The Future of Jazz


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...what I encountered at this year's gathering, in rainy Long Beach, were fresh-faced enthusiasts, empowered by the spirit this music engenders, anxious to make their contribution and join the party. Their role models weren't Eminem or Britney Spears but John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.
"Those who cannot learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them." ~George Santayana

These kids, here, they are the future of Jazz. Students at Leal Middle School, San Antonio, Texas, listening to the Jim Cullum Jazz Band . Mr. Cullum, an NPR staple with his long running, Riverwalk Jazz , is creating a Jazz Video curriculum aimed at inner-city San Antonio kids, grades 3-6.

Up on Albany Avenue in Hartford, Connecticut, the Artists Collective, brings creativity and spirit into the lives of young people with an ongoing program of classes and workshops. Jackie and Dollie McClean have introduced Jazz to scores of young people with performances by everyone from Art Blakey to Randy Weston. They even raised six million dollars to build their home, a community center where young people experience an array of artistic disciplines.

These sorts of projects seem to fly under the radar of mass media, perhaps because they're about enhancing the spirit, not the pocketbook. But they do exist.

As the years tick on in this temporary life of mine, I must admit that I have developed some real concerns about the future of this music, as well as life on this planet. Most of these are based on the sorry state of our culture, and how young people are positioned in this society. Not surprisingly, a lot of this comes from the images of young people thrust up on the media pedestals. I'm talking about the thugs, the mooks and 'hos that are everywhere, on TV, film, and music.

But what I encountered at this year's IAJE gathering, in rainy Long Beach, were fresh-faced enthusiasts, empowered by the spirit this music engenders, anxious to make their contribution and join the party. Their role models weren't Eminem or Britney Spears but John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

Note: There's a lot of excellent music being produced in all genres by young people, but what our tabloid media serves up is for the most part, artistically challenged. What passes for popular music is, to my ears, not really music but some bizarre sexual ritual. But I'm certain my ancestors probably felt the same way about the music and culture of my youth, the baby boomers. And who can forget the outcry when Bebop was born! Nevertheless, I'm not alone in my belief that very little of what passes for music today will be around for very long.

And now, back to our story...

At this year's IAJE, I was also heartened by the debut of the latest batch of entrepreneurs: new record labels, websites, programs, books, hardware, software, instrument accessories, etc. There's something about Jazz that inspires involvement among its enthusiasts who cannot play it. Even the scarcity of get rich opportunities doesn't stop people from devoting their time, and money, to it. Where would we be without independent labels? They've always been the backbone of this music.

Here's an art form largely ignored by the entertainment media, yet there are nearly tens of thousands of new participants every year, thanks to the global Jazz education movement. In fact, Jazz education is the only organized effort to regularly introduce Jazz to a new audience.

The old system that most record labels still employ, i.e., releasing CDs, publicizing in the Jazz media, getting some airplay, etc., well that is just preaching to the converted. We aren't going to get any new listeners that way.

Several labels, particularly Blue Note and Verve, are utilizing new media to market and distribute the music. I applaud their efforts and hope and pray that they continue, and flourish. But they are but a drop in the bucket next to the tabloid media machine which controls our culture.

There are no awards shows drenched in flesh and ego to entice young people with disposable income to spend their money on Jazz. There are no lobbyists or special groups targeting young people who want stretch their imagination by creating something original.

No campaign like the way America Online sends everyone who has a mailbox, a new start-up CD every couple months, offering a free month of service. I only wish there was something I could do with those useless AOL discs I've collected over the years.

There is a Jazz industry trade organization, Jazz Alliance International , which was conceived to present a united Jazz industry front and take concrete action to raise the profile of this music, and better market it to new listeners. Thus far, their efforts would appear to be minimal. But they have recently aligned with the IAJE, and have a very capable new Director, Suzan Jenkins (recently named by Jazz Times as one of the top 25 Jazz Power Brokers), so perhaps one of 2005's highlights will be the emergence of this group as a factor.

Sadly, in the past, these sorts of efforts have gone nowhere, largely because the different factions of the Jazz community haven't been able to unite. Trying to bring the old record business folks together was like trying to bring the Jews and Palestinians to the peace table. I can only hope that these days are over for the Jazz industry and this JAI.

But until something like that happens, it's all about Jazz education. That's where we're growing the new audience. So support your local Jazz education program. They're everywhere, all over the planet. They may not be as visible as the latest hip-hop wonder, but they are there.

We've got to do everything we can to reach these young people. That agenda should include better marketing the music on services like I-Tunes (the I-Pod is HUGE) selling them ring-tones and loops, give them samplers at the IAJE Conference, anything and everything.

Oops, one more bright moment from this year's confab that I forgot. And that's the NEA Jazz Masters program. Dana Gioia, the NEA Chairman has become a true advocate for the music and this program is helping to put this acknowledgement on the same level as the Pulitzer Prize. Amen! The IAJE meeting presents an Awards ceremony and concert celebrating the Masters. Once again, this year's presentation was taped for broadcast and hopefully, it will end up on PBS.

It should be shown on MTV, but...

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International Association for Jazz Education Conference, Long Beach, January 5-8, 2005


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