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Marty Khan: Outward Visionary

By Published: July 5, 2011
AAJ: Let's step away from the concept of collective action for a minute. The turn of the century marked a profound change in how you have conducted your business. From 1976 until 1999, your work was largely in behind-the-scenes roles. However, in 1999, you stepped to the forefront, publishing a number of forceful invectives for Bird Lives, and then proceeded to increase your lecturing, publish your first book, and commence work on your second publication. This is a much more active and visible role than you've previously taken. What changed?

MK: It's another cliche: necessity is the mother of invention. By 1999, it became apparent to me that all the mechanisms I had created in the past 20 years were not desirable in the new marketplace, and a different energy had taken over. The concept of trickle-down economics that was launched in the 1980s had been absorbed into the performing arts. The artist, who was supposed to be out front, was now behind both the facilities and the knuckleheads who ran the facilities. All of a sudden, the presenters became stars, and you would go to an event like the IAJE or APAP conference and see these clowns strutting around like they were important.

But here's the reality. Look at the jazz world prior to 1950, and in 30 seconds name as many people as you can who were non-musicians yet who had a dramatic and profound effect on the world of jazz. If you can name three or four, I'd be stunned. You've got Norman Granz, John Hammond, Alfred Lion, but where do you go from there? OK, now take that same period of time and name as many musicians who had a profound effect on jazz ... it goes on and on, right?

Those of us who are behind the scenes belong behind the scenes. We're not supposed to be seen because we're minor players. We manipulate, we operate, and we do what we need to do, but without the musicians, we're nothing, and there's no point in deluding ourselves about it.

Now we see, by having administrators take over, the music and the business of music have suffered dramatically. All of a sudden, we have people who've been picked and chosen as the leaders of the music, whereas this never happened before—the leaders all evolved organically behind their undeniable attributes. The people who spoke for the music were the people who made it: they were people like Miles and Mingus and Coltrane and Monk and George Russell and Betty Carter and, and, and. These are the sorts of people whose opinions matter, not someone who pulled an artist out of a band and said, "This is the guy who knows everything right now." And that guy's opinions don't really matter, either.

So I had a choice: do I join this, or do I fight it? And whichever case, I was going to have to step out front to do that. So I went on a kind of kamikaze mission, which was one of the pieces I wrote for Bird Lives. Somebody had to call attention to this shit, so here it is!

What I'd hear back was, "Wow, this is the stuff all the musicians were saying themselves backstage where nobody could hear it." And damn straight it was, because that's where I learned it! But I also knew it because I was in the trenches.

So I became a lightning rod. I had already been rejected by the industry. In fact, I was told that if I had been called to the table for meetings about the Lila Wallace grant, which wasted nearly $20 million, or the multimillion dollars wasted in Doris Duke, the money would have been distributed differently. Damn straight, it would have! The money would have been planted to go from the bottom up, instead of the top to theoretically trickle down. So with my already being characterized in that manner, I decided to drive the point home even further. So that's when I started writing these pieces.

And I'll admit, a lot of the pieces were therapeutic. Getting off my chest what I knew to be truth was important. I read those now, and I'm almost slightly embarrassed—not over what I said, as I stand by that—but over being quite so vehement and opening myself so much to show my passion at that moment. At that point, my hope was that I could call attention to something by screaming it out from the desert, but it was pretty futile. It didn't change anything, and as far as the business, the New York City scene is essentially akin to the 1970s loft scene zone that was at play when we first stepped in and tried to change everything.

And we did change it temporarily, but it didn't hold. The thing I find most disturbing is that people tended to respond more positively to the screaming articles as opposed to the constructive articles that tried to discuss a way forward. I found it very frustrating, and one of the reasons I stopped writing those articles is because I didn't want someone getting their cherries off on my personal passion. So that's when I turned to write Straight Ahead.

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