In a recent Doonesbury strip, erstwhile country western singer, Jimmy Thudpucker, is talking to Zonker Harris, who has asked him about any upcoming gigs. Jimmy, wide-eyed and innocent but always on the hunt for new ways to degrade himself as a musician to make the "show, tells Zonker that he's giving up country music. "Oh? says Zonker, "giving up performing? Upon which, Jimmy says, "No, meet James T. Thudpucker III! Zonker cringes as the morphed ex-country whiner now lounge lizard croons, "I get no kick from champagne...
The International Association of Jazz Educators Convention was held in New York City Jan 11th through the 14th, 2006. Known as the largest convention of it's kind, over 8000 teachers, students and aficionados gathered together to celebrate jazz in its ostensibly purest form as demonstrated by its newest and brightest voices. But if this was a showcase of the current state of jazz, the newly christened James T. Thudpucker III and the IAJE may share some perhaps disturbing issues in common. Traditionally the conference is a patchwork of young performers from the world's university jazz departments and music schools, research seminars, technology tracks, evening performances by well-known and also some new names, and this year, a near slavish obsession with the past and a white-noise denial of any controversial issue, musical or otherwise.
The IAJE does not pay any performer or school department to attend the conference. This is not a fault of theirs, although it may be a flaw; this eliminates any school or performer who does not have the financial support to come. IAJE is not a wealthy organization nor do they offer travel scholarships, so the subsidy of the edgier, and therefore poorer up-and-comers is impossible. There is also the albatross afflicting the music departments in most schools, many have been eliminated and all are suffering from the current culture of ignorance. And it's a common axiom these days that jazz usually goes begging at the bottom of any music department's list. So that we were being exposed to those whose attendance was not based on their quality as the first selection criteria became starkly evident even on the first day of the conference.
A majority of the performances were of large student groups and even small orchestras, but whose collective sound was so homogenous as to be able to go from one room to the next and not be able to tell the difference between them. Horns, strings and percussion, ubiquitous and uniform, only the names were changed to protect the innocent. He sounds like Jaco, he sounds like Coltrane, he sounds like Wes were many of the rumors the kids were begging for, but few sounded like themselves. Certainly there were a few standouts, the Manhattan School of Jazz showed some moves and timing that resembled the sharpness of a halftime drill team and a brightness that really filled the room, but their playlist was straight and uninteresting. A few others performed in the evening; the Louisville Leopard Percussionists delighted everyone with their Latin rhythms, enthusiasm and real virtuosity. With performers in the group as young as seven years old, their conductor and teacher, Diane Downs, deserves much praise for guiding such a diverse group of youngsters to a truly dazzling level of accuracy and dynamic expression.
The evening performances were a jagged dichotomy of transcendence and complacence, each from unexpected quarters. A ten-year-old trumpet player whose name was not listed in the program, amazed the audience on Friday night improvising with a skill beyond his years. He shows real promise, but it's not clear where he can go from here. Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra was truly a high point of the week, elevating the music to real communication with those of us listening, as well as Kenny Werner with "The Meaning of Music, but there were few others. And Chick Corea needs to get the wad of gum out of his mouth and change the shirt he was wearing on the plane, but even more critically, he needs to remember the fire and innovative stamp he lent to such works as Return to Forever, Native Sense and Past, Present and Future. Eddie Gomez gave us a few moments of real emotional color, both the dark and the light, but even Jack DeJohnnette needed to get off the top of his legs and do the work. Maybe it was jetlag.
And maybe it wasn't. There appeared to be no one pushing the edge, there was virtually no free jazz; Ornette Coleman would have stuck out like a zebra at a turtle stampede. No one was telling it like it is, there was very little that couldn't have made the playlist of your local smooth jazz station.
The research track was deficient in quality and presentation. The basics of social science research were not even acknowledged; thoughtful conclusions were as scarce as any avante-garde music. The use of Powerpoint is considered passé in most other research presentations and there was virtually none, but most didn't even use overhead projector mylar sheets. Remember those? One note to some of the speakers; if you're going to present a review of the literature, then your bibliography is the very least required of you. The technology track was somewhat better, giving some basic, well-thought out and presented teaching seminars, but on the whole they remained in the kindergarten of new tech issues. There were no discussions of anything controversial, illegal file-sharing and copyright issues were nowhere to be found, a blazingly obvious omission, in direct contrast to several heated discussions two years ago at the same convention. Hip-hop's contribution to jazz was briefly touched on, but that was one in a flood of inanity. One discussion focused on what movies should be made of the jazz-greats of yesteryear. Miles must have been rolling over in his grave.
An interview with Sonny Rollins typified both our strength and our myopic vision. Eager to hear anything at all about creative process or even about "Without a Song, his soulful commentary on 9/11 from this master of his own voice, it consisted of a tedious litany of questions about whom he has played with for the last 50 years. He was patient with this fascination with the past, but 10 minutes of this was enough and this was a 60-minute interview. That was 50 years ago, jazz is the continuing story of why we play music now. Harry Connick Jr gets lingerie thrown at him on stage and Diana Krall's Christmas album was pleasant, a bit like the dentist telling you to rinse and spit, but what happened to the music?
At one point, and even now, still, in the little clubs where the musicians get themselves to gigs and set up their own gear, jazz was our voice, it was about who we are, our hopes and fears, the trivial and the great things that happen to us, the dark places everyone finds themselves sometimes, those elevated places where a few dare to leap off and fly. In his article here, "More Music, Less Opportunity?, Joel Harrison suggested that the IAJE ask the really hungry new voices to tell us stories from the road at the next convention. Good luck, Joel.
If this is what the IAJE thinks the forefront of jazz is, self-satisfied bombast, a level of denial that would impress the Democrats and an obsession with what was, how do we teach our children to be real and own their voices? If music is the expression of who we are, then where are we going?
IAJE, meet James T. Thudpucker III, I'm sure you'll be very happy together.