Prelude to a Kiss-Off

AAJ Staff BY

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In reality, the late
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

If you tell a big lie often enough, it will become the truth.
~Joseph Goebbels

It is not only a matter of not caring who knows - it is also a matter of knowing who cares.
~Sufi saying

In Part 1 of this series (Hello... I Must Be Going) I referred to the first Big Lie:

That Jazz was in trouble during the late '70s and early '80s, before Lincoln Center and the fine arts foundation world stepped forward to rescue it.

Let's now look at the reality.

The wonderful choreographer/dancer Eiko (of Eiko and Koma) once said to me that there are points in time where it becomes necessary for us to de-evolve, to go back to where a mistake was made and a wrong path was taken, so that we can take the proper path. With that wisdom in mind, I'd like to take you back some 25-plus years to a period of whose circumstances many of you are either unaware or misinformed.

Now, being a hardcore realist and highly unsentimental mutha, I'm not about to paint some nostalgic rosy picture of a Utopian time that we should strive to re-create. To do so would be quite misleading. In reality, the late '70s and early '80s was a period of great promise, tangible development and attainable potential. Audiences were growing for all forms of Jazz—straight ahead, fusion, avant-garde, etc. Independent labels were beginning to flourish. Musicians were discovering the value of their own creations and developing an entrepreneurial spirit of marketing and unified action. The work of highly committed activists like Larry Ridley, A.B. Spellman, Donald Byrd, Billy Taylor, David Baker and others had established a level of respect and dignity for the Jazz art that was making the high brow and big stakes world of foundation fine arts funding pay serious attention.

New presenters and presenting collectives were springing up all over the U.S. with artistic and educational imperatives rooted in idealism and integrity, providing viable alternatives to the traditionally exploitative club scene and George Wein-style moguloids. Alternative music venues—like the Armadillo in Austin; the Old Waldorf and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco; the Exit/In in Nashville; The Bottom Line in New York City, among others—began to include adventurous Jazz artists in their programming alongside top names in Rock, Country, R&B and other popular genres. High-profile promoters like Bill Graham and performing arts visionaries like Joseph Papp began to present top quality Jazz artists for their artistry rather than commercial viability.

In the cold, harsh realities of the present day scene, the preceding does sound pretty Utopian doesn't it? At least it should for everyone but the handful of selected facilities, the fortunate executives and employees of the funders and fundees, and a few professional entities that have shared in the multi-billions of booty. And of course, let's not forget the little cadre of pimps and... uh, looking for a euphemism here... shall we say, recreants, whose jobs are to testify and evangelize to the value of it all.

For the rest of us, let's look at some historical information to substantiate the litany of promise that I described. As Chico Marx says in Duck Soup "So who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes? So set your eyes on this.

When our organization Outward Visions was initially formed (as the unincorporated Rasa Artists) back in 1976, there were three major booking agencies for Jazz artists. To generalize, Jack Whittemore handled the hardcore straight-ahead (McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Betty Carter, etc.); Abby Hoffer handled the mainstream traditional; and Ted Kurland represented the ECM/fusion field. The major figures of the avant-garde (an inappropriate label that I use grudgingly) worked regularly in Europe, but had virtually no representation in the States and only a few pockets of performing opportunity—New York, San Francisco, and to a lesser degree Philadelphia and Ann Arbor, along with random access to certain colleges. However, many cities had their own local "avant scenes, generally based upon the loft scenes of the '60s and even more so, the early '70s in New York.

We decided to attempt to fill that void.

I won't go into boring details about the methods we used to successfully develop a marketplace in both the retail and performance level for a music that previously had little demand in America. However, within two years we began regularly touring artists like Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, The World Saxophone Quartet (and some of the individual members of both of these groups), and a few others throughout the U.S. By 1979, regular tours of 6-12 cities were occurring, sometimes with four or five groups touring simultaneously.

Meanwhile, an alternative scene had been developed in New York City, returning the lofts to their proper purpose of education, experimentation and development. A regular weekend series at a gallery in Soho called Axis opened up the doors to approach Joseph Papp at the Public Theater. That developed into an extremely successful series called New Jazz at the Public. For a few years, the most innovative and adventurous artists in the Jazz tradition performed to packed houses every Friday and Saturday night, two shows a night. Sometimes, one group would perform all four shows; sometimes two groups would share the weekend or one night each. Sometimes two groups would share the bill each night. The one constant was that virtually every performance (in 250-300 seat venues) was well attended and often sold out. That means that every weekend, somewhere between 800-1200 people paid to see "avant-garde Jazz artists (ranging from best known to heavily under-recognized) in classy, high quality, dignified concert or cabaret settings. And the artist fees were substantially higher than the 6-night clubs were paying; sometimes more for one night than the club would pay for a full week!

Even more important, these audiences were racially diverse, equally comprised of men and women, and primarily of folks who considered themselves fans of music and art, not just Jazz. This opened the doors for mainstream and new Jazz clubs to embrace the music, as well as many other clubs and venues that presented a diverse assortment of music.

With the extensive coverage in newspapers, magazines and radio that occurred concurrently with these developments, we had the tools to expand national touring, developing a true network of presenters in four regions—Northeast/Atlantic, Midwest, Northwest, and Southwest. Between 1979 and 1981, we arranged more than a dozen tours of ten or more cities on one circuit alone running from Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver in Canada down the West Coast through Seattle, Portland, Eugene, The Bay Area, San Diego, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Austin and Houston.

Sam Rivers and Dave Holland (duo, trio or quartet) did six U.S. tours over two years. In 1980, the Art Ensemble of Chicago performed in 57 cities on two tours of 32 and 18 cities along with a handful of run-outs. Every tour earned good money for the artists. Virtually every date was well-attended. Occasionally promoters would lose money —unavoidable as that can always be. If so, we would find a way to balance things next time (and not from the artists' pocket), sometimes even returning them our commission as an act of good faith. Even when losing money, the concert could often be utilized by them as a developmental tool in building their reputations and generating community support. Virtually every time an artist returned to the same city, the fee increased and so did the audience.

And never NEVER did any artist ever work for the door.

It's important to establish the philosophy and a bit of the methodology here. First and foremost, these presenters knew that we were concerned about their welfare and committed to the mutual success of each endeavor. We provided extensive publicity and promotional support and were directly involved in the media and retail visibility surrounding every date. We directly arranged interviews, photo shoots, in-store activity, etc. The fees we requested were always based on whatever the market would bear. We used the old-fashioned concept of securing anchor dates so we could forge into new markets at lower fees. Dates that paid between $2500 and $3500 would be supported by other dates that could range from $1000-2000. That $3500 date would likely be $5000 next time; the $2000 would become $3000; the $1000 would become $2000. That allowed us to begin developing even newer and less accessible marketplaces for $1000-1500 for fill-ins.

Not only would this also increase record sales and wider national visibility for the musicians (thereby increasing their value in the European marketplace), but would also allow artists of lesser recognition to visit those markets at a lower rung of the ladder and begin to work their own way upward - sometimes through newly-emerging agents and managers.

Many of these promoters were developed with our assistance specifically to present our artists. Often they would be collectives built upon a single individual at a radio station, record store, newspaper or small college, who we discovered was interested in one of our artists or the music in general. We would assist, educate and often handhold them through the developmental process.

It's important to understand that none of this would have been possible without the commitment, good will and trust of the artists we represented. They never burdened us with unreasonable expectations, not even of the "we get more than this when we play in Europe" mode. They knew we were trying to create something new in an environment that had previously been barren. We didn't work with those who didn't understand. It was simple math and pragmatic reasoning.

A little more empirical evidence here. Through these well-conceived and well-executed marketing and development concepts, in conjunction with similarly committed efforts by ECM and Nonesuch Records (both under the direction, non-coincidentally, of Bob Hurwitz), The Art Ensemble's Full Force album (ECM) sold 40,000 copies in its first year; the World Saxophone Quartet's first Nonesuch album sold 45,000 (and continues to sell regularly).

A 1982 4-day "avant Festival that Outward Visions produced for George Wein's Kool Jazz Festival in Los Angeles (a city that we were never able to include in our various individual tours) was attended by 8,000 people out of a gross potential of 9,500. It also generated more press and visibility than any of the other 15 or so festivals Wein produced that year. (Interestingly, I ran into Wein's L.A. line producer a few years ago. She remarked to me that it was too bad that "nobody showed up for those concerts. But that's a story for another time).

Taking another cue from the Public Theater experience, our philosophy was to promote this music to a fine arts audience from that perspective. Commissioned compositions, educational imperatives, performance context, multi-disciplinary collaborations and so forth all established a viability for the music with the higher profile arts presenters, as well as the arts foundations, the NEA and regional arts sponsors.

Through the efforts of some young committed individuals who came to work with us, Outward Visions was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in 1980 to establish an ongoing series of residencies and concerts in juvenile detention centers and prisons all over New York City.

Learning the ropes of the non-profit world while working for, and later directing the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance, we began setting up non-profit organizations for Jazz artists through the involvement of a top non-profit lawyer and professor named Leonard Easter. Together we pioneered the use of the 501(c)(3) artist-driven organization for Jazz artists in the same manner they were being utilized for choreographers, composers, theatrical producers, etc.

It was only a matter of time before the fine arts world of serious funding would begin to embrace Jazz. Our strategy was to be in the prime position to facilitate it. We had the infrastructure, the experience, the reputation, the skill and the properly benevolent mindset and spirit to be heavily involved in whatever developments would be put into motion for the benefit of "America's Greatest Indigenous Artform. And, we also had the trust of both artists and presenters.

So what the hell went wrong?

There are plenty of one word answers that would each offer a reasonable portion of the explanation - Greed, Fear, Ignorance, Indifference, Contempt—or the onset of the corruption of the three word phrase The American Dream into its present mutation as The World's Nightmare. But it can best be summarized by the numerical metaphor that has made the adjective Orwellian into a household term—1984.

(BWAP! BWAP! BWAP! Right-wing alert. Danger! Danger! Liberal viewpoint ahead! On the count of three—heads in the sand! ONE! TWO! THREE! Cool. Thought they'd never leave.)

1984—the year in which Democrats morphed into Republicans, allowing Republicans to mutate into something far more frightening. Ronald Reagan, the grinning bobble-headed marionette labeled by his puppeteers as "The Great Communicator led us down a garden path of greed and consumerism, and we merrily followed, licking our lips and waiting for our bounty with sweaty palms. Call it Reaganomics, call it stimulating the economy through tax cuts for the rich, call it being Bushwhacked. It all adds up to enriching the few at the expense of the many.

Somehow, the previously benevolent, dedicated and high-principle world of Arts and Culture got sucked into the trend—and quite comfortably at that. Little by little, its staunch adherents to the traditional commitments were either set out to pasture, derisively marginalized, convinced of the value of the New Order, co-opted, or left behind screaming into the wind.

Like the neutron bomb—hat would destroy its target's inhabitants, but leave the buildings standing—The New Order of the fine arts world would dedicate its efforts to monolith facilities and the development of new fiefdoms whose landlords would soon decide how the plantation would be run, and who would toil in the field, the yard, or the house.

Needless to say, neither I nor anyone else at Outward Visions was invited to the table when the fine arts world decided to "embrace Jazz. We'll examine why that was (and still is), along with what has resulted from its participation in the next installment. Don't think I'll be crying the blues about how we got screwed. We didn't. We had plenty of other options. It was the musicians who got the screwing.

To close this section, a couple of comments on what I hear has been the heated response at AAJ to the first installment of this series.

It's important to understand that I'm not writing from the position of some chicken-hawk armchair general theorizing and postulating on something in which I have little or no direct experience. Nor am I a paid Jazz journalist speaking with the dubious "authority that carries. I've been in the trenches. My knowledge is first-hand. Even my severest critics (the professionals I mean, not the dabblers, dilettantes and self-declared experts) know that I know what I'm talking about.

As for the politics, there is a significant difference between me and those who are complaining and demanding that AAJ stop carrying my writing because of my liberal "bias (I call it a position), and it's more than our conflicting viewpoints. You can escape my thinking with a click of your mouse. I'm forced to live with the realities that you and your kind have inflicted on all of us with your synthetic mandate and totalitarian aspirations. Demanding my removal from this site only gives evidence to my claims of what y'all really are.

Until next time,
Peace & A Love Supreme.

Continue: With Friends Like These...

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