Marty Khan: Outward Visionary

Seton Hawkins By

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The world of jazz owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Marty Khan. In 1976, when the standard wisdom held that jazz was dead or hiding in lofts, Khan founded his organization Outward Visions and quickly began organizing successful national and international tours for creative artists, including Sam Rivers and Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, George Russell, and the World Saxophone Quartet.

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 America—which 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 projects—the Coltrane Project—as 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 vision—and in the case of the Coltrane Quartet, perhaps a leader with the greatest vision any of us have ever seen—and 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 cliche—a 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.

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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