The Independent Ear

Dicey weather aside Newport soldiers on

Ron Carter
Swinging grace personified: Ron Carter at the bass

Has it been 60 years already? Founded in 1954 by George Wein and an old money Newport couple as a means of broadening the inviting summer hang-out, the Newport Jazz Festival celebrated its unprecedented history with a lineup that reflected many facets of the broad-based aesthetic umbrella that jazz has become. Friday afternoon was perfectly suited for toting the old lawn chairs and scavenging out a good vantage point on the great lawn facing the main, or Ertegun Fort Stage at Fort Adams State Park. The day was notably dominated by artists and bands who’ve largely arrived in the 21st century, starting with the Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors, a student ensemble directed by pianist Danilo Perez and featuring guest tenorist David Sanchez. They were followed on the main stage by composer Darcy James Argue‘s Secret Society, the miraculous vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, and that excitable young gent Jon Batiste & Stay Human, the leader’s yellow suit and pied piper mentality being cause enough for mass revelry in the sun. He closed his raucous set, melodica in mouth, marching his band through the lawn chair brigade, hundreds of smart phones capturing selfies all the while. Someday, after Jon Batiste’s stage & screen career is aloft (watch for it…) a youngster will be leafing through his granny’s keepsake images and ask “Grandma, is that Jon Batiste you’re hugging in the funny-looking yellow suit with the keyboard in his mouth, and what’s Grandpa drinking from that jug?”

On the Quad Stage in the inner courtyard of the old fort, John Zorn held court with several of his Masada cohorts for what amounted to a 2-1/2 hour marathon, one which included the trumpeter Dave Douglas and his boundless well of ideas. Over on the Harbor Stage alto saxman Rudresh Mahanthappa premiered his Charlie Parker Project, promising among other intrigues, Bird in an odd-metered environment. The Old Home Week allure of Newport and the revolving sets/multi stage layout make for a happy madness that is a central part of the festival experience, for it seems only those determined to dig into an advantageous sightline at the MainStage, or plop down in an agreeable festival row chair at the Harbor or Quad stage area are likely to catch entire sets, and even those hearty, determined souls are swayed by the occasional midway snack, crafts fair retail stroll, or one or another of nature’s calls. But at least on this lone day of the three, disagreeable weather wasn’t a culprit if you by chance missed some measure of your chosen sets, as did we.

The impressive throwback/futuristic chanteuse Cecile McLorin Salvant, with the startling pipes (still only 24, no other singer of her generation approaches the extravagant wealth of her lower register and ability to soar upwards with the chops of a vocal Charlie Parker) and proclivity towards Jim Crow era and turn-of-the-20th century lyrics, surely made some new friends that afternoon and on her subsequent Quad Stage performance Saturday afternoon. Fellow writer-photographer (and Ain’t But a Few of Us correspondent) Bridget Arnwine shot some photos standing next to a guy new to Salvant’s artistry who likely summed up many a first Salvant impression: “I’ve never heard her before; she sure does sing some weird songs…, but man she’s great!” Following Cecile was a tough task, but altoist Miguel Zenon impressed at the helm of his “Identities” Big Band, though despite playing a program of complex originals conveyed by largely young guys this audience had likely never heard before, Zenon chose to only address the audience at the end of his program; big mistake for someone establishing himself as a large ensemble leader in this milieu.

The science of meteorology has advanced over the decades to an uncanny ability to predict the weather (yeah, I know, not exactly profound…). Remember when some storm/inclement weather pattern or other would be predicted and you’d think to yourself ‘that may or may not happen.’? Not anymore, these folks nail it now and our advance check of weather.com predicted mad rain for Newport’s Saturday afternoon proceedings. Sure enough from the time we crossed the bridge and entered the queue of traffic slowly snaking its way through the quaint streets to Fort Adams, the rain was relentless, coming down like Trane at full throttle and destined for all day. The complimentary yellow school buses transporting festfans from remote parking lots to the grounds could not arrive quickly enough to stave off many celebrants starting their day soaked like some pet pooch left out in the rain. The ride back to the hotel couldn’t go quickly enough for coaxing off the shoes, wringing out the socks and a complete change of clothes. Missing the Robert Glasper Experiment and Gregory Porter‘s storytelling charm whilst slogging our way in, umbrellas, rain parkas and lawn chair placement later the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra gave a platinum accounting, arrangements including Horace Silver‘s “Señor Blues” and trombonist Vincent Gardner doing his best Jimmy Rushing blues. Wynton on a mission, as always, and in fine fettle at Newport, no quibbles. Alas Saturday was a day more fit for seeking shelter and socializing under some cover than braving the elements to catch what was an exceptional and stylistically expansive day of artists; Dan Melnick is a skilled artistic director indeed. The tented shelter of the Quad Stage (seating is also tented at the Harbor Stage) did beckon, and some substantive sizzle from Cubano conguero Pedrito Martinez’s from-deep-in-the-gut small band was the truth.

Vijay Iyer Vijay Iyer courtesy Matt Merewitz
Sunday did provide a measure of relief from Mother Nature, with only gray skies and intermittent drizzle, but the allure of the Quad and Harbor lineups proved irresistible, particularly as opposed to scoping out a spot in the Main Stage area. The Cookers were followed on the Quad Stage by Vijay Iyer‘s inspiring unit, including Mark Shim on tenor sax and some Haynes family fire, with Graham Haynes on cornet and his nephew Marcus Gillmore on drums. Fils Roy would have enjoyed this set! At one point Iyer broke it down to a deep groove orientation that drew many a nodding head. Surveying the crowd, one experienced a refreshing youngish sector that belies concerns about the graying of the jazz audience. These kids, raised on hip hop, locked into Vijay’s groove with intense familiarity and deep approval. In fact that entire weekend was a breath of fresh air as far as the overall age demographic, recalling an earlier impression that what the younger audience seeks is a portable experience, where they’re not locked into a club table or auditorium seating for two hours, but one where they can freely socialize, move around, keep their smartphones active, and lacking the restrictive nature of those good intention/bad idea pre-show admonishments against photography, snap away at will with their devices.
Graham Haynes & Marcus Gillmore
Uncle Graham Haynes checking out dad Roy’s grandson Marcus Gilmore’s adept and dashing drum work

From Vijay it was a slow drift over to the Harbor Stage to lock down for the next three sets. (Oh boy, Suz found us some front row seats!) Having seen Ravi Coltrane the week prior in Santa Fe with Jack DeJohnette‘s Trio (scroll down for that impression), it was a refreshing contrast to hear his original composition-laden, piano-less quartet featuring the adventurous trumpeter Ralph Alessi. The driver’s seat was industriously occupied by the rambunctious DC-raised drummer Kush Abadey, whose polyrhythmic pallet gave contrasting lift and gravity to Coltrane’s music.

Ron Carter Trio
Elegance came knocking with a velvet glove as NEA Jazz Master Ron Carter‘s suavely, deeply swinging trio filled the Harbor Stage with the kind of élan that never gets old. Time stood still as Carter coaxed a gorgeous “You Are My Sunshine” that was a triumph of pure subtlety over the sometimes disruptive winds of big event jazz. Impeccably draped in matching dark suits and yellow ties, reminding all that Ron Carter is proudly “old school” (and ‘you wanna make something of it’?), guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Donald Vega boast remarkable lines of communication, achieving as full a band sound as any ensemble that weekend. Carter, a warm man and one about whom the old saw “doesn’t suffer fools easily” also fits, agreeably played “My Funny Valentine” as a dedication to a gentleman intending to propose to his beloved right then & there at the Harbor, which he did to the oohs & ahhs delight of Carter’s audience. The temperature rose agreeably as the ebullient pianist-composer and Prince of Panama Danilo Perez played his “Panama 500″ program, significantly buoyed by the presence of the percussionist Roman Diaz in the ensemble. Nothing like some intelligent fire to close a good weekend! Nothing we can do about the weather and despite that lack of cooperation, Newport 60 was a blast!
Danilo
Danilo

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Art of cool

A couple of weeks back our ongoing dialogue with black music writers, Ain’t But a Few of Us, included the young writer Anthony Dean-Harris. In addition to detailing how he came to write about jazz, Anthony spoke in very positive tones about a jazz presenting organization called The Art of Cool that he had recently become affiliated with as correspondent to their web site. That somewhat audacious name certainly piqued the curiosity, so based on Dean-Harris’ enthusiastic referral I sought out Art of Cool mover & shaker Cecily Mitchell for some insights into this developing organization devoted to bringing jazz to the Durham, North Carolina area.
Art of Cool
Cicely Mitchell & Al Strong of the Art of Cool

In the vernacular we – at least some of us – know what one might mean by the art of cool. But please tell us your mission with this organization, why you chose that name, and how Art of Cool stands for what you’re trying to do in your part of the country.
Art of Cool is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to presenting, preserving and promoting jazz-influenced music. Our goal is to expand the audience for jazz and improvised music. The name evolved from the venues where we originally started presenting jazz which were small local art galleries in the Raleigh-Durham area. We wanted to give reference to jazz without actually saying the word “jazz’ which to be honest can be a barrier for some people. I thumbed through some old albums that my partner, Al Strong, had and picked out “Birth of the Cool”. Art of Cool just made sense and stuck.

How did Cicely Mitchell become a jazz enthusiast?
I met Al Strong, a local trumpeter and professor at St. Augustine’s and North Carolina Central. He turned me on to jazz. I loved soul music and good old-school hip hop before we met. The elements of what I loved about those genres I later realized were the essence of jazz. Al seemed to help me connect all the dots. It was almost instant that jazz was my link to African American tradition and culture.

It’s weird. All through undergrad I kept saying…”I’m going to get into jazz…like Miles and Coltrane.” Yet I always felt a little intimidated. I just didn’t know where to start. Al listens to all the greats all the time so it was simple to just jump in head first. Of course, he’s got quite a collection.

Why Durham, NC and how did you determine that this was a niche in your community that you needed to fill?
Durham, NC has a rich tradition of Black American Music mostly in the blues and soul music. North Carolina in general has a very big jazz connection. The most obvious are John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk. Aside from the history Durham currently is very strong in arts performance culture. It is home to 2 performance theatres that are currently in the top 100 in box office sales. Durham is home to Duke University as well as North Carolina Central University both schools boast residencies by Branford Marsalis. Nnenna Freelon is a downtown Durham resident. The students and faculty at both schools play around town and make the scene extremely strong. People come to Durham for school or jobs in Research Triangle Park. The population is highly educated and more adept for arts culture like jazz, classical music or plays. So all the pieces are in place in Durham: the players, the audience and the institutions. Art of Cool is here simply to connect them all.

Talk about some of the activities you’ve presented thus far, and be candid about both successes and the not so successful – including some sense of why/how some things may have been successful, and others less so.
We mainly present jazz and soul music in club venues and outdoor stages now. We successfully filled the earlier art galleries that we presented jazz in the first year. We attribute success to the strength of the players on the scene.

We tried to launch the series in art galleries in Raleigh; however, we’ve found that it hasn’t taken off as quickly as Durham. We think it is because Raleigh is more of a rock and bluegrass type of town. Durham is known as the place in the Triangle to go hear jazz or soul music. It is rich in Black American Music offerings.

As an organization, besides the obvious funding, what are some things your organization could use going forward?
Art of Cool would love to build a strong blog community. We hope to reach more people outside of the Triangle by writing more about the resurgence of jazz. Please help spread the word. We also could use visitors to our first annual Art of Cool festival which will be held downtown at 8 venues with over 20+ world-class jazz/soul musicians over two days (April 25-26, 2014). Maceo Parker and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson are the headliners. We announce the full lineup Nov. 15th, 2013.

Art of Cool 1

What kind of future do you foresee for Art of Cool?
- Art of Cool’s future includes: Art of Cool Festival, which will be held each April.
- Start of Cool, which is our jazz education program that we seek to launch next year.
- Launch of a more active blog featuring content about the next generation of jazz musicians which will be led by Anthony Dean-Harris of Nextbop.com.

Art of Cool is the kind of DIY effort on behalf of the music that has some measure of precedence in history; jazz support organizations have been hatched in numerous communities around the country, to varying degrees of success. No question Art of Cool could certainly be replicated in other communities. To get a better sense of the impact Art of Cool has made on the culture of the Durham, NC community thus far I sought out the impressions of two Durham area residents whose instincts where the music is concerned are impeccable, including vocalist-educator Lenora Zenzalai Helm (whose recent efforts were profiled earlier this year in the Independent Ear), and staunch jazz supporter Aminifu Harvey, a DC-area transplant who has expressed great appreciation for the jazz scene in Durham.

Lenora Zenzalai Helm: Yes, Art of Cool is definitely making a huge impact here in the NC Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Cary) area. They are putting together a jazz festival – the first one outside of a university-connected event that I know of. They created a groundswell of support, had an impressive marketing strategy of community forums, open meetings with stakeholders (musicians, presenters, businesses, potential funders, etc.) and seemed to include everyone in the decision to “bring a festival to Durham.” A couple of years before this effort, they created a concert series that they used Reverbnation for to audition internationally. The brains behind the whole deal is a musician colleague from NCCU – trumpeter Al Strong, and Cicely Mitchell.

I was on their first concert series last year, and they are in the 2nd season of that series. They also kind of attach their name to any artist coming to town and do an after hours set near that artist’s concert to draw attention to that performance, and create and continue the branding, so that they seem to be ubiquitous. Very clever indeed. I love them (Al and Cicely), and think they are an example of how to “get it done” in a locale where the intersection of small town folk and big ideas meet. Durham is an interesting place with a very particular slice of black history – did you know there was a section of town called “black wall street”? Plus, the success of DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center – the #1 grossing PAC in the country I’m told) was helpful to the AOCP’s venture toward a festival.

Aminifu Harvey: The Art of Cool. Man this organization has brought some hip and outstanding jazz performers to Durham; the organization has significantly added to the cultural growth of Durham as a leading musical site in North Carolina and the region. The outdoor performances have been family oriented, allowing young and old to mingle. They also are a means of transferring this American music to the very young. In addition Art of Cool has added to the financial stability of the businesses in the area. I try to make sure I attend the indoor concerts also. Why would I want to live anywhere else if I were (which I am a jazz aficionado).I am looking forward to the Art of Cool 2014 season.

Further information: WWW.THEARTOFCOOLPROJECT.COM

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Anthony Dean Harris: Ain’t But a Few of US

Ain’t But a Few of Us
Black music writers tell their story…
Anthony Dean-Harris
Anthony Dean-Harris
I first encountered the young writer Anthony Dean-Harris via his very active jazz-based blog at http://www.NEXTBOP.com. Just to give you a sense of where he’s been coming from with NEXTBOP, here’s how he characterizes the site: “The philosophy of Nextbop isn’t just about promoting jazz to jazz lovers. Nextbop is about appealing to everyone. It’s about promoting jazz to the world. It’s about showing the indie rock crowd, the punk rock crowd, the hip hop crowd, the R&B crowd, the bluegrass crowd, and so many other scenes that this kind of music is great and it’s not so far off from what you’re used to hearing.” Being all about jazz audience development here with the Independent Ear, and with my work in general, that philosophy certainly struck a chord with this editor!

As with any upwardly mobile, energetic young striver, change is afoot for Anthony Dean-Harris, news he conveyed recently. “I, in consultation with my partner Sebastien, have decided to end Nextbop at the end of this year in order to oversee the blog at The Art of Cool Project (http://www.theartofcoolproject.com), a non-profit organization that puts on jazz and jazz-related shows in Durham, NC,” with their first festival in the works for April 2014. “Starting [in October] posts for Nextbop will post simultaneously at Art of Cool so as to get folks comfortable, eventually heading there by next year and to grow its audience.”

Clearly Anthony Dean-Harris was a fresh new candidate for this latest installment in the “Ain’t But a Few of Us” series of dialogues with African American jazz writers…

WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO WRITE ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC IN THE FIRST PLACE?
I’ve always loved jazz and grew up around it and I knew I’ve wanted to be a writer since high school when I knew I wanted to go to Trinity University for college because of its jazz station, KRTU San Antonio. However, I didn’t get a scholarship to Trinity, though I did get one for Morehouse College. So I ended up going there and my family soon followed me up to support me, experience the American black mecca [Atlanta] themselves, and keep costs low (or at least as low as one can in an area with a significantly higher cost of living than San Antonio). When I graduated from Morehouse in 2008, the recession had just hit and my family decided that since I was done with school, we’d all head back from Atlanta to our hometown of San Antonio.

Once home, I got involved as a volunteer with a city council race and met the late Kathy Clay-Little, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and publisher of the community newspaper African-American Expressions. We were talking at the campaign office one day about her plans to put on a small jazz festival on Fathers’ Day and who she should try to book. When she learned of my love of jazz, she asked if I’d like to cover concerts for her paper. I gladly said yes and one of my first assignments was to attend the annual KRTU spring concert with her, including the opening VIP reception. It was there, before the evening’s performer Ramsey Lewis, that I met many of the folks who ran KRTU. Those folks said I should have a show there, especially since one of their hosts was leaving soon. Over the next few months, I eventually ended up taking over The Line-Up, posting the playlists to my personal blog.

It was around this time that I ran across sites like Nextbop and NPR’s jazz blog, A Blog Supreme. ABS’s editor, Patrick Jarenwattananon, posed a question to a few folks in the jazz scene, asking if they were to share ten albums of jazz music with a newcomer to the genre, which albums would they choose, however all the albums could only be from the last twenty years. Nextbop’s founders, Sebastien Helary and Justin Wee, had a great list and that’s when I was impressed by the site and its potential. I also put together a list unsolicited and sent it to Jarenwattananon, who graciously posted it to the site. That’s how Sebastien ran across my blog with its playlists from my radio show and my writing from college back when I was on the newspaper staff as opinions editor. Seb contacted me about writing for Nextbop and as time went by and we grew a rapport, and as he learned that my college journalism background was perfect training for managing and growing the site, I eventually ended up as Nextbop’s editor and my role as writing about jazz music pretty much cemented.

I can see God’s hand in a lot of this, leading me from one role to another and making me incredibly happy (though still pretty poor, but I get plenty of new music and see a lot of shows in support of this community, so it all works out).

WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED WRITING ABOUT MUSIC WERE YOU AWARE OF THE DEARTH OF AFRICAN AMERICANS WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC?
I can’t say I was aware of the dearth of black writers on jazz music, but I can’t say I was too surprised by it. The genre has been growing and changing a lot over the century of its existence, and as it goes with pretty much anything, it’s all too common for blacks to be shut out or limited from telling our own stories, framing our own narratives, or just giving our own perspective built from our backgrounds. Fortunately, it’s a bit easier for us to change this as the internet has democratised access and ability to do so but the work continues.

WHY DO YOU SUPPOSE THAT’S STILL SUCH A GLARING DISPARITY WHERE YOU HAVE A SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF BLACK MUSICIANS MAKING SERIOUS MUSIC BUT SO FEW BLACK MEDIA COMMENTATORS ON THE MUSIC?
I don’t like to think there are so many countervailing forces oppressing black journalists in this regard (there might be some who are indeed doing so maliciously, but I don’t want to cut wide swaths like that), but I do think that it could mostly be the public’s lack of familiarity with black voices. Much of my work focuses on contextualization– we are what we see everyday. We cannot know what we have not been exposed to and we’re experts on those things that surround us. There may very well be newspaper, magazine, and web editors who simply aren’t around voices of color who may be aware of black jazz (and R&B/hip hop/soul/etc) music and don’t even know that they don’t know this. In an increasingly nicheified musical landscape where people can read only the coverage they want to read, it may be getting easier to get our voices out there but difficult in entirely different ways to get work into disparate eyes.

DO YOU THINK THAT DISPARITY OR DEARTH OF AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ WRITERS CONTRIBUTES TO HOW THE MUSIC IS COVERED?
I definitely think this, largely because of contextualization. Take for example Kanye West‘s recent appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The following day, there were many posts on music blogs linking to the performance– the standard web aggregation coverage of the day without much substance added to it other than “Watch this video!” It may have been noted that Charlie Wilson was present and singing, but a black voice well versed in Wilson’s body of work could have noted how many of Wilson’s trademark “shabba-dabba-tweet-tweet-tweet”s (and one or two “ooh’-weeEE’s) he ad-libbed. Of course, white writers who aren’t exposed to the back catalog of The Gap Band may not have even noticed this merited mentioning because they don’t know what they don’t know. This is how that added black perspective affects the discourse.

For black music to be, as it always has been, a crucial part of culture, informed people must also be part of the discourse about the music’s impact.

SINCE YOU’VE BEEN WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC, HAVE YOU EVER FOUND YOURSELF QUESTIONING WHY SOME MUSICIANS MAY BE ELEVATED OVER OTHERS, AND IS IT YOUR SENSE THAT HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE LACK OF CULTURAL DIVERSITY AMONG WRITERS COVERING THE MUSIC?
Since I’ve been writing about jazz, especially as I’ve run my own publication, I’ve come to realize essentially how this job and the attention given to some artists over others natually occurs. I’ve realized some of the seemingly trivial things like appealing album art determines whether or not I’ll devote attention to an album, or when an email hits my inbox at just the right time for me to care, or how important having a good press release and readily accessible songs to stream make spreading the word more appealing to me. Seeing the inner workings of music journalism like this helped me realize the whole industry functions like this to some degree, and this doesn’t even take into consideration how it all works in other genres or larger publications who may pay more attention to SEO optimization than merely discussing quality music and informing the masses of talent that needs a voice. The inner workings of the machine and its simple extension of how we as people pay attention to things explains so much about why music journalism is how it is.

So taking added diversity into account in this regard adjusts things a bit because it’s easy to assume people of different cultural backgrounds would have their respective attention drawn to different works. It’s the nature of the beast.

WHAT’S YOUR SENSE OF THE INDIFFERENCE OF SO MANY AFRICAN AMERICAN-ORIENTED PUBLICATIONS TOWARDS SERIOUS MUSIC, DESPITE THE FACT THAT SO MANY AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS CONTINUE TO CREATE SERIOUS MUSIC?
When it comes to how black publications cover music of this sort, I don’t like to think of it too differently from how mainstream white publications cover mainstream pop music in comparison to other more sophisticated kinds of music. I’ve been so immersed in the world of jazz since I’ve been listening as a child, but especially since I’ve been involved in Nextbop and radio hosting at KRTU, that I have forgotten that this music does indeed have a tendency to be rather inaccessible. My listening to music for musicality, dynamism, quick decisions made on the spot, communalism between musicians, and other aspects that don’t bore me like simplicity does is distinctly different from how many others listen to music, searching for quick, visceral connection and catchiness. Every culture has this sort of dichotomy in its art and I’m loath to say black art may have this problem more than other cultures, though black culture’s influence on culture at large does shine a different sort of spotlight on the matter that is at times distressing.

HOW WOULD YOU REACT TO THE CONTENTION THAT THE WAY AND TONE OF HOW SERIOUS MUSIC IS COVERED HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH WHO IS WRITING ABOUT IT?
I’d agree with this in much the same way writing about essentially anything is affected by who is doing the writing.

I’m a writer who loves not only music but also television and film. I’m one of those guys who uses the word “showrunner” a lot and cares about Aaron Sorkin’s oeuvre and things of that sort. When people ask me why I care about these sorts of things and how I remember details about television like I do, I tell them it’s all part of being a storyteller. In one’s family or circle of friends, there’s always some person at dinner — a guy back in college, that crazy uncle, a fellow bar patron — who tells stories in a way that makes people listen. Maybe the person describes things ornately, maybe s/he uses wild hand gestures, maybe s/he has a great voice. Whatever it is, the storyteller has attributes that makes his or her stories unique and appealing. A person tells a story in his or her own way that people remember, that causes them to come back for more. If a storyteller has a tendency to talk about interoffice relationships, or uses a camera to show the story, or uses the internet to talk about what happened at a jazz club in New York, these are all different ways to tell a story. I always try to understand that each medium lends itself to different strategies and means of performing the same function– there are people out there who want to hear what the storyteller has to say.

IN YOUR EXPERIENCE WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF YOUR MOST REWARDING ENCOUNTERS?
The most rewarding experience I’ve had since running Nextbop was putting together our first unofficial day party during the South By SouthWest festival in Austin, Texas, this last March. It was the first event I had ever organized and we had bands of renown local to Texas and throughout the world agree to play a little burger place built from a reformed car garage. It was humbling that such talented people like Australia’s Hiatus Kaiyote and Canada’s BADBADNOTGOOD would agree to play such an event for a clear novice like me at something like this, and moreso that it was attended as well as it was. I’m looking to put on another party this coming March without me being nearly as exasperated as I was the first time around, but after the dust cleared and everyone who was there had a great time, I could step back and marvel at just what happened. Writing is such a solitary act (and writers, like many artists, are often very critical of themselves to the point of self-loathing). So to throw an event where people actually show up and enjoy what it is that you do and are happy to say so is extremely satisfying.

Though lately, I’ve really enjoyed editing the work of others for Nextbop. There are essays like Jon Wertheim’s critique of trumpeter Nicholas Payton‘s contentious nature, or Ben Gray’s series looking at original versions of jazz songs and comparing them to cover versions, or just being blessed to post anything Angelika Beener writes that makes me immensely proud of Nextbop and what it has grown to be over these few years.

WHAT OBSTACLES HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED – BESIDES DIFFICULT EDITORS AND INDIFFERENT PUBLICATIONS – IN YOUR EFFORTS AT COVERING SERIOUS MUSIC?
Since I’ve mostly been working as my own editor and manager since taking up music journalism, the most difficult part of all this is learning the ropes about all this on my own. Arranging interviews, obtaining press credentials for events, keeping in contact with publicists, and things of that sort is still a fish out of water thing for me. Another part of that, though, is figuring out how to make all this a viable business. Nextbop has been a labor of love for four years now and has yet to make money. I’ve been working on selling ad space to change that, but this, too, is one of those roles in the business that’s new to me. Running the whole business and learning the trade has been a lot to tackle, and though it’s been slow going, it’s sometimes a comfort to realize what I’ve picked up along the way in doing so.

10. WHAT HAVE BEEN THE MOST INTRIGUING RECORDS RELEASED SO FAR THIS YEAR?
Laura Mvula‘s Sing to the Moon
Thundercat‘s Apocalypse
Gerald Clayton‘s A Life Forum
The Stepkids‘ Troubadour
Butcher Brown‘s a & b-sides
Terence Blanchard‘s Magnetic
There’s definitely a lot more but I’ll get to that in the next few months around the time for year-end lists with the rest of the Nextbop staff.

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Ain’t But a Few of Us: Ron Welburn

Ain’t But a Few of Us
Black music writers tell their story…

Ron Welburn is a professor in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and is the Director of the Certificate program in Native American Studies. Of Assateague/Gingaskin & Cherokee Native American and African American heritage, he grew up in the Philadelphia area. As a jazz writer Prof. Welburn was editor of a journal called The Grackle back in the mid-late ’70s, and a former frequent contributor to JazzTimes magazine. He also formerly coordinated the Jazz Oral History Project for the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.

One of Welburn’s primary research pursuits is the historical presence of Native American musicians in jazz; these have included “Big Chief” Russell Moore, a Native trombonist Welburn interviewed for the ISJ oral history project. Ron Welburn is also a published poet.

As a writer I first recall encountering Ron’s byline back when I contributed to Jim Harrison’s Jazz Spotlight News in the 1970s, one of the few African-American published jazz journals. Given the Grackle and his other notable experiences writing about the music, Ron Welburn was a natural for this occasional and ongoing dialogue with black writers and the often peculiar challenges they’ve faced getting in print.

For those new to this series of dialogues, which began in 2010, the basic premise is that despite the historic origins of jazz music, the history of African Americans writing about jazz from a journalistic or critical perspective has not been robust or even representative of the impact African Americans have made on this music, particularly from a sheer numbers perspective. Classic example: none of the major jazz periodicals down through the generations has ever had a black editor.
Ron Welburn

WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO WRITE ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC IN THE FIRST PLACE?
My original motivation, which turned into my first published article in 1963, was what I saw as the discrepancy of radio jazz programming in Philadelphia compared to NY. I was particularly annoyed that the commercial FM deejays Sid Mark, Joel Dorn and Del Shields avoided playing records by Ornette, Cecil, et al, though they played Coltrane, Dolphy, McIntyre, and Prince Lasha. Local pianist Damon Spiro, to whom I expressed my concerns, invited me to submit an article to the tabloid of the Jazz at Home Club, whose sessions I was attending. “What’s Wrong with Philadelphia’s Radio Jazz?” was the article’s title. Those deejays didn’t like it; Hal Ross of WXPN at Penn thought it was great. Sure, I was on a high horse! Once I got to Lincoln University in my native Chester County, PA, I had a chance to review LPs for the school newspaper.

WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED WRITING ABOUT MUSIC WERE YOU AWARE OF THE DEARTH OF AFRICAN AMERICANS WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC?
Yes, I became aware of that around the same time (1962?63). As a Down Beat subscriber I learned about Barbara Gardner; then Leroi Jones’ [column] “Apple Cores.” I think trumpeter Kenny Dorham and Bill Quinn began a few years later.

WHY DO YOU SUPPOSE THAT’S STILL SUCH A GLARING DISPARITY – WHERE YOU HAVE A SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF BLACK MUSICIANS MAKING SERIOUS MUSIC BUT SO FEW BLACK MEDIA COMMENTATORS ON THE MUSIC?
African Americans seem to have promoted few academic outlets for critical music writing. I can only suppose that editors at newspapers and populist magazines feel “serious” music journalism will not interest their readers, and would rather not support a position where artists could be “torn down.”

DO YOU THINK THAT DISPARITY OR DEARTH OF AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ WRITERS CONTRIBUTES TO HOW THE MUSIC IS COVERED?
My better frame of reference for this answer is up to about 1984 or so. There’s never been much room for a conversation. Young white writers have chomped at the bit to write about this music, and for gratis. I’ve never figured out, fully at least, why young writers of color tend to shy away from this kind of writing but are in the foreground criticizing those (whites) who do. Maybe it’s an orientation whites have that writers of color in mainstream journalism shun.

When I was reading Latin New York I became aware of good writing by Aurora Flores; and I met and talked with Max Salazar who I don’t think ever pulled together his writings from LNY and other places into a book (and he cautiously shared a few ideas with John Storm Roberts who then wrote The Latin Tinge). Hilly Saunders with his paper and my Cherokee buddy Lewis MacMillan (New York City Jazz Gazette) didn’t promote much critical writing in their publications. I did a few pieces for Ken Smikle’s publication; Ornette Coleman told me he liked the one I wrote on his harmolodic method. Today, I’m among a few Natives writing about Indians in jazz, blues and pop; yet even for these venues the “serious” writing isn’t fully there.
Ron Welburn 1

SINCE YOU’VE BEEN WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC, HAVE YOU EVER FOUND YOURSELF QUESTIONING WHY SOME MUSICIANS MAY BE ELEVATED OVER OTHERS, AND IS IT YOUR SENSE THAT HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE LACK OF CULTURAL DIVERSITY AMONG WRITERS COVERING THE MUSIC?
First, I haven’t published any serious music reviews since 2001, after some 36 years because I just couldn’t keep up with that, my teaching, serious illnesses of an uncle and a friend, and writing a book. Second, what I’ve seen and studied tells me cultural wars are a mainstay in American life, and I place the onus for them on the music industry more than the musicians. White musicians are just musicians wanting to perform a vibrant music that makes them part of a significant culture. Even those who didn’t or prefer still not to perform with black musicians are just trying to make it. It’s the machinery and politics of culture that exploits them as pawns, and they haven’t got a clue!

People who start publications tend to call on their friends-devotees to write for them. Essentially, that’s how it was with The Grackle: Improvised Music in Transition, which published five issues between 1976 and 1979. The Grackle was meant to be a forum of ideas for us three that created it: James T. Stewart, Roger Riggins, and me. I invited Victor Manuel Rosa to write on Latin/Nuyorican music. But I turned away at least two white writers who virtually begged for opportunities to write. I didn’t like doing that, but I told them they had outlets not accessible to us, and being in the early stages we had ideas we wanted to work out.

HOW WOULD YOU REACT TO THE CONTENTION THAT THE WAY AND TONE OF HOW SERIOUS MUSIC IS COVERED HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH WHO IS WRITING ABOUT IT?
There may be some truth to that but I’m not absolutely sold on it. Serious music journalism has an academic quality, and I see nothing wrong with that. Perhaps it could continue to loosen itself rhetorically; but if writers of color are afraid of offending their readers, whites will always fill the void.

Publishing venues differ according to who they view as their readers. The late Eileen Southern and since the 1980s Samuel Floyd edited academic publications; I don’t fully recall many serious essays about jazz in Southern’s journal. Bear in mind the context that jazz was not considered “serious music” by anybody. Attitudes by writers in the jazz magazines “were what they were”; but the most egregiously racist one I read was a review of Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues where the reviewer accused him of not knowing anything about the blues!

IN YOUR EXPERIENCE WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF YOUR MOST REWARDING ENCOUNTERS?
I’ve been blessed by enjoying just about all my encounters that turned into writings either assigned or volunteered. Some were outside the jazz field. Just to name a few:
• While the music editor for the Syracuse New Times didn’t want me writing for it, I published a remembrance in 1972 or so of hearing Albert Ayler for the first time in 1962; and I also covered the Newport Jazz Festival New York and the downtown Counter festival during 1972?75. As he was bearing down on me, and I was leaving, I was able to wave in his face my award of a Jazz Criticism Fellowship from the Music Critics Association and the Smithsonian for my writing in that alternative weekly newspaper. He was sour; but the editor/publisher was delighted.
• Covering a few festivals of Asian music and writing a few articles for Music Journal, at the invitation of Guy Freedman, a wonder individual to whom I was introduced by pianist Ran Blake.
• Reviewing international music recordings for a little Philadelphia-based library publication, Rockingchair. I was studying ethnomusicology at the time and wrestling with Spanish, but also reviewed belly dance music, Greek, Isreali, Arab North African, Bhutanese, French Canadian, Grand Comoro Islands. I had a ball! (I did very well in four years of high school Latin; if I could have chosen another career it would have been linguistics; besides those language cultures I would have focused on southern and eastern Algonquian languages).
• Covering Creek/Kaw tenor saxophonist Jim Pepper at the South Street Seaport, and reviewing Comin’ and Goin’.

WHAT OBSTACLES HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED – BESIDES DIFFICULT EDITORS AND INDIFFERENT PUBLICATIONS – IN YOUR EFFORTS AT COVERING SERIOUS MUSIC?
Nothing terribly caustic. I learned that editors of black newspapers weren’t concerned about the timeliness of a review; and they were not above cutting the final paragraph or two of a relatively short review, which is what the New York Amsterdam News did, once, maybe twice. But I believe everything happens for a reason. The “breaks” I didn’t get meant I probably wasn’t supposed to be there.

WHAT HAVE BEEN THE MOST INTRIGUING RECORDS RELEASED SO FAR THIS YEAR?
Thanks to Glenn Siegel, music director at UMass Amherst’s WMUA and creator of the Magic Triangle series and Jazz Shares, this year I’ve heard some promising music and CDs by Makaya McCraven, Split Decision (Chicago Sessions CS0018)(albeit a 2012 CD) and Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things: About Us (Music and Mike Reed—well, yes, a 2009 CD).

The most exciting and innovating music I’ve heard in the last five years live and on CD includes Michelle Rosewoman who came here with her ensemble and I bought her The In Side Out and hope she does more orchestrations like that; and Rudresh Mahanthappa, who with his cohort is, I think, rewriting the vocabulary for playing the saxophone as part of, in my experience of listening and as an amateur musician, a long arch coming out of South Asia. A development like this in jazz was bound to happen

Yet, a 1997 concert at Mount Holyoke College by Sonny Rollins tops just about any concert I’d heard before or since. Astounding!!! I’m still speechless!

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Reflections on the JJA Award

Many thanks again to the Jazz Journalists Association for the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award, and to my friend Bret Primack “The Jazz Video Guy” for his subsequent YouTube interview (see url below). The following interview appears in the current issue of the Tri-C JazzFest newsletter.

WVJ on wall
The Jazz Journalists Association recently presented Tri-C JazzFest Artistic Director Willard Jenkins with the 2013 JJA Lifetime Achievement Award in Jazz Journalism.
With that in mind, we put a few questions to him about jazz journalism and how he came to advocate for the music.

You just got an award from the Jazz Journalists Association. Does the press do a good job of representing jazz to new audiences?
I think the press does a substandard job of representing jazz — period. And here I’m speaking of press outlets, not those many learned and earnest jazz writers who strive for bylines and yearn to cover this music more broadly than publications or editors enable them to.

All too often writers have a tendency to shoot over the heads of their potential readers in an effort at patting themselves on the back for their supposed acumen and “insider” knowledge of what I refer to as the science of music. I’m not advocating outright cheerleading or dumbing down of one’s prose, just a sense of mindfulness that those who read your reportage may need non-technical elements, real storytelling to draw them into the fold of interest.

How long have you had your blog and what prompted you to start it?
I’ve had my blog The Independent Ear for about seven years now. I was prompted to start it purely to have a creative outlet to express some of the issues and elements of this music that I find missing in the mainstream jazz prints. I use it as an outlet to write what I choose to write, without publication-imposed restrictions.

I like dealing with issues, like the plight of African Americans writing about jazz that I dealt with over the course of months under the heading of “Ain’t But a Few of Us.” Or perhaps it’s talking with an exceptional and under-publicized artist like the pianist Sumi Tonooka and her latest composition project.

At our Tri-C JazzFest last April, I came away even more impressed than I already was with the exciting young vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant. I checked her out during the festival, found her not only to be an unusual talent with an amazing vocal range, but a young woman of uncommon grace and maturity for one so young, so I wrote a piece about her efforts at our festival coupled with the release of her first stateside album “Woman Child.”

As artistic director of the Tri-C JazzFest, you get to dream big every year about what artists to bring into town. How do you approach the challenge?­

First of all, working for Tri-C JazzFest has been a blessing, as has my other jazz presenting work. That work has enabled me to bring artists to our stages that I firmly believe our audience ­needs to hear, must hear, deserves to be exposed to.

My task is to keep an open mind to what’s out here and not be closed to my own personal proclivities; to have a sense of what’s good for our audiences and venues and what makes sense to bring to Cleveland; also be on the listen for what might challenge our Cleveland audience.

Throughout the year I keep a fluid document full of ideas that come to mind throughout the year while listening to new releases, meeting and interviewing artists, broadcasting the music, and just experiencing the music.

Tell us about your father’s record collection and how it influenced your ear.
Like most of my peers, I listened to the music of the day growing up, and for my time that was Motown, Stax, James Brown, etc., whatever they were playing on WAMO or WABQ. However, my dad’s record collection was a constant source of what I’ll call alternative inspiration, as was Cleveland’s last full-time jazz radio station, WCUY.

So I was exposed to the Duke Ellingtons, Count Basies, Sarah Vaughans, Ella Fitzgeralds, Cannonball Adderleys, Jimmy Smiths, Miles Davis and the like from an early age. My dad was also a bit of an early adapter in the stereo revolution – where the mark of good taste became your home sound system. I remember Christmas 1961 watching my father assemble a new home sound system and being fascinated by the process, and later how good the music suddenly sounded – not only the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and Isley Brothers I’d slip on the turntable, but also the great jazz artists he was always spinning.

My appreciation for music and collecting records increased exponentially when I got to college at Kent State and I became known as a voracious record collector — someone who wouldn’t hesitate to commandeer a friend’s car to make the drive to Cleveland to the old Record Rendezvous to scarf up the strange new album Miles Davis had just released called “Bitches Brew.”

On campus I became the guy who introduced new music to my friends because I was the guy who took chances and experimented with what might be unknown to others. So not only might that mean the latest Miles, but I’d also be the first on campus to introduce new groups like Earth, Wind & Fire to my circle. Record collecting became sort of my social niche.

And that all stemmed from my father’s early influence.

What advice do you have for people who think of jazz as intimidating? Where should they start?
I’d say people should simply start with trying to listen to a variety of sounds and artists and determine their own listening pleasure. Maybe a good place to start would be the Smithsonian’s comprehensive recorded survey of the music.

When encountering a jazz performance, listen to the interaction between musicians, check how they subtly communicate with each other, and know that behind this mysterious element known as improvisation is some measure of a blueprint; these musicians aren’t just going onstage and playing random notes — or improvising in the purest sense of the word. They go equipped with certain mores and sensibilities that in the best of all worlds has them attuned to their fellow musicians to create a cohesive, pleasant, stimulating experience for the audience.

Who’s the long-gone jazz artist you’d most like to have met?
That’s a tough one because I could say Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams. But ultimately I think that would have to be Louis Armstrong.

To hear more from Jenkins, check out this video on YouTube:

…And this from the 2013 Jazz Hero Award in DC…

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