Poly-cultural Encounters

Poly-cultural Encounters

by Mike Zwerin
copyright © 2002 Mike Zwerin

Berchidda, Sardinia: A feature article by Fred Kaplan in the August 4th Boston Globe titled "The Jazz Industry Has Lost Its Groove" quotes a music business executive saying: "There's this general perception that jazz is dead music - dead guys, old guys, old audiences." Could be they are looking in the wrong place.

True, the major record companies are no longer fit to market jazz. That sort of business will soon be over. But there are alternatives. Smaller and leaner organizations are surviving and new forms of manufacture and distribution are springing up. Mom and pop jazz (and folk and blues and alternative rock) record labels sell their wares on web sites. None of them involve big numbers but the overhead is about as low as it can get, good sound quality is getting cheaper, they love the music, their numbers are growing and it all adds up. Jazz has always been minority music. That's its charm.

And Kaplan should look in Europe. First of all, on the festival circuit this summer, many established respected American names played with spirit and creativity and drew mass audiences of from 2,500-3,000 people. The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine broke it up in San Sebastian, Spain. ScoLoHoFo (John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Dave Holland and Al Foster) played three encores in Parc Floral in Paris; the Herbie Hancock/Roy Hargrove /Michael Brecker band played four. Roy Haynes's "Birds of a Feather" with Kenny Garrett, Nicholas Payton and Dave Kikoski knocked out a packed arena in Istanbul. The sound of 6,000 hands clapping will not strike some Americans as a particularly "mass" event; but neither is it exactly funereal. Part of the livelier groove in Europe comes from a more inclusive definition of the word. "Jazz" covers an increasingly wide variety of influences from many cultures over here. The more inclusive the music, the bigger its potential audience. Okay Temiz's Ritim Atolyesi ("Anatolian rhythms") at the Istanbul Jazz Festival is one example. A cover story about Astor Piazzolla in the July issue of the Spanish magazine Cuadernos de Jazz is another. The exciting new flamenco in the San Sebastian festival is a third.

While in the US, jazz music appears to be closing in on itself. You hear a lot about there being nothing new to play and the precipitously falling fan base. Americans are praying for another Duke Ellington or John Coltrane. It may be a long wait. Praised young American players tend to sound too much like their own heroes. Real change is mistrusted. The prevailing attitude is in part due to the oddly provincial discriminations of Wynton Marsalis, who has great power on the scene in general and over filmmaker Ken Burns in particular. Their recent highly publicized and popular 20-hour PBS documentary film hijacked the history of the music by ignoring many essential currents, including any jazz not born in the USA (Django Reinhardt got maybe a minute or two).

During the 1970s and 1980s, it was rumored among musicians that the CIA was quietly subsidizing the exportation of jazz (and abstract expressionist painting) behind the iron curtain. How else, they wondered, could American names be paid $25,000 cash for a concert produced by a Polish promoter in Warsaw during the cold war? True or not, the Berlin Wall came down and there are no more Communists to convert. The American establishment no longer feels that it has to push its culture abroad. As far as they are concerned, American culture is well represented by Arnold Schwartzeneger movies and Brittney Spears albums and they do the job just fine and without need for subsidies or highfalutin explanations. Either way, within this new vacuum, Americans cannot accept the possibility that the next leaders of "America's classical music" will be Africans, Brazilians, Italians, Spaniards, Norwegians or Turks.

It started with all the foreigners enrolling in the hundreds of American conservatories offering degrees in jazz (also called "modern music") studies. They were required to learn the form's history and vocabulary. After graduation, the students -- many of whom would have remained to play jazz in the US if not for visa problems -- returned home to places such as Helsinki, Paris, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv and Bombay, and combined their new knowledge with their own culture and people.

Some of the best improvisers in the world are now European based and/or bred - Michel Portal, Esbjorn Svensson, Glenn Ferris, Ernst Reijsiger and Enrico Rava, to name some. It is not generally known that musicians of high caliber playing what Americans dismiss as "Eurojazz" (they say it doesn't swing which is a gross oversimplification) enjoy an expanding market, and that they are not particularly interested in trying to make it in America. European audiences consider that the burden of understanding is on them. They tend to take any failure of communication with players they otherwise admire as their own fault. They will try harder next time. Audiences in the US are more likely to blame "elite artists" who have "lost touch with the marketplace."

A particularly impressive poly-cultural encounter took place in early August on the Piazza del Populo during the "Time In Jazz" festival in Berchidda. The Poeti Improvvisatori Della Sardegna and the vocal quartet Su Concordu 'e su Rosariu du Santulussurgiu and a number of folk instrumentalists stretched their tradition improvising with Dutch jazzmen Reijseger and Han Bennink (cello and percussion respectively), the French drummer Daniel Humair, American pianist Uri Caine and the flamenco guitarist Geraldo Nunez. Everybody was enthusiastically stretching everything they could and there was sound after sound you had never heard before and none of them were old or dead.

Whatever you call it has not yet reached maturity. But it's happening and it's a major event. That it is happening in places like Istanbul, San Sebastian and Sardinia and not New York makes, or should make, no difference.


Mike Zwerin writes from Paris; this article is special to Jazzhouse, but of course he retains its copyright.


C o m m e n t s

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Alain Drouot September 16, 02

As a Frenchman now living in Chicago, I found Mike Zwerin's article of particular interest as I am still stuggling with some of the issues he brought up. Quite frankly, I do not believe that jazz is experiencing a much better fate in Europe than in the US. Jazz records sales are just as sluggish there as they are here and during my recent travels in France, Germany and England, I have noticed that quite a few specialty stores have disappeared or are now surviving by also offering world music - not to mention that the jazz section at Tower in Chicago looks much better than those of similar stores across Europe. Every time I send my brother look for the latest CD by Martial Solal or Michel Portal, he gets the same answer from the sales clerk: "Jazz doesn't sell so we don't keep much of it on inventory. We'll have to put a special order in." Talking about Chicago, the jazz scene there is more vigourous there than in most - if not any - European city. We must note that Mike Zwerin only gave examples of festivals because this is how jazz survives in Europe: festivals and government funding. And when people do not get to hear much jazz all year (Spain is a good example), it is easier to understand why festivals are packed. However, I do agree that Europe has many great musicians - and this is not new. Michel Portal, Enrico Rava and Daniel Humair - who is Swiss by the way - have been going at it for more than 30 years. It is also a fact that they do not need the US to make a decent living. I am even having a hard time to promote French artists in the US because of a lack of interest from their part - which does not prevent them from complaining that American musicians who come to Europe are getting the best gigs. In any case, it is a very complex issue and I do not claim that I have all the answers. My goal was just to give a different perspective.

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