by Scott Yanow
The 1998 Jazz Times ConventionCopyright © 1998, Scott Yanow
The Jazz Times Convention (run by Jazz Times magazine) is an annual schmoozathon that is accurately described by jazz presenter Yvonne Ervin as "one of the world's largest jazz job fairs." Held October 29 through November 2, 1998 at the New York Marriott World Trade Center, the five-day event had panel discussions, a few speeches of varying quality, some live performances by both established and emerging artists, a nightly jam session and an exhibit hall in which various vendors and labels could publicize their projects. More importantly, it gave jazz journalists, publicists, managers, musicians, radio programmers, producers, presenters and others in the biz an opportunity to see each other, gab and make deals; it always helps that everyone wears name tags!
Coming from Los Angeles and visiting New York for only the third time in 30 years, I had the opportunity during my five days in the Big Apple to observe a few differences in the customs and lifestyles of residents of the two cities. New York has quite a few real strong points along with a few major flaws that simply cannot be fixed. The traffic in NY is quite remarkable in several ways. It took a five-hour plane flight to go from LAX to Newark Airport, and two hours on a shuttle to travel from Newark to Manhattan (which is maybe 20 miles) even though there were no obvious accidents along the way! Since the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels have just two lanes in either direction and there is no escape after entering a tunnel, one can only imagine the mess that must occur when a car or a truck gets stalled. In the city itself, it makes no sense to own a car (unless one is venturing outside New York) due to the very dense traffic, the lack of parking spaces and the many illogical one-way streets. There are few blocks in New York where two or three extra lanes are not needed but, since much of the city was built over 100 years ago and there are all these 80-story skyscrapers in the way, the problem will never be solved.
Unlike L.A. where buses travel 20 miles an hour and are therefore always empty and where cabs have to be called by phone, in NY individual automobiles are sometimes the slowest means of transportation! Buses travel faster than cars (and are therefore often full) and the cabs are manned by some of the world's greatest virtuosic drivers who zoom along at the maximum speed and yet never seem to have any dents on their cabs! To make matters even more confusing, everyone jaywalks. When the light turns red and the signs say "Don't Walk," the only people who hesitate to cross the streets are tourists. In L.A. if one jaywalks, they will either get a ticket or be enthusiastically run over, but in NY the pedestrians seem to rule and do not even think of crossing a busy street until there is a red light. On the other hand, in Los Angeles every time it drizzles, people forget how to drive and the local news trumpets "Storm Watch '98!" Even at three in the morning on a weekday, the city is very much alive with honking horns, sirens, all-night pizza places and people constantly rushing from one place to another. For reasons that everyone seems unable to definitively answer, the food is much better in New York than anywhere on the West Coast and possibly the country. One can eat at a rather average hotel restaurant in New York and the quality of the food will be much higher than at the best establishments in L.A.; in fact there is no comparison. This is not only true of such NY specialties as bagels and pizza but of simple foods such as hamburgers and french fries. One cab driver speculated that this was because in New York Italians actually run the Italian restaurants, Greeks own Greek restaurants, etc. and that each culture keeps their original timeless recipes alive without watering down the spices of their food. Still, if that is the reason, one wonders why New York chefs have not moved to Los Angeles and made a killing. A more likely explanation for the improved food on the East Coast is the quality of the water. For whatever reason, everything tastes better in New York, whether it be expensive meals or $1.25 hot dogs purchased from vendors.
And unlike Los Angeles, where one has to drive everywhere (including the grocery store), in most areas of New York City one can find practically everything within two or three blocks, including restaurants that are at their most crowded at 2 a.m. The city gives the impression of never sleeping, making one wonder how the average person ever gets around to getting enough rest to go to work!
From the jazz standpoint, if one shakes a tree in New York, three jazz musicians will fall out. Although Los Angeles has a fertile and underrated jazz community, New York has it beat in quantity and intensity. Perhaps the edginess to the typical New York band is due to the extreme weather (on Halloween night it was windy and 40 degrees, colder than at any time of the year in L.A. and it was not even winter yet), or maybe it is due to the pure competitiveness. There are many more jazz clubs in NY than in LA but, due to the large number of world class musicians, there is less work for the average player.
The Jazz Times Convention (which took place from Thursday thru Monday) had some interesting panels along the way, including a critics forum featuring Bob Blumenthal, Bill Milkowski, Neil Tesser, Gene Seymour and Zan Stewart, a discussion focusing on guitarists (with Leni Stern, John Abercrombie and Jim Hall) and a surprisingly entertaining panel featuring lawyers involved in the jazz business. The esteemed czar of the Jazz Journalists Association Howard Mandel headed a well-attended and cheerful meeting of the JJA. In addition, Nat Hentoff talked about his career, the Heath Brothers (Jimmy, Percy and Tootie) were honored in humorous and loving fashion during the convention's closing event (with comments from Roy Haynes, John Lewis, Kenny Barron, Ray Bryant, Randy Brecker, Orrin Keepnews and Billy Taylor) and Amiri Baraka gave the keynote address. The latter was a disaster as Baraka (who sounded as if it were 1965) ranted and raved about racism in jazz without offering any coherent solutions or ideas. Many of his comments bordered on the nonsensical, such as one claiming that jazz magazine editors were Nazis who did everything they could to keep blacks from writing about jazz! There is definitely a sad shortage of Afro- Americans who write about jazz (perhaps they are wise enough, unlike their white counterparts, not to write for slave wages) but to act like this is a conspiracy is rather absurd. Throughout his long speech (which was totally written out), Baraka showed that he was completely out-of-touch with the jazz scene of the 1990s and, rather than helping to unify the jazz community, all he offered was incoherent bluster.
There were some musical highlights along the way. An opening press conference held at Birdland to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Blue Note Records had vibraphonist Stefon Harris and pianist Renee Rosnes teamed up in a quartet that served as background music for the schmoozers. After the official party ended, Los Angeles' Tierney Sutton had an opportunity to sing for the stragglers (which included some record company execs) and she fared quite well as did her backup trio (which included pianist Eric Reed).
At the convention itself, tenor-saxophonist Don Braden teamed up with the intriguing (if sometimes erratic) singer Dominique Eade for some swinging and occasionally quite modern music. Nnenna Freelon mostly performed music from her latest album, there were sets by pianist-vocalist Lofton Harris, Paul Tobey's big band, pianist Lynne Arriale's Trio, Jerome Richardson and singer Terri Thornton, and trumpeter Mark Morganelli led the nightly jam session.
The best music of the convention was undoubtedly a set by Anthony Wilson's Nonet featuring Bennie Wallace on tenor and a variety of top East Coast musicians (including trumpeter John D'Earth and trombonist Art Baron). During three of the afternoons, several "emerging artists" had opportunities to play but, due to being placed in the lobby, they often functioned as background music. It was particularly humorous seeing hotel guests' reactions to George Garzone's Schulldogs, a two-saxophone avant-garde quartet. It made one wish that there was a circuit for hotel free jazz bands, and that adventurous music was pumped into hotel lobbies coast-to-coast instead of the usual muzak!
Also seen at the convention were such notables as Blue Note's Bruce Lundvall, producers Bob Belden, pianist Lamont Johnson, guitarists Mark Elf, Vic Juris and Rick Stone, cellist David Eyges, saxophonist Bill Kirchner and singers Kitty Margolis, Sherri Roberts, Kendra Shank and Carol Welsman, among many others.
On two nights I had the opportunity to go to clubs in the city. Cyrus Chestnut was at the Village Vanguard with his trio and, although he threw everything he knew into the first couple of songs (his technique is very impressive), he showed more restraint on other selections including some originals, a stride piece ("That Man's Invention #2") and a few ballads. After his performance I did something that cannot be done in Los Angeles; I walked to five other jazz clubs! Grover Washington Jr. was at the Blue Note (by visiting the gift shop one was able to hear a couple songs), Small's was having their nightly jam session (which typically goes until 6 a.m.) and John Abercrombie and Tom Harrell were part of the quintet at Sweet Basil.
On another night flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny, pianist Darrell Grant and bassist Doug White performed melodic standards at Weill Recital Hall (next door to Carnegie Hall) and the trio of pianist James Williams, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Tony Reedus (with occasional vocals from Miles Griffith) was at Zinno, an Italian restaurant that had the best mashed potatoes I've had in a decade! Milt Hinton was in the audience watching McBride closely.
Perhaps the highlight of my New York visit took place between the latter two performances when I listened to Jim Cullum's hot New Orleans jazz band on the Riverwalk radio series while riding in a cab that was cruising at a ridiculously fast speed through the streets of New York.
Originally published in the L.A. Jazz Scene. Chief editor of the All Music Guide to Jazz, Scott Yanow has been writing about jazz since 1976.