THURSDAY, JANUARY 6 The International Association for Jazz Education's annual conference is one of the jazz world's signature events, drawing thousands of musicians, educators, students, industry representatives and others together for four days of continuous activity. The SF Bay Area contingent at IAJE is always strong, but this year particularly so; not surprising since the conference is just a day-drive down the coast in Long Beach rather than a transcontinental flight away. It's easy to get into the game of people-watching and name-dropping at a big event like this (in one short stroll between panel discussions today, I spotted Dr. Billy Taylor, Jon Faddis, Herb Wong, Mark Levine, Pete Douglas of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, Mark Elf, several local media people, and two guys who may or may not have been Phil Woods and Ndugu Chancler). But that's not what this column is about. If you're wondering who was there, just assume it was everybody and you'll be close enough.
Mimi Fox gave a well-attended clinic on the art of solo jazz guitar in a low-lit upstairs room just above the din of the convention center lobby. Before launching into a technical discussion/demonstration of arpeggios, harmonics, and the use of open strings as pedal points, she showed off her chops on a couple of standards. Fox's take on "Willow Weep for Me" was especially impressive, as she took the repetitive melody and gave it a rough-edged, bluesy feel full of shifts and surprises. With the melody strutting like an alleycat, then scurrying away in fast and slippery interludes, Fox displayed an expressiveness and color that probably earned her a few new fans.
The afternoon offered a wealth of Bay Area personalities, starting with singers Madeleine Eastman and Kitty Margolis. The two have been joint operators of the independent Mad-Kat record label for sixteen years, and in that capacity co-led a panel discussion called "Declaration of Independence: Creating Your Own Career Path." The discussion was light-hearted but informative, bringing together artists, management, and club and label reps.
Although the talk was wide-ranging, in the end it all revolved around one key issue: the need for artists to clearly define their identity and creative vision before they can become successful as independents.
As panelist Michael Wolff pointed out, "being the leader of a band is being a business. It's being a CEO." However, the business side of the job can take a lot out of artists creatively, and that's a serious problem. "Before it's a business," argued Margolis, "it has to be an art, a passion."
By the same token, Wolff suggested that many new artists rush to record before they are ready, or as Margolis put it, without "dedicating themselves to mastery" first. It was generally agreed that first, an artists must seek to create their own scene or momentum, drawing on personal networks of friends and associates, gigging as much as possible in a side role, and working on that definition of who they are and what they do.
Peter Williams, artistic director of Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland, addressed the glut of requests clubs get to book unknown artists. It takes "probably more money than you're going to make doing a gig at Yoshi's" to effectively promote a show, especially without established media support. Diana Alden Lang, a singer who now represents Dena DeRose, supported this notion: "It's not enough to make a great CD or know five good clubs... you have to build relationships" with media and the local jazz-loving public first.
One of the highlights of the conference was tucked away in a 3:00pm slot Thursday afternoon, as Claudia Villela's dynamite quintet played an exceptional set of modern Brazilian jazz in the relatively remote (and thus ironically named) Center Theater. Vocalist Villela uses the whole of her instrument, launching from sweet melodies into extended periods of percussive, scat-like improvisation replete with clicks and growls. When she follows one of these flights with a rattle or tambourine break, it's a natural extension of her own vocal lines.
Villela's guitarist-collaborator Ricardo Peixoto provided perfect support, alternately tender and driving, as light sambas were transformed into dark-tinged grooves. Nobody in the audience was Brazilian Villela asked from the stage but they didn't have to be to enjoy the wildly inventive and inviting music on display.
I missed an early-evening performance by the Oakland Jazz Choir, but the loss was repaid with a moment of pure serendipity. While I typed this article in the rear corner of a nearly empty concert room, Bay Area pianist Larry Vuckovich appeared and began playing the piano, as a handful of admiring students looked on. Within a few minutes, the mighty Giacomo Gates was alongside him, singing a hip version of "Lady Be Good" and thus allowing Larry to give an impromptu clinic on the art of vocal accompaniment. Before long, an honest-to-god jam session had broken out, unannounced, right in the middle of the conference swirl. It was one of those things that can only happen at IAJE.
Postscript for the day: Organist Rhoda Scott, who's appearing at Pearl's on January 11 and 12, tore up the Center Theater in a duo with French drummer Lucien Dobat. Playing her Hammond barefoot, dreadlocks hanging down in front of her eyes, Scott delivered some gorgeous ballads, burning up-tempo jams, a grooving spiritual and even a charming vocal ("Don't Worry 'Bout Me"), all with a strong, heavy tone that was all her B-3 could handle. Too bad only a few dozen people were there to hear it.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 7
Long Beach looked more like San Francisco South at a morning panel on jazz radio called "What We Play." This session, the second of a three-day series on broadcasting issues, focused on the questions of what records should be played, at what times and how often. With KCSM's Alisa Clancy and Chuy Varela in attendance along with Dr. Brad Stone of KSJS-FM in San Jose plus a bevy of working musicians including Frank Jackson, Larry Vuckovich, and Josh Workman a lengthy but lively discussion ensued.
Most radio stations nowadays operate on an hourly clock, with specific types of tunes played at particular times. Some, like Denver's KUVO, are surprisingly structured. While the station tries to incorporate "the whole spectrum of jazz," according to music director Arturo Gomez, some of the rules are highly specific: not only are vocal tracks played in specified blocks, but the station tries to incorporate one male and one female singer in each. Other stations, such as WEMU in Michigan, use a more flexible version of the clock.
But with many stations concerned with creating a particular mix of music, and audiences demanding a certain quantity of standards and classics, new artists find it increasingly difficult to break in.
Guitarist Mark Elf, who has been as successful as anyone at gaining airplay, suggested that musicians should do a little clock-watching themselves: "If an album is made up of all thirteen-minute songs," said Elf, "it's not gonna get played in the daytime, which limits your exposure even further... And if it's only played late at night assuming it's played at all who's gonna hear it except for the pot smokers? And they're not gonna buy it. All their money goes to reefer." He was kidding of course, but his point was serious, and valid. Although artists shouldn't tailor their albums specifically for radio play, they do need to be conscious that artistic decisions such as track length and material can affect an album's exposure and success.
Friday afternoon held a delightful surprise as Dee Dee Bridgewater, always a dynamic singer, turned up in the convention center hallway for an impromptu set with tuba (played by Ginger Bruner, Bridgewater's associate on the "JazzSet" radio program). This warmup for the evening's NEA Jazz Masters concert displayed Bridgewater at her playful, teasing best, although solo tuba can't really compare to her usual combo.
KCSM's Varela was back in action soon after, sitting on a diversity panel entitled "Closed Doors and Glass Ceilings." Dr. Anthony Brown of the Asian American Orchestra was also on hand. Although events concerning race and gender issues are notorious for heat and controversy, this year's panel was tame, if not tepid. The panelists did provide some interesting insights into their own histories and philosophies, but with all the participants in general agreement, little was debated and less was resolved.
The main event for the day was the NEA Jazz Masters concert, built around the induction of seven legendary figures into the National Endowment for the Arts' coveted fellowship. Kenny Burrell, Paquito D'Rivera, Slide Hampton, Shirley Horn, Jimmy Smith, the late Artie Shaw and impresario George Wein were all honored over the course of the evening, thus joining an official pantheon that has been growing since 1982.
Shirley Horn was unable to attend, instead accepting her award by video, but the other living honorees were gracious and well spoken in their brief remarks. George Wein won special appreciation for his anecdotes about forging relationships with artists such as Thelonious Monk. "The best way to earn their trust is to pay artists what you owe them," quipped Wein to substantial applause.
Dick Johnson, current leader of the Artie Shaw Orchestra, accepted Shaw's award on his behalf. Johnson took the opportunity to argue for Shaw's place as not only a swing great but also a progenitor of bebop, and seemed on the verge of tears as he thanked Shaw for his rich musical legacy.
Geri Allen opened the concert program with a powerhouse trio featuring Billy Hart on drums. In a pair of opening tunes that rolled like thunder over the audience, Allen set a standard that few other moments of the three-hour concert could match. A later team-up between Allen's trio and James Moody, while yielding some attractive solos, failed to gel as the opening set did.
In the concert's second half, local favorite Gerald Wilson led his orchestra through a typically fierce set of modern swing and bop, with brief but intense solo features from trumpeter Jon Faddis, Wilson's son Anthony on guitar, and young saxophonist Kamasi Washington. A couple of guest spots by the "Mack Avenue All-Stars" Sean Jones on trumpet and Ron Blake on alto sax opened the ears of many to some new talents. Jones in particular was a bebop cyclone, making even Faddis shake his head in appreciation. A representative of Mack Avenue records told me that Jones' recent album was selling like hotcakes the next day in the exhibit hall.
DeeDee Bridgewater joined the Wilson group for the final set, inviting honoree Slide Hampton on stage to conduct some of his own arrangements. Focusing on the repertoire of Ella Fitzgerald, Bridgewater scatted and cooed her way to a satisfying conclusion. One might have wished for a few more guest performances from the Jazz Masters themselves, but this was their night to be celebrated, not to work.