Those who follow jazz, and all serious music for that matter, are often heard to bemoan various disparities, alleged shortcomings, and issue red flags for the future of such music in the U.S. if not the rest of the world. We could make a laundry list of such dire pronouncements, call it the is jazz dying? syndrome, but you’ve heard it all before. For years your correspondent has been pretty much beating this particular drum: all other issues aside, at least in the case of this music called jazz, the most pressing issue remains audience development. That issue is precisely why I’ve started a series of interviews with those who set the stages and present this music across the country in the not-for-profit arena in a new column for WWW.JAZZ.COM.
Fact is we haven’t done nearly enough to better maximize the audience for this music; just recall the familiar refrain from your non-jazz immersed friends and colleagues when you either deliberately, subversively or subliminally introduce them to the music… "I like that, I didn’t know that [fill in the blanks here] was jazz…" or any of the myriad variations on that theme. For the past four years I’ve been teaching an online course at my alma mater, Kent State University — yes the Kent State University of May 4, 1969 (my sophomore year) infamy. The course, which is offered through KSU’s Center for Pan African Studies, is titled Jazz Imagines Africa. Consider the many "imaginings" of Africa that have been laid out here for us to learn by artists including Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Randy Weston, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp, George Russell, Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra, Ronald Shannon Jackson… certainly more than enough sustenance for an entire course, not to mention the exceptional jazz artists of South Africa who reverse the equation.
One of the course requirements is live performance attendance and a subsequent term paper detailing the students’ impressions of the concert as it relates to course material they’ve studied during the semester. One of the more gratifying aspects of this teaching experience has been reading and listening to the often excited pronouncements of students for whom this may have been their very first exposure to jazz. As further evidence that we must do more to expose a wider swath of the populace to this music, I offer these unsolicited responses from students which were extracted from their live performance term papers. Spring semester students may choose from the varied concert menu offered every April at the festival I curate, Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland; so in each of the capsule observations below you’ll find the particular artist they’ve written about from the recently concluded ’09 edition of TCJF in parenthesis.
[Sachal Vasandani, vocalist-Mack Avenue recording artist] After the show I was blown away by what I had just seen. Before I wrote this paper I listened to some of the songs that we listened to during class. I thought that the drum in "March of Pink Wallflowers" by Shannon Jackson to me sounded most like the durms played by Sachal’s drummer Bill Ransom, who is an amazing drummer. Two other songs that Sachal’s music sound most like to me was Randy Weston’s "Bantu" and "Kucheza Blues". I am glad that I went to this performance because now I want to attend other jazz performances and see other types of jazz artists.
[The Conga Kings, Latin band] Going to the concert I was a little nervous but excited. I had never been to a large concert hall to see a jazz concert, mostly jazz restaurants. I took a small note pad with me but soon after it started it was hard to write down comments because I thoroughly enjoyed the entire show. The combination of great conga playing and the improvisation of the brass section left me excited about jazz music.
[Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble] Unlike many of the [listening] samples from our class where we are left to interpret what we hear by relating it to other things we have heard before with responses… Black Earth Ensemble has definition. However, while experiencing the music in person you can read facial expressions, body language, and hear the real story behind the music… Ms. Mitchell’s music tells a story, about her life, growing up and how she has become who she is.
[Jonathan Batiste, pianist] I chose the Jonathan Batiste Quartet concert held at the East Cleveland Public Library… My husband and I had never attended an all jazz concert. We were a bit wary of what to expect… Mr. Batiste is a phenom in his own right. When my husband and I left the concert all we could say was WOW!
[Roy Haynes and Randy Weston] As I made my two and a half hour trip from Columbus to Cleveland I was thinking about the concert which I was going to attend. I turned some smooth jazz on the radio and let my thoughts take me back to the last fifteen weeks of our Jazz Imagines Africa class. I have always been a fan of jazz music and now I can say that I am an even bigger fan of jazz music by knowing the history of some of these great musicians. Music can do many things for different people; music can make you relax, music can motivate you into doing something, music can even paint a picture of an event or memory. I knew that seeing Randy Weston and Roy Haynes was going to be a special treat but I didn’t realize how lucky I was to witness it until they started playing. Who knows what the future of jazz will be, but we do know one thing for sure, we owe a debt of gratitude to Randy Weston and Roy Haynes for laying the groundwork for musicians around the world. I am very glad that I enrolled in this class. I don’t just feel like I have gained knowledge through my readings, but I feel like my soul has been fed through my listenings.
[Jonathan Batiste] …Jonathan had such a cool vibe and his presence put me at ease the moment he began to perform. I think he is an inspiration to be that gifted and talented and to have accomplished so much at 22 years old. I had never been to a jazz performance before this, neither had my fiancee. To be honest, I really had to twist his arm to come. After the performance the both of us were elated at the energy given off to the entire auditorium by the performance. We talked about the performance the entire way home. It definitely far exceeded the expectations I had going into it. I felt I related with the musicians in that they are my age, I was engaged in the entire performance. I think it is wonderful that people my age have a love and appreciation for jazz. Before this class I stereotyped it as music for an older generation, I was completely wrong. Seeing a live performance opened my eyes to a whole new level of jazz music and the culture. I feel more cultured as a person being able to experience that.
[Roy Haynes and Randy Weston] On April 30 I attended the live jazz concert at Tri-C Auditorium featuring Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band with special guest Randy Weston. First off, I have never before been to any kind of jazz show, so I was highly impressed by the vibe not only from the musicians, but also from the people in the audience; everyone seemed to be very into it, so this got me kind of excited… Overall I had a great time at the concert and taking this course. I now have a new found enjoyment of jazz music and all of the wonders that can come with it!
[Roy Haynes and Randy Weston] This concert was a very enjoyable end to this course, and reinforced all of the listening techniques I practiced throughout the semester. After the concert, I listened to my husband’s perspective and related it to my perspective at the beginning of this course. I then thought about my opinions of what I heard, and I used it to quantify what I learned about Africa’s influence in modern jazz music. I know I now listen differently to jazz, and I enjoy this new perspective.
[Sachal Vasandani, vocalist] It is amazing to me after taking this class how I pay much more attention to the actual sounds of songs and try to analyze them. I have learned so many things about music and especially jazz than I ever thought. I loved listening to all the different types of jazz songs and really loved analyzing them. I really do listen to songs now and try to hear them and the different instruments that are in them. I have really enjoyed this class and glad I got the opportunity to hear all of this amazing music from these very talented artists.
[Jonathan Batiste] …In terms of relating with the music we listened to throughout the semester, this was much better. If you can see the performance in person, it makes the listening that much more enjoyable."
[Jonathan Batiste] Before taking this class I thought that the world of jazz was still left to the greats like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, but now I know that jazz is alive and among the new age not just an old past time.
The prevailing thought after reading such unsolicited comments is that obviously jazz music is something that in order to gain a full appreciation one must experience it live. So next time you’re going out to hear the music, take along an uninitiated friend or two so that one-by-one we can continue to grow the audience for this music and more people can experience the extraordinary artistry of the people who make it.