The Independent Ear

The realities of jazz festival presentation

I read a Facebook post from a very well-meaning person who works on the media/publicist side of jazz. The post posed a pretty old question, one that has been hashed and re-hashed now for decades. In posting a link to the talent lineup of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the poster asked how such a festival could continue to fly the jazz flag in its name, given that NOJ&HF is well-known for presenting a broad spectrum of music, jazz being just one of those flavors. Initially I responded that NOJ&HF has such a significant jazz presenting menu, what with the robust offerings of the WWOZ Jazz Tent and the Economy Hall space presenting so much traditional jazz, I have no problem with the name game.

The more I thought about the many misconceptions of this nature, including my own work in festival presenting/producing, I felt it necessary to also post the following thoughts:

One of the hard lessons to be learned from jazz festival presentation is that unless you are fortunate enough to benefit from some significantly large subsidy, one that is sufficient enough to cover artist fees, production costs and all the myriad costs associated with producing a jazz festival, and that subsidy is significant enough to enable you to present your festival free of charge (and here it appears Matt Merewitz may be seduced by his Chicago Jazz Festival experience) you are going to have to leaven your talent lineup with artists who make sense for your community and who will attract “the masses” to come hear the more uncompromising artistic segment of your event. That part is something folks seem to have a difficult time understanding but it is a pure fact of festival production life! Many of us in the festival presenting sector strive to at least make those artists we present in order to attract mass audiences, at least be extensions of the jazz tradition whose music is in some substantive way informed by jazz. But these are the often times harsh realities of presenting a jazz festival.

What’s your take? And after you read this, please scroll down for musician-educator Paul Carr‘s take on producing the annual Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, coming up the weekend of February 17 in suburban DC.

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It’s that time: Mid Atlantic Jazz Festival ’17

It’s February, time for the East Coast’s #1 winter jazz festival, the annual Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival. Annually, on President’s Day Weekend (this year February 17-19) the MAJF takes over the Hilton Hotel in Rockville, MD http://www.midatlanticjazzfestival.org in true jazz party atmosphere. Given the venue and its multiple performance spaces, MAJF boasts a dedicated audience that motors in from around the region – and often from beyond – for three days and nights of great jazz, including free, all-day rotating performances by top high school and collegiate jazz ensembles on a lower lobby level stage.

One of the hallmarks of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival is that it is produced by one of the DMV’s leading musician-educators, tenor & soprano saxophonist and prolific recording artist Paul Carr, director of the Jazz Academy of Music jazz education program, and his wife Karmen Carr. In case you’re not hip, here’s the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival deal in Paul Carr’s own words:


Paul Carr blowing some goodness with stellar vocalist Sharon Clark, in performance at the 2016 Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival. [Photo by Tyrone Kenney/NeoBop]

How did the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival first come into existence?
PAUL CARR: The Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival (MAFJ) is presented in the true spirit and intent of the former East Coast Jazz Festival (ECJF). Founded in 1992 by vocalist/vocal educator Ronnie Wells, for the next 15 years the ECJF was produced by and benefited The Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Fund, Inc. (FMJS). ECJF was originally created in honor of Elmore “Fish” Middleton, a Washington, DC jazz radio programmer, whose commitment to promoting jazz music and supporting emerging jazz artists became the guiding principle behind the festival. I was in Ronnie’s band and I served as one of the judges for the annual Fish Middleton Scholarship competition. Those were great times and I learned a lot. For 15 years, up until Ms. Wells passing on to ancestry in March, 2007, she and her husband and co-founder, pianist-educator Ron Elliston presented the ECJF. The festival ultimately became a mid-winter tradition in the Washington, DC metro region. In 2009, Suzan Jenkins, CEO of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, held a series of meetings to discuss how we could bring back the East Coast Jazz Festival. -During these spring meetings, it was determined that it would easier structure-wise for the Jazz Academy Of Music to produce the “new” festival.

I founded and established the 501c3 Jazz Academy Of Music in 2002 and we have year-round education programs for school age students. I really missed the ECJF, and it having been gone only two years following Ronnie’s passing. I was already teaching kids that had never heard of the festival. Having a jazz festival that features jazz education is vital for the future of the music in so many ways. So I wanted give it a try, but I had to go home and sell it to the boss, Karmen, my wife. Lol! Once Karmen agreed, I knew the festival had a chance. We changed the name to Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival to mark a new start in the same tradition.

What’s it been like for a working musician-educator to serve as a jazz festival artistic director?
Being the Artistic Director of MAJF I think is fun, but really, really tough. MAJF does not have a big sponsor or a lot of really generous small sponsors, so that means we can’t absorb too many artistic blunders. So when I’m considering artists for the festival, things like artist’s marquis value, educational value, and budget, have to be factored in as well. There are so many artists that I want to present and hope to present but the timing and situation must be right. Also being a musician and educator myself, I can’t let my personal feelings get in the way of the job of artistic director. The loyal patrons of MAJF and the students are top of mind at all times. I have experienced a couple of artistic blunders, but it’s really cool when a set you put together does well or much better than you expected. 🙂

Curating the festival is a year-round task and it’s always kinda on your mind, even when it’s not. For instance, I can be in a music store and see something we could use for the high school big band competition on sale, so I’ll get it. Or someone will call you at 10:00 pm at night in the middle of the summer with some great or not so great advice about the festival. Because I’m playing and teaching so much, I try to take a month off after the festival, then start working on the following year.

Having done artistic direction work myself for over two decades, I have to ask what lessons a working musician like yourself has learned in that role?
Wow, the things I have learned dealing with artists and agents have been very enlightening, to say the least. I really appreciate artists who have a sense of history and community about the music. Realizing that keeping this great American art form presented and taught in a certain way is what is most important. I recognize that the jazz audience is small compared to other more accessible forms of music, and that all jazz artists must help cultivate and grow that audience. The handful of agents I have worked with since I began producing MAJF have been helpful for the most part. I really appreciate the agents that realize that all situations and all gigs don’t pay the same. 🙂 So in turn, when I’m asked to perform and/or teach, I consider the source, intentions and who might I connect with.

What kind of artistic balance do you strive to achieve with MAJF?
The artistic balance I’m trying to achieve when putting together the MAJF is to have a place for every type of jazz fan, young, old, hardcore, novice, every ethnicity, republican, democrat, independent… coming together under one roof to enjoy jazz. So the artists performing, the educational offerings, world class vendors, and panel discussions are all selected with the celebration of jazz and its community in mind.

One of the performance hallmarks of any Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival has been your annual Summit meeting, where you bring together musicians of a common instrument and have them play off of each other with the same rhythm section. Talk about putting those together.
The summits at MAJF have been a hit since day one. This year’s Guitar Summit promises to be another. The MAJF summits are not cutting contests like the ones that have been a part of jazz since the 30’s, but there’s an underlying unspoken vibe which is that’s exactly what it is. Lol! Jazz fans and musicians alike enjoy a good “Summit”. Seriously, all of our Summits have musically operated at the highest level, that’s why our patrons love them. Also, anytime you have three titans of an instrument on stage at the same time, sparks fly. I consider this year’s Guitar Summit participants, Russell Malone, Bobby Broom and Paul Bollenback to be jazz masters and I’m certain that’ll be a set not to be missed!

Here’s one of The Jazz Video Guy’s jazz editorial posts with some performance scenes from the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival:

Did this video in 2010.

Posted by Bret Primack on Sunday, January 29, 2017

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A compendium of Mr. PC’s wit & wisdom

Seattle-based pianist Bill Anschell and I go back to our days fighting the good fights on behalf of jazz and jazz musicians as arts administrators tasked with developing efforts on behalf of service to the jazz community from our respective regional arts organizations – he at Southern Arts Federation in Atlanta, me at Arts Midwest in Minneapolis. Among Bill’s many achievements from that perch were a superb series of CD compilations highlighting the many unsung heroes and s-heroes of jazz in the southeast. Since relocating to Seattle Bill has concentrated professionally on his pianistic exploits, as a successful bandleader and recording artist, where you can find his releases on the Origin label. Always blessed with a keen sense of humor and an ability to spin out various witticisms in print, more recently Bill has been chronicling that wit in a series of “Mr. P.C.” posts on his website. So consider this the first of a multi-part compendium of the wit & wisdom of Mr. P.C.

For more of Mr. P.C.’s wisdom, visit his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mr-PCs-Guide-to-Jazz-Etiquette-and-Bandstand-Decorum/176989928575?v=wall
To receive each new post directly from Mr. P.C., or to send him your own etiquette question, email him at pcjazz1@gmail.com


Dear Mr. P.C.:
What’s with the joke, “More cowbell”? I got to watch a jazz recording session, and the musicians kept saying it to the engineer, then everyone would laugh. Does jazz even use a cowbell? – David T., New Orleans

Dear David:
Not all jazz is bucolic, but certainly much of the music on the ECM label fits that description. So, while you might not hear a cowbell in the music of, say, John Coltrane’s Impulse years, it would be entirely appropriate in the more pastoral music of Keith Jarrett. For me, his standards trio often evokes imagery of a cow leisurely chewing its cud on a lush green field, its bell gently tolling with the mastication. I’ve often wondered why Jack DeJohnette doesn’t lay down a cowbell groove on some of their tunes, or why Jarrett doesn’t expand the group to a quartet, with a dedicated cowbellist. Or cowbeller. Or whatever. He probably just hasn’t thought of it, so I’ll bet he’d love it if you brought a cowbell to one of his concerts and started jamming along with his solos.

Dear Mr. P.C.:
I wrote you in October telling you about my ankle pain, and asking if it might count as enough suffering to make me soulful. Your answer was, “Only if it can’t be fully controlled by over-the-counter-medication.” That was really helpful, and it sent me on quite a journey.

I tried Advil, Tylenol, Aleve, and traditional aspirin, and none of them helped. Ka-ching! Over-the-counter-medication couldn’t control my pain!!! So I got a prescription for Oxycodone, and it didn’t help either. I figured I needed to increase the dosage, and my bassist was able to hook me up. Now he also sells me Valium to help me sleep. As it turns out, not only does my ankle still hurt, but my life is unraveling. Might I have soul now? — Duane, Detroit

Dear Duane:
I think you’re heading down the right path, but keep in mind that the truly tragic – and soulful – historical figures in jazz would already have added booze to the mix; that’s a no-brainer. And don’t worry about the warnings on the labels, saying not to mix this medication with that, or with alcohol, or with the operation of heavy machinery. They’re written by pharmaceutical lawyers; soulless corporate tools who wouldn’t recognize the Blues if it wore a nametag and had a firm handshake.

Soulless Pharmaceutical Tool: “And what company do you work for?”

The Blues: “I don’t work for a company. I’m an expression of loss and yearning.”

Soulless Pharmaceutical Tool (hiding disappointment): “Ah, well, if you ever need large quantities of labels warning against mixing alcohol and anti-convulsants…” (hands the Blues a business card, heads to the bar for a refill).

And if you want to take it all the way, Duane, why not top off your “soul cocktail” with the most storied self-medication of all — heroin? Jazz lore tells us that no spiritual enema is really complete without it.

Just one note of caution: As I advise all my readers, I recommend you avoid caffeine, red meat, and gluten.

Dear Mr. P.C:
I’m about to travel with my group (a pianist, bassist and drummer), to a gig in a really remote area. I’m wondering: If we somehow get stranded and eventually run out of food — a la the Donner Party — which guy should I eat first? –Chuck D., Seattle

Dear Chuck:
You’re kidding, right? Because, thankfully, most jazz musicians nowadays are vegetarians. But, okay, let’s assume you’re one of the carnivore holdouts. Imagine you’re at the butcher’s, and consider the cut of meat:
Jazz musicians, regardless of instrument, are underfed, overworked, and stressed. One meal off the buffet at a gig (plus whatever they can stuff in their pockets) has to hold them for days. It gives them just enough body mass to lug their heavy gear up steep stairwells, and just enough nourishment to practice frenetically between gigs. They’re gaunt, their flesh dry and stringy. As for the taste: Just think about the smell! At best, a rancid commingling of smoke, alcohol and sweat. No amount of hot sauce would make it okay.

By contrast, consider opera divas. Confined to small conservatory practice rooms, trotted out only occasionally for concert hall performances, plumped up to fill out the plus-sized bodices of their costumes, they are the veal of the music world. And they’re oh so flavorful, too — always freshly showered, lightly powdered and sweetly perfumed.

If, God forbid, you are forced into cannibalism, don’t eat one of your fellow jazz musicians; eat the opera singer. And if you’re taking a trip through potentially dangerous terrain, be sure to pack her along with your flashlight, blankets, and potable water.

Dear Mr. P.C.:
I can’t figure out what jazz artists are thinking when they play a piece by one of the Great American Songbook composers like Gershwin or Porter. It sounds to me like they play it correctly, then they go crazy for five or ten minutes, then they play it correctly again. That’s two minutes of good music surrounding a much longer bout of insanity, and for me it’s really not worth it. Am I missing something? — Melody, Please!

Dear Melody:
Imagine you were invited to deliver the eulogy at a famous poet’s funeral. You might open by reading one of his or her poems, then extemporize on your own experiences with his or her poetry, then conclude with another of his or her poems.

Well, like that poet, composers of the Great American Songbook are all – for lack of a better word – dead. And jazz artists happen to be a highly reverential lot. Each performance of a “standard” is, in fact, a musical eulogy. The musicians start with a solemn reading, interpreting the dead composer’s melody, sticking respectfully close to it. Then they improvise, spinning original lines within the dead composer’s form and harmony. This “insanity,” as you call it, is actually the jazz artists’ genius, and there could be no deeper, more heartfelt testimonial to the dead composer. Some jazz musicians are so moved by the dead composer’s death that they solo for twenty minutes or longer, screeching and honking with animal noises from deep within, channeling the bereft widow’s heart-wrenching wail as the dead composer’s casket was lowered into the earth many years ago.

Once the outpouring is complete and catharsis achieved, the artists then conclude, more soberly, with a restatement of the dead composer’s melody; a final heartfelt tribute. It’s all really very simple, if a bit morbid.

Dear Mr. P.C.:
I’ve noticed that when a lot of the younger groups rearrange a standard or pop song, they take out a beat here and there. It keeps me off guard and if I don’t count I lose track of the downbeat. But that’s fine. What I’m wondering is: Where do those beats go? — Beats Are Missing

Dear BAM:
It’s horrible to say, but this is simply the thinning of the species; natural selection favoring the beats that matter most, at the expense of those proven to be expendable. Oh, to believe in Intelligent Design, that benevolent fairy tale glossing over the destruction of the weak and defenseless! But, no, my belief system offers no such consolation; these superfluous beats will someday be entirely extinct, thoughtlessly offed by young composers yet to develop a musical conscience.

What does this mean for the future of jazz? 4/4 time will no longer be the standard; first 3/4, then 2/4 will eventually rise to the fore, with sporadic dropped beats continuing to mark the music’s evolution. The brutal process will continue until there’s just one beat left; a powerful and utterly adaptable beat, granted, but one that in itself will appeal to only the cruelest and most simple-minded among us. Which, conveniently, may be the only humans left by then anyway.


Bill Anschell’s latest recording, RUMBLER, on the Origin label…

Like/Comment/Share on Facebook: http://tinyurl.com/j5arucx

Visit Bill Anschell, aka Mr. PC, online at www.billanschell.com For music samples, short stories, and calendar of upcoming gigs.

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Meet The Artist Series: Jason Moran

Last December 1 the DC Jazz Festival presented Jason Moran in a solo piano performance at the Embassy of Switzerland before an enthusiastic, (packed) invited audience of festival supporters. Earlier that afternoon, as part of DCJF’s ongoing Meet The Artist series it was this writer’s pleasure to engage Jason in a very rewarding (free & open to the public) lunchtime interview before a rapt audience at the NYU/DC Abramson Family Auditorium. We discussed his growing up in Houston and how that city has developed so many productive musicians of his generation (e.g. Robert Glasper, Eric Harland, Helen Sung, Kendrick Scott and several others); his artistically (and otherwise obviously) nurturing home environment; his subsequent music studies with Jaki Byard; how he, drummer Nasheet Waits, and bassist Tarus Mateen came to establish his 18-year old trio the Bandwagon; the development of he and wife Alicia Hall Moran are going about establishing their Yes records label and a variety of other pertinent topics. View that Meet The Artist interview here:

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Assessing the evolution of hip-hop

Watching Netflix revealing 4-part documentary series Hip Hop Evolution a couple months after enjoying director Baz Luhrmann’s exceptionally entertaining 6-part historical drama The Get Down (also Netflix) was somewhat akin to watching FX’s riveting O.J. Simpson murder drama, followed in short order by ESPN’s brilliant and exhaustive O.J. Simpson: Made in America documentary. In both cases you had a finely-executed drama followed in short order by a documentary vehicle that gave you the real deal in a kind of hand-in-glove relationship (no O.J. pun intended!). The documentary film is affably and expertly narrated by its admirably-invested, attitude-free tour guide, the Canadian MC Shad, aka Shadrach Kabango. The fact that he’s Canadian perhaps forgives his youthful naiveté when one of the hip hop pioneers details the formative influence of the early rappin’ comic Pigmeat Markham, an African American community record collection staple in the ’60s and ’70s – in the rack right next to those hilariously blue Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley records our parents forbad us to listen to until we were “old enough” – though we damn sure devoured them when Mom & Dad weren’t home, or when we snuck outta bed to peep their house parties!

The Get Down dramatizes the times and landscape (principally the oft-neglected New York City borough of the Bronx) that gave rise to hip-hop, while The Evolution of Hip Hop, with the gritty mid-70s realities of life in the Bronx in vivid terms, provides even greater context to the people and the atmospheres that gave rise to the dominant force in 21st century pop music culture. The smooth transition from the dramatized version, with its greater emphasis on interpersonal relationships and familial backdrop, works beautifully juxtaposed alongside the documentary, which nails the facts and figures. The doc introduces the viewer to characters heretofore unknown, or otherwise underground (dig the interview with the brother who rapped his basement MC role alongside legendary house party DJ Kool Herc), which gave root to the form’s march through its ongoing, often controversial 40+ year evolution.

Kool Herc’s place in music history is sealed by both the documentary and his depiction in The Get Down, as are such early turntable doctors as Grandmaster Flash. The documentary series provides excellent context for the oft-overlooked importance of sound system technology (particularly turntables) in the development of hip hop. The section of Grandmaster Flash’s interview where he details his childhood fascination with electronic gadgets and circular motion (from the spin of a clothes dryer window, to spinning bicycle wheels, to his dad spinning discs at home), is priceless, including the ‘ah-ha’ moment when he discovers how to separate the break beats he sought to emphasize from the rest of the Lp; and these guys most definitely focused on the long-form of the Lp, as opposed to the singles or 45s preceding generations partied to. The documentary firmly establishes the fact that it was the DJs and MCs who were as important – some might argue more important – to the development of hip hop as the rappers themselves, whose historical importance has been somewhat inflated by human nature’s broader embrace of the human voice over the instrumental and technological influences and innovations in music.

Another fascinating segment of the documentary series comes when hip hop scenester (he was first to bring the form to broadcast television via Yo MTV Raps) Fab 5 Freddy (interviewed in these pages in two parts: : http://www.openskyjazz.com/2011/05/jazz-influence-t…roots-of-hip-hop/ http://www.openskyjazz.com/2011/05/pt-fab-5-freddy-…roots-of-hip-hop/ ) recalls introducing hip hop pioneer DJ Afrika Bambaataa to downtown visual artist Keith Haring and how Haring hatched the idea of inviting Bambaataa downtown from the Bronx to DJ parties, which began to broaden the reach of this burgeoning form, encouraging the immersion of young white kids. Thus introducing Debbie Harry‘s pivotal embrace of early rap, at a time when progressives hungered to loosen disco’s grip on club and dance culture.

The documentary segment detailing how Sugarhill Gang came to record the earliest hip hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight” is one of the film’s touchstones. Tellingly some of the early OG’s of the form patently dismissed the mass popularity of “Rapper’s Delight” in the same manner hardcore jazzers dismissed the smooth jazz heyday of the 1990s. Sugarhill Gang was viewed by hip hop’s early hardcore as largely flukey perpetrators, the group having been birthed by R&B record executive Sylvia Robinson. Jazz historians might easily analogize Sugar Hill Gang as The Original Dixieland Jazz Band of hip hop. ODJB made history’s first jazz record in 1917 largely because black musicians, as legend has it like trumpeter Freddie Keppard, who turned down the opportunity. And why’d he decline overtures to make that first jazz record? Because they thought someone might steal their licks! The same was apparently true of early hip hop proponents who missed the same boat Sugarhill Gang seized, supervised by Sylvia Robinson. And the series does indeed make that analogy with early black jazzers, via the distinguished black pop writer Nelson George.

Perhaps owed to its production by an otherwise laudable Canadian firm the only even slight bobble in The Evolution of Hip Hop is the total absence of one important historical factoid that helped compel the birth of hip hop. Historical footage in the documentary shows Ronald Reagan’s now-infamous foray into the Bronx, back when the borough was truly “burning”. What was missed was the impact his draconian economic policy known as Reaganomics had on the subsequent Reagan years (1980s) development of hip hop. Jazz grandmaster Max Roach, was a keen observer of hip hop’s early development, principally through conversations with his godson Freddy Brathwaite, known as Fab 5 Freddy. Max often spoke of Reaganomics’ drastic cuts to public education being at the root of hip hop’s development.

With those cuts in public education funding, among the first thing administrators slashed was public school music education. This observer came along at a time when all you had to do is choose which instrument you wanted to play if you desired to learn music; every school had its share of old instruments ready to be resurrected from whatever closet they were kept at school. Those Reaganomic cuts, and in most cases outright elimination, of public school music education, didn’t dampen kids’ desire to somehow make music; so instead they chose turntable technology and wordsmithing.

But ultimately that was a small overlook on the part of this otherwise excellent and highly-recommended Netflex documentary The Evolution of Hip Hop, a must-see no matter your interest in or position on the form. In its four parts the Evolution of Hip Hop takes the viewer geographically from the Bronx to South Central L.A. as its end point. Thankfully we are spared the many dollar-driven, two bit, narcissistic hip hop charlatans that have emerged in subsequent years. Ultimately, this report recommends ordering your viewing ala the O.J. saga – drama (The Get Down) first, followed by the reality check (The Evolution of Hip Hop).

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