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Highly Opinionated

Toronto Jazz Festival 2008

By Published: July 29, 2008
Most record companies are conglomerates run by the stock-reports on Wall Street. It has become far more expedient to produce a lavish production with an embarrassing splash of photographs to launch another hip-hop artist into an already crowded market than to support and/or commission bassist Don Thompson to write new music for piano and vibraharp, then put together a stellar cast of musicians to bring it to life. If he is lucky, a jazz musician may get a tetra-package sans liners and complete track details, so that really knowledgeable young marketing executives can make a serious attempt at drawing in a newer jazz audience that has just left rock behind and is ready for the more historic and adult idiom.

As a result more jazz artists are wont to eschew the jazz idiom in favor of the so-called fusion, electronic and other fey expressions in music. Post-rationalization of the production is the order of the day, just in case some of his or her peers are listening. "Yes, rock and Rap and so on...they're all part of the music fabric... of my growing up, etc" But the fact is that jazz is a definitive music with a certain approach to harmony and rhythm ... Which is why Radiohead became Radiohead and the Last Poets became the Last Poets and the Yellowjackets became the Yellowjackets...

Toronto is becoming more like New York in the 1960s. There's the whole wilting away of the club scene and the fact that musicians are paid a pittance for a gig in Toronto. One is reminded of the 60s when Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow—a formidable trio—were forced to disband when they could earn no more than 35cents each after playing a gig at a coffee house in New York! With the withering away of the clubs, the jam session has been all but forgotten. Now it may exist only on record. This is why the "One Take" series produced by Peter Cardinali is as close as one can get to the real thing. But then the very phenomenon that spread the gospel of jazz—the "Let's go hear that cat who is blowing all saxophonists away," is fast becoming part of jazz folklore rather than the changing of the guard as it was when Charlie Parker hit 52nd Street and the lesser saxophonists of the swing era dried their reeds and packed it in.

This has, in turn forced musicians resort to 'other jobs' to support themselves. Teaching, for instance. But then a jazz program can only accommodate so-many musicians and no more. And how many musicians make good teachers? And where, indeed, are the new teachers? Jon Hendricks is past 80. Sheila Jordan turns 80 this winter. John Norris, founder of Coda and Sackville Records taught a non-credit jazz course in history at the University of Toronto for 26 years before failing health resulted in him having to resign his post. He was replaced but the course was never the same and it collapsed altogether.

Which brings us to another factor in the withering away of jazz: When knowledgeable and authoritative figures like Norris and Hendricks and Jordan teach the music, jazz comes down the turnpike with a full history of its origins, with Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong, Duke and Cab Calloway and Willie 'The Lion' Smith and Fats Waller and James P. Johnson and so on... Yet to many young students of jazz today the music before bebop is a blur. This is why the student of jazz finds it more expedient to produce a record inspired by Radiohead music, while Charlie Parker 're-cast' Ray Noble's "Cherokee," and then wrote his own "Ko-Ko," using the same chord progression as Noble did for "Cherokee." Not that there is anything wrong with songs like "OK Computer," but this is far from the new standard. Reductionism? Certainly not, it is just calling to mind the fact that the African-American idiom that was born of the blues and begat jazz.

It does not bode well for the music either, if one pretends that the influence of European music from Bach and Beethoven to Brahms and Bartok, from Debussy and Ravel to Stravinsky and Stockhausen never existed. Even the most hardened conservative will not deny that the music from across the pond played a large part in the development of the music. Musicians like Bird and Bud Powell, Mingus, Miles and the MJQ had more than a passing flirtation with classical music. In fact, perhaps the influence of the music of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries—'classical' Europe, so to speak—has had an indelible influence on the development of the jazz metaphor.

The European 'contribution' comes in non-musical terms as well. First from France and Britain, then from Scandinavia, the large migrations—both ways—brought more consumers to jazz as well. The whole 50s boom in Canada can be almost directly attributed to the European immigrant. And then there is the question of patronage...

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