The IAJE Convention January 11th-14th 2006
“ He sounds like Jaco, he sounds like Coltrane, he sounds like Wes were many of the rumors the kids were begging for, but few sounded like themselves. ”
In a recent Doonesbury strip, erstwhile country western singer, Jimmy Thudpucker, is talking to Zonker Harris, who has asked him about any upcoming gigs. Jimmy, wide-eyed and innocent but always on the hunt for new ways to degrade himself as a musician to make the "show, tells Zonker that he's giving up country music. "Oh? says Zonker, "giving up performing? Upon which, Jimmy says, "No, meet James T. Thudpucker III! Zonker cringes as the morphed ex-country whiner now lounge lizard croons, "I get no kick from champagne...
The International Association of Jazz Educators Convention was held in New York City Jan 11th through the 14th, 2006. Known as the largest convention of it's kind, over 8000 teachers, students and aficionados gathered together to celebrate jazz in its ostensibly purest form as demonstrated by its newest and brightest voices. But if this was a showcase of the current state of jazz, the newly christened James T. Thudpucker III and the IAJE may share some perhaps disturbing issues in common. Traditionally the conference is a patchwork of young performers from the world's university jazz departments and music schools, research seminars, technology tracks, evening performances by well-known and also some new names, and this year, a near slavish obsession with the past and a white-noise denial of any controversial issue, musical or otherwise.
The IAJE does not pay any performer or school department to attend the conference. This is not a fault of theirs, although it may be a flaw; this eliminates any school or performer who does not have the financial support to come. IAJE is not a wealthy organization nor do they offer travel scholarships, so the subsidy of the edgier, and therefore poorer up-and-comers is impossible. There is also the albatross afflicting the music departments in most schools, many have been eliminated and all are suffering from the current culture of ignorance. And it's a common axiom these days that jazz usually goes begging at the bottom of any music department's list. So that we were being exposed to those whose attendance was not based on their quality as the first selection criteria became starkly evident even on the first day of the conference.
A majority of the performances were of large student groups and even small orchestras, but whose collective sound was so homogenous as to be able to go from one room to the next and not be able to tell the difference between them. Horns, strings and percussion, ubiquitous and uniform, only the names were changed to protect the innocent. He sounds like Jaco, he sounds like Coltrane, he sounds like Wes were many of the rumors the kids were begging for, but few sounded like themselves. Certainly there were a few standouts, the Manhattan School of Jazz showed some moves and timing that resembled the sharpness of a halftime drill team and a brightness that really filled the room, but their playlist was straight and uninteresting. A few others performed in the evening; the Louisville Leopard Percussionists delighted everyone with their Latin rhythms, enthusiasm and real virtuosity. With performers in the group as young as seven years old, their conductor and teacher, Diane Downs, deserves much praise for guiding such a diverse group of youngsters to a truly dazzling level of accuracy and dynamic expression.
The evening performances were a jagged dichotomy of transcendence and complacence, each from unexpected quarters. A ten-year-old trumpet player whose name was not listed in the program, amazed the audience on Friday night improvising with a skill beyond his years. He shows real promise, but it's not clear where he can go from here. Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra was truly a high point of the week, elevating the music to real communication with those of us listening, as well as Kenny Werner with "The Meaning of Music, but there were few others. And Chick Corea needs to get the wad of gum out of his mouth and change the shirt he was wearing on the plane, but even more critically, he needs to remember the fire and innovative stamp he lent to such works as Return to Forever, Native Sense and Past, Present and Future. Eddie Gomez gave us a few moments of real emotional color, both the dark and the light, but even Jack DeJohnnette needed to get off the top of his legs and do the work. Maybe it was jetlag.
And maybe it wasn't. There appeared to be no one pushing the edge, there was virtually no free jazz; Ornette Coleman would have stuck out like a zebra at a turtle stampede. No one was telling it like it is, there was very little that couldn't have made the playlist of your local smooth jazz station.