IAJE Invades Lovely Toronto
Toronto, a place I’ve enjoyed visiting since my childhood in Ohio, is a wonderful city with a truly diverse and hospitable populace and a vigorous arts & culture scene. And Canada is home to a broad range of exceptional jazz artists and the absolute best jazz festival circuit of any country on the planet. Toronto played host last week to the annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE)and I came away wondering if Toronto was an apt conference host. On the whole the conference lacked its usual juice; somehow the energy level was decidedly down, not to mention conference registration.
Perhaps the major reason for this is because for one reason or another the jazz industry simply did not travel this time around. Some blamed it on the weather — which though chilly was never truly cold and lacking precipitation was quite manageable even for those not housed in the Intercontinental Hotel adjacent to the conference site at the convention center. It seemed that at least the threat of inclement weather was enough to cause some of the senior jazz artists usually in attendance to bag the trip, as was evidenced in the case of NEA Jazz Masters attendance. And let’s not forget how notoriously lazy and provincial certain members of the New York-centric jazz industry and intelligensia are about traveling to the "provinces."
Consequently, though expertly programmed as usual, the conference’s Industry Track offerings were in many cases — some glaringly so — under-attended and lacking their usual buzz. Maybe it was the perception in certain corners of the jazz industry of a lack of the usual sidebar meeting opportunities; Toronto was definitely absent the hang-out atmosphere of the New York conferences where many folks skip registration but hang out at the HQ hotels all day taking advantage of their peers being on-site for the annual confab and the joys of simply connecting with friends and colleagues in the business.
One notable example of low session attendance was the annual Grammy Soundtable, which always plays to a packed house. Perhaps it was the emphasis on historic recording engineers (Phil Ramone, Al Schmitt) that didn’t exactly resonate with conferees. Whatever the case, I had to dash off to another session but when I left the room was barely 1/4 occupied! DownBeat’s live Blindfold tests are always SRO sessions; but this year’s participants, the distinguished NEA Jazz Master David Baker and educator Jamey Aebersold didn’t have quite the pull of the usual all-star draw.
Howard Mandel (catch his blog link on this site) seemed to be everywhere, wearing his Jazz Journalist Association hat proudly and chairing a couple of sessions. One in particular, a roundtable on the digital age, featured the erudite Canadian critic James Hale and the brilliant Canadian keyboardist-composer Andy Milne. I counted less than a dozen in the audience for what could have been a lively discussion. The evening concerts, though blessed with their own charms, lacked the draw of the usual evening events at the New York conferences. And the exhibit hall was decidedly low-key and down in terms of vendor participation.
All that aside it was still a good hang; an excellent opportunity to connect with industry friends and jazz peers. Among the highlights were gala awardee Bill Strickland’s heartfelt acceptance speech and the performance of the Sisters in Jazz on the Wednesday event, followed by a sparkling performance by the New York Voices at the evening concert. Frankly I had tended to somewhat dismiss the New York Voices as a bit slick around the edges; my ears were indeed opened by their IAJE performance, which was augmented by special guest NEA Jazz Master Paquito D’Rivera’s usual joie de vivre. The truly original young guitarist Lionel Loueke essayed his forthcoming Blue Note debut with aplomb to close that particular evening.
The next morning — and here is truly one of the best reasons to attend IAJE, notice I said morning — at 11:00 the promising young acoustic bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding, who will release her Heads Up debut recording later this spring, gave a fine account of her blossoming skills. I was particularly delighted to hear the engrossing young drummer Otis Brown, who had been a guest on my Jazz Ed TV show on BET Jazz some years back as a student, and Cleveland homeboy Jamey Hadad on percussion assisting Ms. Spalding, who has special talent written across her forehead.
One of the best organized and most heartfelt sessions, and one which did draw a packed room, was the Thursday afternoon Wynton Kelly and the Musical Company He Kept, a loving tribute to one of the swingingest pianists this music has ever produced. Kelly was remembered principally by drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul West, and his cousin NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston. And just to put the man in the house as it were, the session ended with the screening of a Jazz Icons DVD performance of Kelly in the company of John Coltrane rendering "On Green Dolphin Street." Immediately following that, in an obvious statement of IAJE’s usual embarassment of riches, Dan Morgenstern ably pinch-hit for Billy Taylor in a NEA Jazz Master’s conversation with Roy Haynes, which was followed by an NEA Jazz Masters roundtable with three of their Advocacy category Masters: John Levy, Dan Morgenstern, and Gunther Schuller.
The NEA Jazz Masters day was actually Friday and in addition to the two sessions above, A.B. Spellman ably interviewed the 2008 NEA Jazz Masters recipients: Candido, Quincy Jones, Tom McIntosh, Gunther Schuller, and Joe Wilder. Trumpet master Wilder opened by recalling his former early bandleader Lionel Hampton as both musical giant and midget in the way he often mis-treated his musicians, observations which drew knowing chuckles from the large assemblage. Full disclosure: I work intimately with this program as coordinator of the NEA Jazz Masters Live project.
Friend and colleague Larry Blumenfeld, who has been a tireless champion of all things New Orleans in pointing out the ongoing ills and disparities of the post-storm recovery as part of his ongoing book project (also see the three installments of my New Orleans newcomer’s diary elsewhere on this blog and read Blumenfeld’s linked blog for his potent commentaries), chaired a rewarding session titled In the Number which included live testimony from Scott Aiges of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, and Blumenfeld’s revealing taped interview segments. Alas, though heart was deep in this house, session attendance was pitiful.
The following Saturday morning was another of those AM performance gems one often finds at IAJE. Bassist and Berklee educator Oscar Stagnaro directed the IAJE Latin America Jazz Ensemble under the auspices of the Puerto Rico chapter of IAJE (hey, how ’bout an IAJE conference in San Juan?) in a crisp performance thoroughly en clave, richly in the jazz tradition. Various sidebar meetings that afternoon and a final run through the exhibit hall prevented attendance of Saturday panel sessions. Thankfully I came up for some fresh air at 4:00 and copped a comfortable seat for yet another strong performance, this time by the very complimentary and creative duo of saxophonist-clarinetist Marty Ehrlich and pianist Myra Melford, who has certainly come a long way from the shy young woman I first met as a finalist at the Thelonious Monk piano competition years ago. Back then Myra wasn’t quite sure of her direction. Now she is an entirely assertive, first rank pianist and composer with a growing and impressive discography. And having Marty Ehrlich and Paquito D’Rivera on the same conference provided the keen of ear a delicious opportunity to sample the state of the jazz clarinet.
Later that evening over a delicious Indian meal in good journalist company, career jazz record man Ricky Schultz, salting the conversation with a particularly humorous recollection of his MCA days encounter with the legendary Lew Wasserman, unveiled his promising new station at the fresh approach of Resonance Records, a new not-for-profit model. Stay tuned for some good music from that port. There are major changes afoot at IAJE central — again, stay tuned… It will be quite interesting to see how next year’s conference, slated for Seattle, turns out; a real test of whether or not the conference should permanently root itself in New York. But let’s not get too rash, after all the 2011 conference is scheduled for the Crescent City — and that’ll be a guaranteed blast.