JJA among the Critics

JJA among the Critics

by Howard Mandel

copyright © 2005 Howard Mandel

The Jazz Journalists Association at the National Critics Conference played a role that was dynamic, concrete and cool. Almost three dozen JJA member-and/or friend writers, broadcasters, photographers and new media pros were among 500-plus attendees at the five-day event May 25-29 produced by professional organizations representing classical music, dance, theater and visual arts critics in association with University of Southern California's Annenberg Center/Getty Arts Journalism program. Freelancers, staffers, emeritus contributors and editors from major print and web-based outlets, arts-related funding consultants and journalism educators mixed and matched in writers' clinics, workshop-breakfasts, panel discussions, breakout sessions and receptions. Special performances, gallery visits and site tours were available — so much went on one couldn't do everything. The JJA's informative panels drew listeners from across genre, though, and I dare say we threw the liveliest social affair.

Almost all parties at the NCC applauded the keynote address by Norman Lear — creative force behind television series including All in the Family, Fernwood Tonight and The Jeffersons, who has recently become co-owner, with Hal Gaba, of Los Angeles-based Concord/Fantasy Records — and were stunned if not appalled by businessman Eli Broad's lunchtime pitch for support of a tunnel vision he called "cultural tourism." Attendance to the entire conference was dominated by members of the American Theater Critics Association, the Dance Critics Association and the Music Critics Association of North America, which were holding national meetings at which they elected officers. Spared that, the JJA crowd went out in small groups and larger ones to hear music at the Vic for Jazz, Catalina's, La Va Lie, the Pasadena Rose Bowl, and a UCLA festival of jazz and reggae. That's not to mention the JJA's third annual Left Coast Jazz Party, held at the Jazz Bakery, honoring jazz heroes with fine food, talk and music.

Though the NCC's theme was "Unity in Times of Crisis," there was one day of collective programming aimed across the board at members of all five organizations — American Theater Critics Association, Music Critics Association of North America, International Arts Critics Association and the Dance Critics Association — compared to two for individual discipline meetings.

Regarding "The Role of the Critic in Today's Society," I talked — in company with dance critic Mindy Aloff, Autobiography of God author Jack Miles, and performance artist-critic-academic Coco Fusco, on a panel chaired by Carey Lovelace — about dilemmas I faced writing a Musical America cover story crowning Wynton Marsalis as Musician of the Year, and the enormous implications of Jazz at Lincoln Center's schedule, weight and financial situation on local, national and international jazz coverage. Other cross-disciplinary panels discussed ethical considerations facing journalists, experiences with multiple artforms by established critics, and a group of major newspaper editors addressing "How to Get A Job" as, succinctly, there aren't many and you'd have to be too good for what they'd pay.

At a panel on potentials of the Internet, one site-editor said she paid $300 per article, and I'm sorry I missed that; blogging was widely mentioned as a necessary activity for the arts journalist of today, but overall no one seemed to know how to make a profit from online publishing — or if they did, they weren't saying.

The JJA's four panel discussions demonstrated the expertise and elegance of our members and colleagues — bassist/educator/ensemble leader/composer John Clayton, poet/World Stage founder Kamau Daaood, "jazz economist" Titus Levi, self-described "ghost" autobiographer David Ritz, KJAZ dj and bandleader Joe Rizo, as well as Bill Beuttler, Paul de Barros, Sharony Andrews Green, Devra Hall, Don Heckman, Fred Jung, Todd Jenkins, Bill Minor, Bill Moody, Ted Panken, and our Clarence Atkins fellows (hosted by the JJA) Bridget Arnwine, Laylah Barayn, Michelle Drayton, Robin James, Rahsaan Clark Morris and Cheryl Symister-Masterson.

Other JJA members at the NCC, noticeably articulate, active and incisive, included interim board member Yvonne Ervin, Jazz Notes editor David Adler, JN art director Forrest Bryant, AllAboutJazz-LA contributor Rex Butters, Chicago photog Susan Fox, tap dance writer Jane Goldberg, and guitarist-composer-writer Mark Towns (currently of Houston). At the Left Coast Jazz Party, splendidly catered by Absolutely LA, photographer Skip Bolens, LA Weekly's Greg Burk, Ann Farnsworth, photographers' representative Cynthia Hilts and writer Kirk Silsbee sipped and schmoozed, along with most of the aforementioned, luminaries such as David Cherry (son of Don), principals of KJAZ and reps of HEI-Arts International.

The JJA honorees — Kenny Burrell, Charlie Haden, and Gerald Wilson, all of whom spoke movingly, and Wadada Leo Smith and Dr. Craig Springer, both more modest in their thanks — were introduced (respectively) by bassist Roberto Miranda, pianist Alan Broadbent, Jose Rizo, then Chris Tyner, a trumpeter who had studied with Wadada at Cal Arts and played in Vinny Golia's band, and Yvonne Ervin, on whose board of the Western Arts Presenters Network Springer sits.

The music itself was all fresh and strong: sets by vocalist Dwight Trible's quintet featuring pianist Harold Land Jr., expanding on post-Coltrane Afro-Americanisms; soloist Joe McPhee exploring his soprano sax with focused on spontaneity; Vinny Golia on soprano sax in an electric/eclectic Miles-influenced mode with trumpet, electric guitar, bass and drums; pianist Freddie Redd in excellent spiritual and mental health on his 77th birthday, with bass and drums, and finally the gratifying, Ornette-referent sextet of trumpeter Bobby Bradford, with electric guitar, ace tenor sax and hearty trombone (Michael Vlatkovich) — I, for one, was filled by the sounds, then exhausted, but happy.

At the Vic in Santa Monica, about a dozen of us caught pianist Billy Childs with tenor saxophonist Bob Shepard, bassist Bob Hurst (brilliant arco solo), and drummer Peter Erskine; at Catalina's on Sunset Strip a slightly different dozen heard the great McCoy Tyner's trio with propulsive bassist Charnett Moffett and explosive drummer Eric Gravatt. Mark Towns, who was performing with his twice-recorded Latin-inflected trio at Spazio on the day after the Left Coast Jazz Party, brought Sharony Andrews Green and me to La Va Lie to hear the tight, hip, commercial but also folkloric local Brazilian band SambaGuru, featuring vocalist Katia Moraes. And Concord Records sponsored a van and 12 tickets to a Jazz Bakery performance by engaging singer-saxophonist Curtis Stigers' quartet.

This wasn't a notable food-trip; JJA'ers mostly ate on the run, between events, rather than at distinctive restaurants, dinner an event in itself. But hey, you can't have everything. Talk, song, swirl, contact, thought, talk, drive, and a glimpse of the City of Smog from the hill where the Getty sits. Laughs with Lear (see his entire keynote speech, posted elsewhere at JazzHouse), groans at Broad (who didn't seem to be aware or to care that to get tourists attracted to L.A.'s arts, there has to be a place in L.A. for artists to live, affordable access to the arts by local people and publications where arts journalists can bring them to light), and the usual panoply of reactions to the continuum of hot air and illuminating ideas. It was a conference, it was a convention, it was a hang and a step forward, perhaps, to the establishment of an ongoing collaboration of organizations concerned with critical thinking and journalistic achievement. It was good for the JJA to connect with AICA, ATCA, DCA and MCANA. Plans arose, at the end, to look into holding a second National Critics Conference in two years — in New York City. If that were to happen, the JJA would be in good position to play co-host. Because JJA members are typically dynamic, demographically diverse, well connected, and of course, very cool.

C o m m e n t s

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