Marty Khan: Outward Visionary
Operating in accordance with a business aesthetic that focused on sustainable growth driven by collective action and artistic integrity, Khan and his wife, Helene Cann, located and nurtured an otherwise unconsidered range of musical opportunities for artists. In the process, they helped to establish a vast range of small nonprofit arts organizations that provided artists with unprecedented levels of empowerment and possibility.
Now, more than 35 years after founding Outward Visions, Khan is re-emerging as a vital name in the current music business debate. In 2004, he condensed his multi- faceted experience into the book Straight Ahead: A Comprehensive Guide to the Business of Jazz (Without Sacrificing Dignity or Artistic Integrity), which remains the only dedicated jazz business textbook on the market. Returning to the field of management after a 15-year hiatus, Khan has teamed up with the Arizona-based vocalist and composer Rahe, a 23-year-old prodigy whom he met through the University of Arizona's Camerata Program, for which Khan has been a popular guest lecturer for six years.
This past year, Outward Visions released Rahe's debut recording, Out of the Box, a genre-defying album that showcases a remarkably mature and self- assured artist who has mastered the balance of musical accessibility and risk taking. While recent years have seen a disturbing increase in platitudinous texts on the ability of artists to undertake do-it-yourself recordings or engage in crowd-sourced project models, Khan's efforts in releasing Out of the Box demonstrate a practical and actionable path forward for young artists who have yet to develop fan bases or diverse funding sources. With luck, his new method will provide a benchmark and model for developing talent for years to come.
All About Jazz: Many of your projects emphasize long-term and sustainable career building, and often take place in spaces that traditional wisdom had written off. What drew you to this route?
Marty Khan: Coming of age in the 1960s, and being fortunate enough to absorb the last three years that John Coltranewas on the planet and even getting to see him, the concept was always to push myself as far as possible. So, rather than do something obvious, you wanted to break new ground. Innovation, creativity, and making new things happen were the important things. When I gave up playing music, I decided I had to keep that model going.
So the idea from the start was to say, "Let's take Americawhich is virgin territory for some important and innovative artists who had no basis and no traction here, and let's try to create a scene that never existed before. And let's make it viable, functional, and thriving." The plan was to do this by taking on artists that people said were un- bookable, who had no commercial potential, and then prove those people wrong. That's the ornery nature I have, as a Brooklyn Sicilian-Italian, to do something that people say can't be done!
AAJ: Let's take one of your projectsthe Coltrane Projectas an example. For this, you pulled together a number of organizations around Philadelphia and New York and organized them as a type of confederation functioning in a collective environment.
You've written extensively about the importance of collective action in music and described it as a model that was gaining traction during the late 1970s and into the 1980s. You've also argued that the 1980s saw a "trickle-down" business aesthetic enter the arts world and supplant collective action. Can you speak more to this point?
MK: I think that collective action is the only way in which you can deal with creative enterprises and with creative product. You know, the model that I always envision is the Coltrane Quartet. It is the ideal example of collective action. You have a leader with a visionand in the case of the Coltrane Quartet, perhaps a leader with the greatest vision any of us have ever seenand the only way that you can fulfill that vision is to have all of the people brought in to participate at the absolute fullest extent of their powers. They must contribute as much as they possibly can to the situation in service of the overall vision and the overall organism. And from this you come up with the magical substance that is created from that kind of collective action.
You will also see another approach to it in groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, where there isn't a single visionary, but instead five separate visionaries, and each controls a specific piece of music that they bring to the table. Ultimately, it gets dispersed among the five entities, and creates a separate entity, which is the group dynamic.
These two methodologies are different, and the idea of five visionaries coming together may seem a little too utopian. Somebody has to be captain of the ship. As a friend of mine says, "People say I'm not a good team player. I'm definitely a team player, as long as I'm the captain!" Well, I have a similar kind of attitude to that: I have a vision, I like to get it out there, and I like to develop it. However, I like to do so hand in hand with the people who are working with me, and let them bring something important to the vision so that they feel they own it. That way, they will commit to it more, and they feel they will gain more from it. It also diminishes my responsibility for them, so I'm not carrying them as a weight. We have exponential force as opposed to geometric force. And that, to me, is a methodology that makes sense.
In the case of the Coltrane Project, it did succeed and it didn't succeed. What's that clichea chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We had 19 organizations involved with the project. Seven of them were based in Philadelphia, and 12 of them came from New York. Of the seven in Philadelphia, three were extremely proactive, one was kind of proactive, two were OK, and one was totally non-active. As a result of that, the project had to pull along the dead weight. And the problem with collective action is that the exact opposite of exponential force can happen if one person pulls back on it. It's like in multiplication: you can have ten positives and one negative, and the negative will win out. So in that case, what should have been an ongoing initiative that could have lived for 25 years only lived for as long as we could push it, which was about three years.
However, the results of it have continued among individuals who were a part of the project, people who were served by the project, and individuals who viewed the project. I've heard from people in politics, music education, and many other committed walks of life who credited experiencing some aspect of the Project as a key inspiration in their work. And we left behind a number of Coltrane-oriented murals, some in schools where hundreds of new students every year are exposed to his spirit.
So you look at those sorts of things and say, "That's where the life of a project of collective action occurs!" You don't even know where it's going to go, and you hope the collective energy carries it forward.