AAJ: We ought to be nurturing these musicians. Jazz is a truly American art form, and ought to be respected and honored.

MM: Well, there are hundreds of jazz festivals, but so many are blues and rock festivals with a little jazz thrown in. When Buddy Guy or Aretha Franklin perform at a jazz festival, they're great, but it's not a jazz festival. We're selling ourselves short. On the positive side, Penny Tyler at Ravinia books great jazz festivals. George Wien is still going strong. But we have to compromise at times. We've got to fill the hall.

AAJ: I can testify that Kimmel Jazz is the real thing.

MM: Thank you. Keep the faith, keep the faith! Long Live Jazz!

AAJ: It's a tough business, and it's hard to keep up the standards, but you've done it. Thank you for that and also for a great interview. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

Photo Credit: Victor L. Schermer

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