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Connie Crothers: Ideas for a Jazz Renaissance

By Published: November 15, 2006
By Connie Crothers

There is a strong potential right now for a jazz renaissance. There are many signs of it. When there is no commercial pressure on the outcome of a performance or recording, there is evidence among musicians of greater looseness, openness and willingness to take chances. Although some small venues don't pay (and this is a problem!), there are so many more of them; younger musicians can evolve through frequent performances. (One caveat—where are the pianos?) There are more jam sessions. There is a greater availability of recorded music than ever before, thanks mostly to the independent labels, with music from less widely-known musicians from all eras easily available. More musicians are pursuing an independent course, wanting artistic fulfillment over commercial success, in spite of hardships inherent in this path. I have a few ideas about enhancing this potential to bring about a jazz renaissance in this city.

The value of the musician-run performance space is now recognized, largely because of the success of rooms like John Zorn's Tonic, Jim Staley's Roulette and Cobi Narita's Universal Jazz Coalition/Jazz Center of New York. Also very valuable are the production of concerts in rooms rented for the occasion, like Thomas Buckner's "Interpretations" performance series and his "Cooler in the Shade/Warmer by the Stove" series which he co-produces with Tom Hamilton. Some of the most exciting music is coming out of these performances. Sheila Jordan's all-time great performance on her birthday, now on CD (Celebration, High Note HCD7136), was produced at Triad by Melody Breyer-Grell, who has produced concerts for many deserving musicians. Musicians and audiences alike come into concerts like these with the awareness that the concert will present the music that means the most to the musicians, rather than music that is meant to appeal to a projected common denominator audience. There are also occasional concerts in lofts or apartments.

One of my treasured memories is of a concert featuring Jay Clayton and Kirk Nurock in Alexis Parsons's apartment. I've presented some outstanding musicians in concerts in my loft during the past few years—among them Richard Tabnik, Roger Mancuso, Andy Fite, Ratzo Harris, Harvey Diamond, Lee Konitz, Adam Caine, Lorenzo Sanguedolce, Nick Lyons, John McCutcheon, Adam Lane, Tim Vaughn, Bud Tristano, Bill Payne, Cheryl Richards, Blake Cohen. If musician-run performance venues proliferate sufficiently, this focus on the quality of the music could be released from an underground or an occasional peak experience to the norm in this city.

We could move beyond the separation of free improvisation and tunes. When free improvisation was presented in this city for the first time in the late '40s—Lennie Tristano's sextet at Birdland—there was no separation. Free improvisation and tunes were routinely presented in the same set. All these decades later, there isn't one major venue where this can be done. (Once, during a quartet engagement at Blue Note, I took a chance and put a long three-part free improvisation right in the middle of the first set. It was this piece that got the most enthusiastic response from the audience.) I feel that this separation has caused an impasse that is inimical to the art form. Free improvisation and playing from tunes is like a conversation in the creating mind. A result of this separation is that many musicians no longer identify with the unbounded possibilities for improvisation that still exist playing standards. Free improvisation opens up creative possibilities that come up naturally during the course of an improvised solo in a tune. On the other hand, free improvisation benefits from an interaction with the connection of form and feeling that you can only get with a great tune.

We could let go of any concept of style (like "bebop or "Coltrane ) and put the focus on the individual. A style is an artistic limiter. It only works for marketing. Style evokes. Music that is personal and unique to the individual talks. We are, each of us, different dimensions of personal, musical reality. It is the bandstand interaction of fully realized individuals that makes an electrifying band. Jazz is really the art form of the individual. As Lester Young reputedly once said, "You can't join the throng until you sing your own song.

Spontaneous improvisation could be placed in the center of our music. Instant composing can produce excellent music, complex and gratifying, but it has an entirely different feel. Spontaneous improvising—when we create music in the split second we are in, from what we deeply feel—makes our art form what it is. There is the old saying, without roots, no flower. We can enhance our awareness of the phenomenon of spontaneous improvisation by personally reconnecting with the early crucible decades of our music, when the musicians lived this. I recommend singing with the solos of the originating masters: Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Christian, to name a few. It is a better contact with them than getting their solos from written music and stronger than listening to the records. When you sing with them, you can feel like you're actually there.

A jazz renaissance needs musicians. We can hardly afford to stay in this city anymore. I've written Mayor Bloomberg, requesting the construction of a building for musicians, with soundproof living units, rehearsal spaces and a performance space.


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