Bill Smith, Moderator, Editor Emeritus, Coda Magazine
Andy Gilbert, Jazziz
James Hale, Writer, Ottawa Citizen, Downbeat
Bill Shoemaker, Writer, Jazz Times
Paul deBarros, Writer, Seattle Times
John Orysik, Media Director of the 18th Vancouver International Jazz Festival: Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to Jazz at the Roundhouse, presented by the Government of Canada. Jazz at the Roundhouse is an exciting component of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and this afternoon the Jazz Festival is pleased to present a panel discussion with journalists from the Jazz Journalists Association. At this time, let me hand things over to our moderator, journalist/photographer and former long time editor of Coda Magazine, Bill Smith.
Bill Smith: On the far end of the table we have a surprise guest, an improviser, Andy Gilbert. He's from the Bay Area and writes for a number of American journals and magazines. We have from Ottawa, he writes for the Ottawa Citizen, Downbeat Magazine, Coda Magazine, James Hale. On my left, from Washington, DC, writes for the Washington Post, Jazz Times and lots of other magazines, Bill Shoemaker. On the far left, we have from Seattle, also writes for local newspapers, Downbeat, liner notes, etc., he even wrote a book … he's a biggie, he wrote a book, Paul deBarros.
I'm a semi-retired jazz journalist I just became a senior citizen. So now I get government money every month and I can now afford to be a jazz writer. Being a jazz writer is not something you do to have a spare Ferrari in car park, you know?
The subject this year this year, which has been supplied by, presumably, the Jazz Journalists Association, it says "Jazz is an international music, why don't more critics and festivals treat it that way?" I'd like to say that the critics, that's another subject whether we're critics or writers we'll get to later. The people who are sitting at this table actually do treat jazz as an international music and the festival that we're at is one of the greatest international festivals in the world. So I find the subject must have come from someone who lives in a place where this doesn't happen, which I suspect is New York City.
I'd like to open it up with Andy Gilbert first. Is jazz an international music? In your experience do critics treat it as such?
Andy Gilbert: Undoubtedly jazz is an international music. It has been from the earliest times. Starting from the 1920's there were jazz musicians travelling everywhere, from Shanghai to Havana, playing, spreading the gospel of swing. It was influencing other musics just as they were influencing jazz. The question why other international jazz scenes, whether Italy, Canada, Germany, Japan aren't covered better or booked better comes down to economics and communication. Even though we are living in an age of global communication, there is really no substitute for being close to, part of, and observing a scene. So being the San Francisco-Berkeley area and trying to keep up what is happening in Milan is next to impossible. I know there are great musicians there, but for most of the papers I write for, I can hardly sell a story on that. It's hard enough to get papers to cover what is going on locally, let alone what is happening someplace else.
Vancouver is a gem and a rarity in terms of which musicians from outside the area are booked. Musicians from outside New York, I mean European musicians and Canadian musicians are in a lot of ways the creative centrepiece of the festival and this is incredibly rare.
The San Francisco Jazz Festival is a wonderful Festival, one of the best in the United States, but it absolutely neglects local players and very rarely brings in musicians from Europe or Japan or other scenes. The problem is that Festivals feel that it's tough introducing players who don't have name recognition and it's an even tougher to convince the media to cover them
Bill Smith: I agree with a great deal of that, and to the difficulty of magazines having the space to cover this huge subject. I myself like the idea of local musicians being utilized to play with foreign musicians to expand everyone's experience. Perhaps we could carry on with Paul.
Paul deBarros: I would introduce two bits of information to chew on. One is that the Jazz Journalists Association just had its awards ceremony two nights ago in New York. The only musician who won and was not American was Dave Holland. And Dave Holland might as well be American [laughter], I mean he has lived in America for the last 30 years. So it is a problem. And it may not feel like it's a problem in Vancouver, where we seem to be in paradise. I go to two festivals every year for sure: this one [Vancouver] and the Monterey Jazz Festival. I like both of them, but they are like night and day, very different. And you won't find international headliners very often on the main stage of the Monterey Jazz Festival. I think that had to do with economics and a certain kind of myopia.
The economic part of it has to do with Festivals are driven by the record companies and so are magazines. The magazines that write about jazz in the United States, Jazz Times, and Downbeat, are at the mercy of record company ad budgets. It's not so much that ads pay for the record reviews but they actually establish the purview of what those magazines are about. So it's not the old saw about 'if you buy an ad in my magazine, you'll get a review' but in the larger sense that is very true. The economics of the business are controlled by the record companies, the booking agents, and the publicity agents who are involved in the music. So to break an artist no matter how big … one great contrast between Monterey and Vancouver, for example, is that all the great stuff that is going on in Scandinavia for the past three or four years -probably longer- and has finally started to break in North America has hardly had a hearing in the States. And here we are [in Vancouver] into our second or third year of learning about bands like EST or Ian Bellamy's band. It has to do with economics and it definitely is a reality. There is a strong contrast. There are some other issues involved but I want to pass it on.
Bill Smith: Well, we'll open it up as we go along. James [Hale], would you like to make a few comments?
James Hale: We find ourselves at a very interesting time. Since the late 70s and early 80s, jazz has become commercially viable in a lot of ways. It has become more of a commodity in that almost every North American city has a jazz festival. But at the same time that jazz has become more common in the regular marketplace of culture, it has also become much smaller, more narrow than at any time in the past. When you look at the line-ups of festivals, particularly in the United States, there are the same bands over and over again. And they are bands that don't push boundaries, that don't necessarily take chances, and in most instances the ones that have fairly large labels behind them.
We are tremendously spoiled in Canada by having this [Vancouver] festival with the scope that it has, or smaller festivals like the Guelph [Ontario] Festival which has a tremendous scope. But then when you look across the board at the range of music that is being presented across North America, it is extremely insular. I find that very distressing. I think to look at the other part of the question today, how journalism represents jazz, I think we do a terrible job. Maybe as Bill Smith says, with some us here as notable exceptions, the few international artists that nominated and voted for as part of our own jazz journalists awards is shameful. Closer to home here in Canada, our so-called national jazz awards are also shameful when you look at the few artists from Québec who get nominated and the few artists from here in British Columbia or between here and Winnipeg who get nominated is shocking. As journalists we have a lot to answer for.
Bill Smith: [sardonically] I think that is because Toronto is the centre of the universe, excuse me perceives itself as the centre of the universe. And it's all Toronto-based, this information. It's interesting watching TV out here sometimes, isn't it, when they are telling you it's eastern standard time that the program starts and you're in Vancouver watching this on television. So a lot of this information is indeed based in that Toronto kind of idea. But what about the Ottawa festival, does it have an international forum?
James Hale: Interesting you should ask that question, because this year the Ottawa festival has a sub-section on global improvised music. I don't' think that it has done as good a job as the festival here [Vancouver] has in terms of representing international artists, but in comparison to some of the more corporate festivals especially in the United States, it does a relatively good job.
Bill Smith: Bill Shoemaker, you work for quite influential and wide-circulating periodicals, do you have a feeling about this? You reach a much broader audience than a local audience with your writing.
Bill Shoemaker: Well, first of all, I think that critics and festivals should be driven by aesthetic principles, not internationalism per se. I think where somebody comes from is secondary to what they're saying. I don't think that magazine content in the United States and certainly not in Europe is ad-driven as some would say. I don't think that it was the clout of Martin Davidson and Emanem Records that got a feature on Paul Rutherford and Lol Coxhill into Downbeat, nor was it the clout of ACTA that resulted in my including John Butcher and Chris Burn in various thematic features for Jazz Times like solo saxophone or prepared piano. Certainly there is an argument to be made for placement of cover stories and maybe lead reviews. That goes to the concept that there is something of a pack mentality in jazz magazine coverage. But I think that particularly as the managing editor positions of these magazines are going towards younger guys -Chris Porter at Jazz Times is 33 years old and Jason Koransky [Downbeat] is what - about 30? [deBarros and Hale respond: 28].
These guys are not beholden to the same interests as the "establishment." They have been given green lights by their publisher to exercise various degrees of latitude. So as long as there are guys like Paul deBarros and James [Hale] and Andy [Gilbert] out there plugging away through their different venues I think that we're in pretty good shape. If you look at European jazz magazines and the mix of European v. North American coverage, it's not all that much different than in North America.
Bill Smith: Thank you Bill. I must say that I was the editor of Coda for a quarter of a century or something like that, an enormous amount of time. In the end my idea for the coverage of Festivals was that we only wrote about Canadian festivals. There wasn't room in a magazine published six times per year to write about everything. So I decided upon the Canadian element, mostly because it wasn't being written about anywhere else. With the exception of the Montréal festival and occasionally this [Vancouver] festival, in general the Canadian festivals were not being covered by international magazines. Plus it was for us to keep the Canadian content high, so we got Canada Council grants. I can confess to that now that I'm not the editor anymore [laughter].
But the idea was that if we didn't do it, no one would know about all these Canadian musicians. As Bill was saying, I don't think we changed the world's ideas about what Canadian musicians were or who they are. I mean, they didn't suddenly sell thousands of copies of records because we mentioned Paul Plimley's name, or Tony Wilson's name. It doesn't work like that that. It's more of a gradual situation.
I'd like to put it to the panel about this 'jazz is an international music'. Let's start with the festivals and why some festivals are international, and why some aren't. It seems to me this has a lot more to do with the presenters and what it Is they are connected with. If they are connected entirely to commercial money which is making them do something, or like this festival [Vancouver], the handful of people who put on the Vancouver festival have been the same handful in my entire history of Vancouver, which is a very long time, and they are friends and jazz fans and interested in the music. The idea of sponsorship, although it necessary from a financial point of view, is not the thing that motivates the content of this festival. It's not like people from corporations come and say 'You can't have Wolfgang Fuchs or Rutherford.' Nothing like that happens at the Vancouver festival and in some ways I feel that is why it's a successful festival. Because it is a group of people with a personality who puts it together. I'd like to go back to Andy with this notion. Is this the reason why it isn't international. Is it because they have blinkered imaginations?
Andy Gilbert: They are responding to what they see as the imperative of putting butts in seats. If we are talking about US jazz festivals, they have minimal municipal government sponsorship. They are thrilled if they have a corporate sponsor, but they are going to run most of their operations on ticket sales. It is tied in directly to being able to sell tickets to fill their theatres. That has a huge impact on who they feel they can book. Then there is the relationship with record labels. Many festivals will have a stage where Verve or Blue Note sponsors that stage. Right there you have a situation where the artists presented there have a certain profile that blocks out other musicians. It really is just a lack of faith in their audiences where they feel they have to present people who are familiar. If they are going to bring in musicians who are not already well-known, they have to do it in small amounts. Otherwise they will lose their audience.
Bill Smith: This indicates to me, in a way, that the promoters are pandering to record companies. And there are certain record companies that are not worth pandering to. Just because they have a logo up and they give you a thousands dollars and a free case of beer doesn't seem to me to be a reason to promote music at festivals. It seems to me that it is supposed to make the music go on. It's not a carnival, this is serious music. So we need the idea that people are going to learn something. They aren't just coming to experience the familiar, it seems to me. James, you might have some thoughts. The one in Ottawa is similar to here, isn't it?
James Hale: It's more of a grass-roots festival in the sense that it has been run by the same group of people for the last ten years and before that it was different group. You can have a festival in a fabulous location. It could be Monterey or Montreux, Switzerland. You can have festivals that have great venues, but what really sets festivals apart is artistic vision. You can look down the list of festivals and tell which ones have?.I'm not trying to say that people who running what I would call mediocre festivals aren't passionate about the music. But you can look down the list of festivals and tell which have very strong hands on the tiller. To go back to my example of Guelph: year after year you see growth, some vision, passion in the booking. When you get to know Ajay Heble who runs the Guelph festival, you realize where that comes from. I don't think that's any secret. The ones that are adventurous and spirited and fun, imaginative, you look at that programming and think, "Wow, I would never think of putting those things or that particular series together. When you see a festival like that, I guarantee that there is someone with vision at the helm. When that is lacking it is evident as well.
Bill Smith: So we do agree on that point of view that the vision is created by the organizers of festivals. I note that James keeps saying Guelph, so I would like to add Victoriaville [Quèbec] as one of the great creative festivals in Canada.
James Hale: Absolutely.
Bill Smith: Paul deBarros, in Seattle there is a festival that runs on consecutive weekends or something like that with all kinds of music. This is run by a small group of people with a vision as well.
Paul deBarros: Yes, it's run by Earshot Jazz and it reflects an international outlook. It's a smallish festival compared to the ones we're talking about. I think I want to refine this idea of jazz being an international music. That's really where the rub comes from. We could talk for hours on the conflict of commerce and aesthetics and I don't think we're going to solve anything. It's there in the arts no matter where you go. Everybody deals with it differently. The Monterey Jazz Festival deals with it by dealing with record companies. And the record companies are in the business of making stars so they can sell records. Whether or not you think that is a bad or good, thing, I don't really care. It's the music that is interesting.
But I do think there is something going on in the States that is relevant to this discussion. When you say that jazz has been an international music since the 20s that may be true but innovation and leadership has not come from anywhere except African-Americans in jazz until the last 25 years. That's the rub in the United States. And that's the political-social rub, that's the reason this discussion has a resonance in the States that it doesn't have here [in Canada]. When you speak to African Americans about 'jazz is an international music now', they get a little paranoid. The last time I talked to Branford Marsalis, I had just come back from Turkey and I said 'Have you of this guy from Istanbul on Double Moon Records?' and he just went into a rant about how 'who are these people who think they can make innovations in a music that isn't part of their history and culture. How could they presume to do that?'
But he's not the only one to feel that way because there is a historical relationship between white and black in jazz and jazz history which has attempted, from the black point of view, to erase the black contribution. And fact has erased it in many cases economically and in the media. When you start saying, glibly, to an African-American musician, 'well, you know, innovation can come from anywhere, Turkey, Japan, China, Canada' they are like 'Wait a minute, pal, I have some ownership of this music.'
And that is really the question for me, Who Owns It? Because personally I don't feel anybody owns it. But it is a discussion worth having. When you start discussing internationalism in jazz you have to address not only where a player is from, but what cultural elements they are bringing into the music and what they say is innovation. I have seen a lot of real innovation from Scandinavia in the last eight years, but I'm not sure it is the leading edge of where the music will go. I'm not sure that even that the people that are involved in that would say that. So let me crack that one open.
Andy Gilbert: Bill [Smith], could I jump in on that one?
Bill Smith: I have a great deal of opinions on that one! [General Laughter]. You go ahead, Andy.
Andy Gilbert: I think what Paul is saying is very interesting and in some sense true. Ownership and where innovation is going to come from is a charged question. I think that to say it's only in the last quarter century that innovation came from outside the African- American community is to really look at jazz in a narrow sense to begin with. If you want to talk about Latin jazz, we're talking about 60 years, going back to the 40s with influences coming in from Cuba and Puerto Rico. In the Bay Area….
Paul deBarros: … But who made the innovation, Dizzy or Machito…?
Andy Gilbert: … I would say both, it was a collaboration. I don't think you can separate it. The dance orchestras that came out of it, Tito Puente, Machito …
Paul deBarros: … I don't think I would agree, but go ahead …
Andy Gilbert: … In the Bay Area we have had for thirty years an amazing Asian-American jazz scene, incredibly innovative, bringing in all kinds of new things. I mean, these are Americans working with conceptual ideas coming out of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and bringing in and creating these wonderful hybrid musical forms. When we talk about ownership, that question has been opened up much earlier than you [Paul deBarros] gave it credit.
Bill Smith: Good thing those two [Gilbert and deBarros] are far apart on the table. But before the fight starts [laughter]…. I don't think of international music as being a bunch of Europeans imitating Herbie Hancock. European musical forms is the forms have been developed by Europeans out of sources that are becoming less and less connected to jazz music. People like Evan Parker, or at this [Vancouver] festival we have Paul Rutherford, Wolfgang Fuchs, and a few other people like the Dutch. They are coming out of a jazz base originally because of course we heard that music when we were young. The music that I loved was Mingus, Miles, etc. The point is that to imitate them and call that international jazz seems to me not to be anything. That's just imitating Americans. It is an American art form, that particular idea of the song and rhythm structure, the chord changes, that kind of organized way is indeed an American music, although the Parisian French are good at arguing about that. I feel the music we might call international is musical forms developed in other countries that have their own original concepts and forms that coming from their own identities. In Canada we have this, for example in a very large way in Quèbec, where out of their own folk traditions they have developed this whole new kind of idea about music that sounds almost carnival-like. Their character is quite different than American jazz. This is what I call internationalizing this music, not just imitating something that has been in place since the turn of the century.
Bill [Shoemaker] hasn't had a go yet, and I know he has a lot of opinions on this subject.
Bill Shoemaker: I'm glad that Andy [Gilbert] brought up the Asian American community because it gives me the opportunity to shamelessly plug a piece I have in the September issue of Jazz Times called "East Meets Left: Politics, Culture, and Asian-American Jazz."
In that article, my thesis is that even though African-Americans have a historical primacy in the creating of jazz, changing demographics, the spread of information, the entire globalization of the planet inescapably leads to a situation where everybody around the world claiming 'this is our music,' just the way Ornette Coleman did almost 50 years ago. Jazz has an intrinsic appropriating methodology. It seeks out materials and structures outside of its existing parameters. It brings them in and incorporates them into an ever-expanding lexicon. That is just an inevitability.
Now as to the plight of African-American jazz, that's not a problem that been caused by or exacerbated by this internationalization process. This is a problem that has been 100% domestically engendered and it goes to a whole myriad of socio-economic factors that are just too vast and complicated to discuss here. But the guy in Turkey is not the threat to Branford Marsalis by any stretch of the imagination. I think that the threat to Wynton Marsalis or Branford Marsalis or anybody else….
Bill Smith: … or any Marsalis [laughter] …
Bill Shoemaker: … the threat to them is a fickle domestic public and not somebody improvising off of a Swedish folk tune.
Bill Smith: As you can see we can get really far away from the subject very easily. There is so much to say and writers only get so many column-inches per month in magazines and their heads are full of this information. So this should really be a five-day workshop with food, insulin drips, and things like that [laughter]. So let's narrow down: we're half way though and still on Festivals.
I'd like to re-iterate the question: "Jazz is an International Music, so why don't more Critics treat it that way? We have to say that we [on the panel] do treat it that way. Bill Shoemaker and I were somewhere and immediately the accusation came that "Well in America they don't think about anything outside of America." I don't think that's entirely true with the Americans I know who are Americans, it may be true about George Bush but that's not true about the Americans I personally know. In American magazines, Andy, why don't you introduce other music to them instead of writing another thing about one of the 300 Marsalis family members? Why don't you do that in American magazines?
Andy Gilbert: I think that in many ways the battle being fought for writers covering local scenes is to get those scenes covered. Being on the west coast, the media is so New York-centric. I grew up in Los Angeles and my mission was to get the word out about Horace Tapscott, Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and Vinny Golia [applause and some shouts of "Yeah" from the audience]. Drawing attention to these other great scenes and musicians is something I'd love to do, but I feel that, like many writers, I'm a partisan of the musical scene, the musicians I've watched develop.
Those were some of the edgier players. But there were mainstream players too, like Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, these amazing musicians who couldn't get any coverage, or even minimal coverage in the national magazines or in The New York Times. And that goes back 50 years. You know, I don't think that Art Pepper was ever on the cover of Downbeat during his life, or if he was it was only much later during his come-back. So it is like 'What battles are you going to fight?' Sort of being based in the Bay Area, the first one I'll fight for are the great musicians I see weekly who I feel should get more attention. Then, its try to open up and have this different idea of who is important and who the interesting musicians are. I can see as someone in the trenches, not an editor, who is making those decisions on who is to be covered, that's where the first line of decision-making is made.
Bill Smith: I do understand that, because of course we concentrated in our Canadian cities trying to develop local scenes. The question is about international music. The papers and magazines we write in, you can't read them in Rotterdam or Helsinki. The information remains local and only invigorates a small part of this giant scene. My experience is that just as many Europeans complain they don't get a chance to come to America, there are also many Canadian and American musicians who complain that they don't get a chance to play in Europe. So I think this is common…. A Canadian point of view is much worse than the American point of view in that no one knows who Canadian musicians are. I'm not talking about Rob McConnel and the Boss Brass, I'm talking about the other ones who are in every city and are important.
James Hale: I think the situation is changing as more Canadian musicians like D.D. Jackson and Rene Rosnes and should I mention her name? …
Bill Smith: … Diana Krall, of course she's local [laughter] …
James Hale: … As more Canadians move onto the international scene -- we have to give praise to institutions like the Canada Council and the Banff Centre for the Performing Arts -- without those institutions we would have seen as much movement in Canadian jazz as we have. I don't know if the situation for local musicians is any better or worse in Canada than anywhere else. I think that if you're a local musician in St. Louis Missouri, it's probably just as difficult to get on the radar screen of major festivals or to have ways to tour outside your region than if you are from Winnipeg.
Just a couple of points on the original question and what Andy was saying. I don't think we can lose sight of the fact that improvised music continues to be very marginalized. Let's not forget that the music we are talking about accounts for 3% of international sales and within that marginalized art form the musicians who have views broader than their small scope are relatively rare. So now you are talking about a very small percentage of music that we are discussing here. The music that is broader than traditionally regionalized or domestic in scope. And I don't think that Downbeat or Jazz Times let alone Coda Magazine are the problems we are looking at here.
The problems are the non-jazz publications when they cover jazz. When most daily newspapers look at jazz you know what they are looking at: it's not international jazz, it's American jazz. When you are looking beyond to the consumer magazines, the one or two times a year that a Time Magazine or a Maclean's here in Canada will cover jazz, you know who those artists are going to be. They are not going to be the artists with a broad international scope. Those are the vehicles that are reaching the mass market and then reflects back on our music. What people are reading in the mass market publications, watching on television, and hearing on the radio is perceived as jazz. Then it starts to spiral and feed upon itself in their views of what the music is and could be.
Bill Smith: If something like the Daily Mirror in England gave 1% of its royal-bashing to jazz, billions of people would know about this music. Paul [de Barros], do you think that the writers who work in jazz magazines and don't get out into the bigger world [of daily newspapers] where regular folks can read it have a tendency to preach to the converted?
Paul deBarros: I can only speak for myself. I write about everybody for the Seattle Times. It doesn't matter if they are American. I write about this festival [Vancouver], that's what I'm doing here. I think that a lot of jazz writers who write for at The New York Times, the Los Angeles newspapers, the Chicago paper, not so much in San Francisco right now, Andy writing for San Jose. I don't think we feel constricted, I certainly don't. And I didn't mean to give the impression that Downbeat and Jazz Times don't cover international artists. They do. I've written about people who record for Eminem, and Leo. It's a matter of degree and who is regarded as the centre and who is regarded as peripheral. I think that is a cultural issue in the United States.
I've just been reading a book about Canada, "Siamese Twins." It's about the Canadian cultural mythology and it refers to American cultural mythologies. And one the of those American cultural mythologies is that if you come in under that Statue of Liberty, then we don't care where you come from: you're American. I think that the jazz industry works that way too. That's why I said that Dave Holland might as well be American, and Diana Krall might as well be American. Americans don't think of the world as international. They think of it as the United States and everybody else. So the jazz magazines reflect that cultural format. It's not that you are not going to be able to write about a Turkish musician in the Seattle Times, Downbeat, or Jazz Times, it just that the question in the public's mind is 'Are you inside of this marketing reality or are you outside of it?' Because if you are outside of it then you are only about 63% real. If you are inside of it then you are 100% real and you can start to participate. I don't think that cultural format exists here [in Vancouver], or in San Sebastian [Spain] or in Istanbul. It's a different outlook on the world.
That's my answer to the question, really. American critics and festivals don't approach the music in an international mosaic kind of way because it has a different self-image. And again, the people involved in the industry feel that jazz is an American music. All these other things may be interesting, but they are only peripherally interesting.
Bill Smith: Well, I think jazz is an American music. We haven't had anybody from the audience. There's a lady who wants to say something. Could you please come forward and speak in the mic? Last year we only had the answers on the tapes.
Audience Member: Can you tell me how you can tell if its jazz?
Some panel Members: Oh, no!
Audience Member: As simply as you can. I've heard music at this festival and others that could be called classical, or from outer space, Latin, but they call it jazz. So I would like to know what the distinction is, what creates the name jazz.
Bill Smith: Bill Shoemaker will take that question. This topic was provided to us; we wouldn't have chosen that topic ourselves.
Bill Shoemaker: I think that the rough market definition of jazz is probably workable, and that is whatever is stocked in the jazz bins at your record store [general laughter]. But if you want an aesthetic answer to that question, that's a bit trickier. That is an individual decision and is best answered with translucent remarks like "You'll know it when you hear it."
Bill Smith: Some years ago I was with a friend of ours who is not here at this particular festival- his name is Art Lange, a writer in Chicago. We sat around one night and went through a bottle of wine trying to decide 'what is jazz?' We decided that it had to be melodic and rhythmic, but your idea of melodic and rhythmic. [Laughter]. It's a huge topic that I think it's impossible to define. You can look it up in the dictionary. It says black people in American dancing in Congo Square or something like that, but of course that's very simplified and idiotic to think of it in those terms. Do we have some other questions? Oh-oh, a jazz musician!
Paul deBarros: Here comes trouble.
Tim Posgate: I heard someone use the term 'marketing reality.' My question is that I think art criticism in history has been an interesting and important art form, there's no doubt about that. I'd like to hear a couple of people talk about the state of jazz art-criticism now and maybe how it relates to what it was in the past and the phases it's gone through. Is it as important now, is it just about selling records, is it still important to the artists, the people and the world? In two minutes or so.
Bill Smith: Well, I'm not going to answer. I'm just the moderator, so I can get off the hook really easily. I did write a little note here "Are the jazz press concerned more with product than with the music? Do they pander to their editors and record companies, which is a little bit of your question. Who wants to take Tim's question?
Paul deBarros: I'll take the question. A lot our work is product-driven and tour-driven. There's no question about that, just by the nature of the publications we write for. Just to take an example, take the Seattle Times. You write about the person who is coming to town. It's hard to convince your editor about a person who is not coming to town. If they have a great album, then you can write about them. If they don't have a recording and they are not coming to town, you are pretty well not going to write about them in the newspaper.
In the major jazz magazines that is also the case although on a broader scope. I think that Coda is a lot more open to publishing art criticism that is not product- and tour-driven. As to the quality of jazz criticism, obviously this not an objective answer, but I think it's really good right now. There are a lot of really good jazz writers who are grappling with the subject at hand. Whether or not it's important or not is a question that the musicians and the audience have to decide. I certainly couldn't tell you if our work is important. But I think that the quality is quite high, a lot higher than it was twenty years ago. And I think that it is approaching the level that it was when I grew up admiring people like Nat Hentoff, Ralph Gleason, Amiri Baraka.
Bill Smith: I should point out that Coda Magazine, which I was the editor of for a very long time and I'm not the editor anymore, that although it did indeed did write within the system of art criticism, articles that went to eleven pages out of forty about obscure saxophone players from Bulgaria….
Paul deBarros: … yeah, I wrote one of those….
Bill Smith: … We never, ever, could get corporate advertising for Coda. They never, ever, bought full back-page ads in color for Diana Krall.
Bill Shoemaker: I just want to take a slightly contrary view to Paul's [deBarros] about the state of jazz criticism. I think that at this point it is a very stratified situation. There's a lot of hacks out there who don't know what they're talking about who are just fumbling about. There's a wave of a very few, in my opinion, writers who have come up in the last five to seven years and show great promise, Michel Mercer being foremost among them. Unfortunately, we have a generation of writers who are going around the bend who still think it's the 40, 50s, 60s, 70s or whatever mindset they grew up with. I kind of long for the days where you had titanic critics like Ralph J Gleason and Amiri Baraka. I just don't see any out there now.
Andy Gilbert: I agree with both of you. I think that there are a lot writers who take a shallow approach to the music. One thing that is refreshing and relates to the topic is that I think the ideological struggles that were at the centre of jazz journalism -in the 40s with the rise of be-bop, in the 60s with the rise of the avant-garde, and in the 70s with fusion, when you go back and read the old magazines, people were bashing each other trying to define "Is this jazz, is it not?" That is ultimately a boring discussion….
Unknown: … Thank You! …
Andy Gilbert: … instead what you have now is that people are less worried with definitions and more interested in: Is this interesting music? Since no one else is going to cover it, we'll bring it into the jazz magazine or present them at a jazz festival. Except for a couple of writers and musicians who are really concerned with drawing the distinctions between what is jazz and what isn't, I think that many writers are willing to say 'Well, let's look at this music and ask the questions: 'does it intersect with the jazz world, do I find it interesting, challenging, and does it move me?' Those are more interesting questions than trying to create definitions, whether artificial or not.
Bill Smith: Do we have any more questions?
Tony Reif [Songlines Records]: Isn't part of the problem in writing about jazz is the fact that it incorporates so many other kinds of music? How can you know enough about all these other kinds of music to say something interesting and valid about jazz musicians intersecting with non-jazz musicians or other musicians who are intersecting with jazz? Isn't it rather difficult to be on top of all that?
James Hale: It always has been, and I don't know if it is any more difficult now than at any time in the past. I think it is always incumbent upon critics of any art form to understand the art form as thoroughly as you can and understand it from many directions, not only as a listener but as a player-participant in the art form. Just to live and breathe the stuff is part of your job. So I don't know if it is any easier or more difficult now than it ever has been. It is the same process it has always been: listening to the music, talking to musicians, hanging out and living the stuff. Synthesizing it in your own head. That's our job: provide context, hopefully entertaining the reader, because after all it is journalism and part of the greater entertainment business, if you will.
Bill Smith: I think, Tony, it's interesting this idea. I remember seeing at least three times in large newspapers in the western world, the headline saying 'Jazz Is Dead.' These are long times apart. I think the name of the French critic was Andrè Hodier. When he first heard Charlie Parker, he said that jazz was ended, was dead. And for a lot of us, of course, Charlie Parker was the beginning of jazz or whatever. Patrick Scott, a writer with one of the Toronto papers, I can't remember which one now, he was very fond of proclaiming that jazz was dead. Thelonious Monk was the end of jazz for him, because Monk still played tunes that sounded like stride piano which was OK for him, but the people in his band weren't OK. There were all these silly narrowing down of definitions.
As was pointed out like the whole global world we have evolved into -I'm not fond of this but it has- so has the music, it seems to me. The world that I came from when I first listened to it didn't have such a large amount of information from international musics. When I was a young man, we hadn't even heard of Ravi Shankar yet. So these influences didn't come and we were basically listening to an American music. We were listening to Coleman Hawkins, Earl Hines. This was our source. As the information systems open up we are getting more information, faster and more of it all the time. So we now live with a generation of young musicians who are not just influenced by this very narrow band. Initially musicians were influenced by players in their own town. But now there is such a huge amount of information: we can now pick up our personal FM radio and listening to Brazilian music just by twisting the dial. We could never do that 25 years ago, it didn't exist. There is always this proclamation 'jazz is dead, jazz is dead.' But what it really means is that the writer has come to the end of their ability to continue to listen to newer forms. We always used to laugh about people who were stuck in Benny Goodman, stuck in Woody Herman, Stan Kenton. They were frozen there, couldn't go on to the next one.
James Hale: Frank Zappa said "Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny." [Laughter in audience].
Bill Smith: Unfortunately the hour is up and there is another workshop immediately after this, so let's have a round of applause for all the people who came out today. And our parting words are: "Jazz is not dead" [applause].
C o m m e n t s
Marketplace blues 1 of 4 David Whiteis October 29, 03
"I don't think that magazine content in the United States... is ad-driven as some would say..."
Mmmmm -- really? I admit that this happened a couple of years ago, but I distincly remember pitching a story about a particular musician to A Major And Very Prestigious Jazz Magazine That Will Remain Nameless, only to be told in EXACTLY these words, "Does he have new product coming out on a major label? That's how we pay the bills, you know...."
I'm not saying that this the ONLY criterion; but I do know that in the vast majority of cases when I've gotten a story placed in this particular Major And Very Prestigious Jazz Magazine, the artist in question has, coincidentally I'm sure, had --guess what!?-- new product coming out on a major label.
Then there was the time I pitched a piece about one of Chicago's most important and revered elder statesmen --one of the founding fathers of the AACM, a pioneer in the city's free jazz movement, a mentor to countless aspiring musicians-- only to be told that the story wouldn't be interesting unless there was an "angle" over & above just the music; I wasn't quite sure what this meant, but the mag's cover story for that month, if I'm not mistaken, featured one of Wynton's ex-sidemen who had some juicy dish on the band's interpersonal politics.
Such are the dangers of becoming "mainstream" in America, I guess...