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Outbeat Jazz Festival 2014

Victor L. Schermer By

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Outbeat Jazz Festival
Philadelphia, PA
September 18-21, 2014

The Outbeat Jazz Festival, touted as "America's First Queer Jazz Festival," where the "Q-word" has become an "in" word, proved to be an innovative event that brought the public's attention to the important role of gay (LGBT) jazz musicians and composers. A series of concerts and discussions drove the point home. It was no accident that the festival was held at venues in and around Center City, Philadelphia, the locus of one of the most thriving and activist gay communities in the world. Sponsored by the William Way LGBT Community Center in conjunction with an array of co-sponsors, most notably the Philadelphia Jazz Project and the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, the festival, with its array of outstanding musicians, drew a diverse crowd of jazz fans. While sexual orientation and gender-related issues played their part in the events, the performances and atmosphere made the music enjoyable to a general audience regardless of sexual orientation. It turned out to be one of the best jazz shows held in Philadelphia in recent years.

A jazz event that features "hot button" issues and a specific minority group immediately raises questions. In this case, the overriding issue is whether sexual and gender orientation should or actually does play a significant role in music that is universal and is articulated in a "language" that transcends differences and specific interest groups. The answer provided by this festival is that music is indeed universal but that diversity is also important, and that gay artists and cultural influences have played a significant role in the evolution of jazz, a prime example being Billy Strayhorn, a daringly openly gay man in a closeted era, whose compositions and arrangements shaped the music of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and all that followed. Now that gays are "out" and liberated, the impact of gay culture on the performing arts is even more likely to be present. The guiding principle of the festival seemed to be "Let's see what we've got, listen to it, experience it, and talk about it." Such an agenda is not exclusionary or even "activist" in nature. Everyone was welcome at the festival, many of the performers were avowedly heterosexual, the feeling was ecumenical, the issues were handled with sensitivity, and the atmosphere was warm and supportive. As Duke Ellington said, "There are only two types of music: good music and bad music." These performers delivered a potpourri of especially good music.

A complete listing of the festival events is provided at the end of this review. But before discussing the performances, it is important to report on a festival interview and two panel discussions that addressed the issues raised above.

The Dialogue

The first of the talks in order of occurrence was New York Times' jazz critic Nate Chinen's interview with pianist Fred Hersch, who has suffered from HIV/AIDS for many years and came out at a time when the prevailing attitude of musicians regarding sexual orientation was "Don't ask; don't tell." Hersch emphasized that he is first and foremost a person and a musician, and he does not consider his music "gay." However, he found that being open and honest about himself helped him play and compose more fully and daringly. Chinen noted that vibraphonist Gary Burton said basically the same thing in his recent autobiography. The point, reiterated by others in the panel discussions, was that the stereotype of the jazz musician as macho and heterosexual is fading into the past, and that this change is good for the musicians and audiences. Hersch himself is a valuable example of someone who has survived a chronic medical condition with great courage and tenacity of purpose. He acknowledged that his frankness about his sexual orientation has helped him do this, but he attaches no particular musical influence to his sexual preference.

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