The Independent Ear

The Enterprising Musician Pt. 2

The first installment of this occasional series spotlighting musicians who truly know what time it is, who recognize the necessity for a certain level of business expertise on the part of today’s striving musician, we heard from saxophonist-composer Rudresh Muhanthappa. When I posted our chat with Rudresh I heard from DC-area saxophonist Jeff Antoniuk, who has a very discriminating take on the need for business savvy on the part of today’s successful musician. And with that a few questions were in order for Jeff.

When a musician says to you that they don’t do business, they do music – implying that there just isn’t time or inclination on their part to thoroughly consider the business side of their pursuits with the same energy devoted to playing music, how would you respond?

I just wonder what it is that they do for a living, and sincerely hope that they are living a rich and comfortable life. The implication is that either their music already is paying for their great life, in which case there is no issue to be solved. Their music is creating all the money they need to live the life they want on planet earth. Or, perhaps they have another actual career, and music is their “passion on the side.” Charles Ives, the renowned classical composer and organist did this very successfully. He was a highly successful businessman, which allowed him to create fantastic music “after hours.” The music didn’t have to fund his life. Another great scenario.

The last scenario is that I am talking to a full time musician who doesn’t understand that they are in a business, and that they operate a business, with themselves as the product. I was definitely this person for many years myself, so I have great sympathy and an open heart for this person. I would love to help them understand that art and commerce are not opposites, that they can coexist. SHOULD coexist. I’d love to help them understand that the romantic notions of the constantly struggling jazz musician, or the starving, suffering artist are as ridiculous as having to shoot heroin to play like Charlie Parker. There’s nothing romantic about no heat, no food and no girlfriend.

What ultimately is the successful musician’s responsibility where the business of music is concerned?

I think that there are two categories to be considered and balanced. Number one is “YOU, the musician, are responsible for getting your music, your vision, out there.” It’s up to you, so take on this responsibility. It’s not on the club owner or the magazine publisher or the blogger or anyone else. It is your responsibility to step up or shut up. That said, stepping up is hard. Get help. There are so many resources and so much information and so much support. “Step Up” doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. Learn to ask for help.

Number two is “what is your definition of success?” It’s your responsibility to figure that out, and sooner is better than later. Is success getting your recording some airplay in the Jazz Top 50? A review in Downbeat? Doing a four week tour? Earning $250,000 from music this year? It’s YOUR responsibility, the business owner/musician, to decide what your goals are. Think hard though. The airplay and the reviews and the tour have very little to do with paying your rent, and earning a ton of money may not fulfill you at the end of the day. You may need to define your success in a number of different ways.

What would you say are the most critical business elements that musicians must be concerned with?

When I help professional jazz musicians develop their own businesses through, we spend much of the first portion of the training discovering our personal WHY. Not “what” and “how” (which are certainly important), but WHY. WHY are we teaching or playing or creating art? WHY would an audience or student or listener commit to us? WHY do we play or teach the way we do, WHY this way but not that way? And WHY should I, as an audience member, care about your art?

When we understand more about our personal WHY’s, and then the WHY’s of our business, we begin to stand for something. We are different than everyone else (which is a good thing, by the way). We have a point of view, we draw a line in the sand, and tell the world “I am THIS, and here is WHY. If you see the world like I do, you are going to LOVE my art.”

When we know WHY, now we have the beginnings of a business. We can begin delivering art that stands for something, and might just stand out. Picasso and Miles Davis stood out. Jonathan Ive and E.E. Cummings stood out. David Byrne and I.M. Pei stand out. They understood their WHY, and for that, they were invited to do their art for the world.

What business of music recommendations would you make to aspiring young musicians?

Ask for help. Music and art is such an individual, isolated pursuit so much of the time. We spend thousands of hours in the practice room, with headphones on. Music is a team sport, but 95% of our time is truly spent alone. Plus, many of us are quite introverted, so the idea of asking for help is very vulnerable, and scary as hell.

Just begin by talking about music and business with people you know and run into, but most especially talk with non-musicians. If you want to know about the Coltrane harmonic matrix, probably don’t ask the Chief Marketing Officer of an IT company. And, if you want to know about marketing or developing a brand, probably don’t ask your musician friends! There is so much help out there if you just open your mind and ask.

What have been some of your more successful business-of-music pursuits, and subsequent recommendations for your fellow musicians? was where “taking business seriously” started for me as a musician and teacher about 15 years ago. The JBM business is about coaching adult amateur and semi-pro musicians in the DC/MD/VA area, and giving them a place to play, learn, and be heard. It has become the core of my business, and JBM is very successful by any business metric one could apply. That said, I also love the work and am consistently fed by it, which is also a success. Lastly, I am in the business of changing lives and fulfilling dreams, so I go to bed with a big smile on my face most nights. Success. grew out of Jazz Band Masterclass. It is a four-day summer camp for adult musicians, who travel from around North America and the world to attend. JBM is regional, and MSJ is national. It’s the same business, scaled differently. My WHY is the same.

Digging Deeper Jazz Videos ( is a weekly series of jazz videos, again for adult musicians and semi-pros. The videos are now viewed over 1200 time a day and growing quickly from there. Again, it’s the same business, same WHY, scaled differently. JBM is regional, MSJ is national, Digging Deeper is global. is the part of my business geared towards helping jazz professionals around the world develop their own version of what I do, but for themselves. Not a franchise, this is training to help jazz pros build THEIR OWN business, learn their WHY, and begin the fulfilling and lucrative work of helping adult amateurs achieve their dreams. I’ve worked with great pros in New York, Philly, Sarasota, Bethesda, Baltimore, Portland, Dallas and Spokane over the past year or two. New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Houston, Seattle, Atlanta and LA are in the talking stages.

My Recommendations? Do the hard work of discovering what you stand for, and why. I am still a serious player, composer and bandleader, and I commit a lot of energy to it all every day. But that said, the WHY of my business is none of those things. I understand that I am truly put on earth to help adult musicians live their dreams, to understand that jazz is for them too. I help adult amateurs and semi-pros live the dream they had as a younger person, to play this music. I compose and record and gig a lot, but those are not the WHY of my business.

Your marching orders are to figure out what you stand for in your playing, writing, and/or teaching, and commit to it. Ask for help. Start somewhere, and don’t get knocked off your center. When it’s time to expand (Jazz Band Masterclass to Maryland Summer Jazz, or Digging Deeper Videos to Jazz Teacher Training), remember your core values. Remember who you are and what you stand for. Everything you do should support your WHY, and be strongly informed by it. From this point of departure, you’ll build a solid business that speaks to a true audience that opts in to what you offer. You won’t be begging for people to pay attention. You’ll have earned the right to have their attention.

Finally, you don’t need millions of people. You aren’t Katy Perry. She can’t exist without millions of fans – that is a nature of her business. But, if you speak strongly and consistently to tens of thousands, even to thousands, you have a strong business in the arts. Focus.

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The Enterprising Musician pt 1

Pursuing a career in jazz performance is a true labor of love. From the arduous isolation of the practice routine, to the additional study required to achieve a level of excellence – not to mention those many who are pursuing that performing career after devoting countless hours of study and achieving a related degree – becoming a professional musician is a study in perseverance. Then on top of the pursuit of one’s instrumental or vocal craft there are the myriad business considerations; Lord knows most jazz musicians do not have the financial wherewithal to simply engage qualified professionals to address their business responsibilities at their beck & call.

In the face of the challenges of becoming and sustaining the career of a professional jazz musician, I greatly admire those enterprising musicians who have taken it upon themselves to develop innovative ways to enhance their career efforts. I’m always on the lookout for the self-starters out there who see the big picture beyond their instrument/voice, gigs and recordings. So consider this the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing series of profiles of the various business practices being successfully employed by jazz musicians, practices that come from a variety of perspectives.

In a recent interview saxophonist-composer-educator Rudresh Mahanthappa spoke about merchandising concerns, issues which are an ongoing exploration of his. Besides his incredible facility on the alto saxophone, his innovative writing, and his pursuit of cross-discipline partners and projects, Rudresh is also the Director of Jazz at Princeton University, which provides him a platform to interact with student musicians on their performance and their business practices. Some of Rudresh’s remarks on various business practices in that interview prompted some questions.

The Independent Ear is looking for particularly enterprising musicians whose efforts have enhanced their performing career opportunities. Please send suggestions and contact info.

Rock and pop musicians have been concerned and in many cases very sophisticated about their merchandising options for many years. Is it your sense that jazz musicians and bands have been missing the boat in this

Yes. I think so. There’s a lot of fun things we can do merch-wise that still feels good beyond t-shirts.

What have you done to step up your personal merchandising profile?

First we made a beautiful double LP package. We also made socks and shot glasses. Manufacturing the two latter has not been easy but we now have them in stock and they aren’t taking over my house.

What¹s your sense of the ultimate benefits of establishing a real merchandising aspect to your career efforts?

I think it’s too early to tell. However, I do believe it helps to have a brand and a look. A logo for example.

Does merchandising ultimately assist in building your fan base, and if so how does that happen?

Hopefully and probably primarily via word-of-mouth or social media. Social media is another form of word-of-mouth anyways.

Do you find that merchandising works best online or on the gig?

The few times I had to take t-shirts to sell on a gig, they all sold out. I have not yet tried to sell any of the current merch at live shows simply because we have not had many shows. I’m also hesitant to schlep all of that stuff around . . .

As an educator you have opportunities to mold and shape aspiring musicians down the difficult path to professional artistry. What do you say to musicians who would respond that it¹s challenging enough to perform at the highest artistic level, and perhaps too large a challenge to be overly concerned with merchandising?

I think that’s a very fair point. Merchandising takes time, money, and physical space. I would only encourage doing so if it’s going to be fun and not arduous.

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Cruisin’ in pursuit of great jazz

Having previously experienced one lone cruise, and that one a 4-day wedding destination cruise, I had little context for the jazz cruise experience… at least not until the recently sailed Blue Note at Sea. The verdict: there’s a whole lot to love about a jazz cruise, and particularly this Blue Note at Sea experience! Sailing for only its second annual voyage, a multi-culti, international audience of jazz revelers set sail from Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday, January 27 for seven days chock full of performances and heavily laden with great measures of the kind of vacation-worthy pampering and amenities aboard the well-stocked, 11-decked Celebrity Summit that only a first class cruise can boast.

To call Blue Note at Sea a floating jazz festival is a bit too cliched, but that’s precisely what it felt like, though that analogy should be employed only for snapshot descriptive purposes. After all, where else can one experience a multitude of performances mere steps from one’s bedroom, a short stroll from amenities ranging from poolside to spa to inviting deck chairs and chaise lounges, to high class cafeteria-style dining (with several ala carte restaurants available if one chose to go off the grid of the plan one purchased and pick up checks), perhaps even chatting along the way, gazing at this ship’s notable visual arts displays, or sharing a meal tableside with an NEA Jazz Master like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dr. Lonnie Smith, or Chick Corea (who were all onboard for the duration)? And as was overheard throughout the week many times from delighted fellow cruisers – experience all that without once having to crank up the car, hit the streets and subsequently find parking upon arrival!

Those aforementioned amenities included housekeeping conveniently dropping off the next day’s schedule of events each day on your freshly made bed, along with a different promotional gift (including Blue Note at Sea-emblazoned baseball caps, water bottles and assorted other souvenirs) daily. Not to mention the charming, accommodating ship crew.

Day 1, a great tone-setting night of melody and tune, brought a bit more relaxed agenda than the succeeding 6 days – the music didn’t begin until 5:00pm, with some duo piano-bass from the facile pianist Caleb McCampbell (from Marcus Miller‘s band) and bassist Boris Kozlov in the Grand Foyer opposite what soon became the hippest onboard watering hole, the popular Martini Bar, whose daily happy hour quickly became mandatory!). McCampbell and Kozlov were among the crew of MVP-type onboard artists who were skillfully mixed and matched for sets throughout the week in the various venues and ensemble configurations. Other world-class artists who were similarly employed throughout the week included bassists Ben Williams, Tom Kennedy, and Derrick Hodge, drummers Nate Smith, Alex Bailey, and Kendrick Scott, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Brad Allen Williams (new to these ears, he was a consistent cruise revelation), pianists Geoffrey Keezer, Sullivan Fortner and Aaron Parks, saxophonists Marcus Strickland and Alex Han, and trumpeters Russell Gunn and Ambrose Akinmusire. Throughout the cruise they and others were mixed and matched, sometimes as leaders, most times as sidemen, and always with great contributing presence.


At 5:15 vocalist Jose James played one of several sets throughout the cruise in Deck 4’s comfortable (plush chairs and ubiquitous bar service) Rendez-Vous Lounge, with his onboard band of Fortner, Ben Williams, Brad Allen Williams, and Nate Smith on drums. The cruise became a floating laboratory for James’ development of his new Bill Withers project, which he’ll record for Blue Note in September, and which he always graciously thanked the audience for being part of the bloom. James, guitar in tow, crooned and shouted familiars from Withers’ rich songbook with great aplomb and expressed his delight at this first opportunity to sing Withers’ songs for an audience comprised largely of Boomers and slightly younger middle agers who had lived those songs and had those lyrics down pat. In a phenomenon we witnessed for several performers who made multiple appearances throughout the cruise, as the good grapevine buzz for what James was putting down on Deck 4 circulated throughout the ship, by his final hit on the following Friday evening as we sailed back to Ft. Lauderdale attendance was totally SRO – and you’d best get there early!

The talent was always there with Jose James, but there was a seeming inability to find his proper niche. This Bill Withers project really seems to be in his wheelhouse. He’s clearly not merely dabbling with Withers’ songbook and has obviously invested a lot of research and woodshedding into approaching this music, which he says was initially motivated by the fact that not enough people fully recognize Withers oeuvre. In one of his introductory monologues during the cruise, James mentioned how stunned he was to find that the most common Google search for Withers was “Is Bill Withers dead!” And besides his efforts at owning Withers’ songs, James unleashed some strong improvisatory passages. As a member of the hip hop generation, he is rapidly developing an uncanny sort of turntable scat; at least once per set he would skillfully run scat choruses in the stop/start hiccuping manner of a turntablist’s rhythmic alterations of Lp lyric passages.

At 6:30 Dee Dee Bridgewater played one of several cruise iterations of her new “Memphis” soul project. Having first seen this project at Monterey in September, its clear that in the interim Dee Dee has worked out the kinks and become completely comfortable with what for her is a return to her Memphis birthplace and that city’s incredible R&B history. She borrows gems ranging from the Staple Singers’ civil rights era lament “Why Am I Treated So Bad” to Al Green‘s book. The next day I conducted one of several packed house artist Q&A sessions with Dee Dee and she provided enthusiastic details on how she’s arrived at this painstakingly researched classic R&B project. Throughout the cruise these daily Q&A sessions, conducted also by Sirius XM’s Mark Ruffin, Marcus Miller, JazzTimes publisher Lee Mergner, and Blue Note president Don Was, were hugely popular among cruisers, who relished opportunities to pitch questions at the accommodating artists. Later in the week I conducted a Q&A session with B-3 master Dr. Lonnie Smith for another rapt audience.

A relaxing Day 1 dinner later we eased back down a deck to the Rendez-Vous for the first of vocalist Niki Harris‘ several performances. The daughter of the late pianist Gene Harris, who many Blue Note Records old heads will recall from the unit known as the Three Sounds, the personable Niki, whom we’d met at the cruise hotel in Ft. Lauderdale, is one of the most adroit vocalists on the current scene; this sister can literally sing it all! Accompanied by Fortner, Brad Allen Williams, Kozlov and Nate Smith throughout the cruise, Niki Harris was one of the true revelations for many cruisers, and the grapevine was on fire! You had to get there early for all of her subsequent performances. Notably, for her opening performance Ms. Harris delivered a delicious, decidedly jazz arrangement of the silky Isley Brothers classic “For The Love of You.”


Fifteen minutes after Niki closed at 10:30 was saxophonist and cruise musical director Eric Marienthal‘s Late Night Jam with Parks, Kennedy, and Scott on Deck 11 in the Blue Note Records Upbeat Lounge. Alas we missed that because the next hit simply had to be bassist Marcus Miller‘s first of several performances, hosted by his long time compadre David Sanborn, featuring Chick Corea in the ship’s main venue, the Celebrity Theater, an accommodating concert-hall like venue with balcony and the only assigned seating of the experience. Miles Davis is the most obvious intersection for Chick and Marcus and they opened with a mini-MD set of “If I Were a Bell,” “All Blues,” and Marcus’ familiar “Tutu”. And that was all just Day One!

Here I should add that each evening’s Mainstage performance had 6:30-8:00pm seatings, followed by a 9:00-10:30 hit, with passengers guaranteed seating at one or the other and plenty of opportunities to experience both concert sets should one wish for two helpings. Also at 11:00pm the first night was one of the daily film screenings for those with cinematic preferences for films ranging from classics like Cabin in the Sky (screened on Sunday morning) to Bird and Round Midnight.

Blissful hours in the sack later – with the sea rolling hypnotically by just outside our balcony window – breakfast yielded to Day 2 (Sunday)’s Gospel Show at Sea, skillfully captained by trombone master Wycliffe Gordon, featuring a band comprised of Strickland, Keezer, Scott, Kennedy, Brad Allen Williams, and most especially the always delightful Niki Harris, who knows a gospel turn as easefully as she does jazz standards. We really ought to be hearing more Niki Harris! Later that night, recalling the production values of his impressively eclectic former television series “Night Music”, David Sanborn played one of several themed, all-star concerts, “Herbie’s World: The Music of Herbie Hancock” in the converted Cosmopolitan Dining Room.

Clearly one of the joys of Blue Note at Sea is the opportunity to experience artists in different contexts – as both leaders and sidemen – and the core leaders like Corea, Bridgewater, Dr. Lonnie, Miller, James, Harris, and Sanborn on multiple occasions, providing cruisers with a more nuanced sense of the gifts of these artists. Other delights of the garden included: afternoon poolside sets, including a configuration of Parks, Bailey, Ben Williams, Gunn and alto man Alex Han, who along with Gunn repeatedly distinguished themselves, including as part of Marcus Miller’s unit. Speaking of the latter, he and Marcus Strickland both brought their bass clarinets onboard. It was particularly encouraging to see Strickland essaying on bass clarinet on the sets he led throughout the week, as opposed to the more familiar soprano sax which he left at home this trip.

The R&B feel was expertly represented on Blue Note at Sea. Besides three performances of Dee Dee’s “Memphis” project, there was Niki Harris’ jazz book leavened with soul, Wycliffe Gordon’s rootsy Sunday morning gospel show, Jose James demonstrating the ease of fitting Bill Withers’ songbook into jazz-infused atmospheres and Maceo Parker’s closing night performances. Recognizing where he was cruising, Maceo skillfully employed jazz standards as connective tissue (e.g. “The Nearness of You”) between the funk (including his nightly Ray Charles tribute, where he brought out Sanborn for some alto shine), removing any doubts as to his own horn bonafides. Of a lesser note were the somewhat disjointed, largely neo-soul concert performances of vocalist Lalah Hathaway, whose holy ghost-invested vocal depth charmed with a set of her father Donnie’s unforgettable songs, but otherwise her show failed to catch fire. Dr. Lonnie Smith brought a grooving sense of improvisatory voodoo soul to the cruise, delivering his mastery in a decidedly modern manner but one that inevitably harkened back to a time when the B-3 organ ruled in black communities across the country. During our Q&A his story of how “Move Your Hand” became an early calling card was priceless.

NEA Jazz Master Charles Lloyd, who dropped onto the boat at the Ocho Rios, Jamaica docking (informing cruisers this was his first cruise experience), stayed long enough to deliver two kinetic performances of his Charles Lloyd & the Marvels music, made all the more distinctive by Bill Frisell‘s uncanny guitar and pedal steel master Greg Leisz. Eric Harland on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass rounded out the Marvels. Rogers, playing bass guitar throughout, was particularly animated in his delightful guitar interactions with Frisell.

Likewise boarding at Ocho Rios and remaining for the duration – and seeming to be in big fun mode every time we spotted him onboard at someone else’s set or on shore excursions thereafter – was Robert Glasper, who made two performances in trio with his familiars Damion Reid on drums and Vicente Archer on bass, and two performances as part of a Blue Note All-Stars lineup with Akinmusire, Strickland, Loueke, Scott, and bassist Derrick Hodge; one performance notably opening with Ornette Coleman‘s “The Turnaround,” made all the more distinctive by the sound scientist Lionel Loueke’s uncanny sonic universe.

Illustrating two of Blue Note at Sea’s growing marks of distinction – its engagement of more next & now-gen artists than the traditional jazz cruises, and its encouragement of their performing their original music – was trumpet ace Ambrose Akinmusire’s closing set. Working in quartet with Sullivan Fortner, Ben Williams, and Kendrick Scott, Akinmusire delivered a beautiful hour of his growing book of originals with one of the most gorgeously developed trumpet sounds to have arrived this millennium. And what a splendid way that was to close out a gas of a week onboard Blue Note at Sea!

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Jazz Congress & Winter Jazzfest: a great week in NYC

Despite the crispy weather chill, early January is a vibrant time to be in New York; it’s arts conference time in the City. The fulcrum is the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters, or APAP Conference at the midtown Hilton Hotel. With thousands of arts presenters, from small community presenters to big boys like the Kennedy Center, as well as arts funding organizations ascending upon the city at conference time – including the Chamber Music America conference and its ongoing embrace of jazz as a chamber music – artists and artist managements scramble to present all manner of new works, complimentary concerts, clue dates, and showcase performances at spaces and pop-ups around town. For those of us in the performing arts, despite the customary January weather challenges, the first weeks after the holidays are a great time to be in the City.

Several years ago, in response to APAP conversations and encouragements surrounding jazz music, the Jazz Connect conference was developed; held at St. Peter’s church, long known as the “jazz church” stemming from its traditional jazz vespers service and the developments of the late Rev. John Gensel, including hosting many jazz masters homegoing services. One of the principle partners in the Jazz Connect schematic was JazzTimes magazine, which as many know once hosted its own Jazz Times Conventions, which were eventually embraced as the jazz industry tract sector of the huge former International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE) conferences. From the ashes of IAJE’s ignominious downfall has arisen the Jazz Education Network conferences, also held in January but presented in a different region each year, much in the manner of the former National Association of Jazz Educators conferences, before the organization’s ill-fated decision to go International. Unlike its predecessor IAJE, JEN (whose 2018 conference was January 3-6 in Dallas) has determined to concentrate on the jazz education field, which left the other sectors of the jazz community (working musicians, radio, records, journalists & publications, managements, jazz presenters, clubs, etc.) to the Jazz Connect conference. Conference dizzy yet? There’s more…

For this year JazzTimes partnered with the Jazz at Lincoln Center organization to morph Jazz Connect into the Jazz Congress, hosted at JALC’s immaculate facilities in Columbus Circle. Panel discussions and professional development sessions, as well as college and university jazz ensemble performances in the Atrium, commenced Thursday, January 11th and Friday, January 12th. The keynote address was potently delivered by NBA legend and lifelong jazz enthusiast Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

Among the sessions this writer sampled that delivered real sustenance were Jazz and Race: A Conversation with Wynton Marsalisand pianist Ethan Iverson, moderated by artist manager Andre Guess. Gender and Jazz, moderated by journalist Michelle Mercer, was a particularly timely exchange in light of the #MeToo and subsequent nationwide allegations of sexual harassment making headlines. The discussion highlighted both well-documented and what for some may be the less-documented challenges faced by women jazz artists. Particularly poignant testimony was offered by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington (Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award-winner), and bandleader Ellen Seeling. At the Learning from Large Jazz Organizations I posed a question to SF Jazz Organization founder Randall Kline about the challenges of wearing his artistic hat along with now being in the real estate business courtesy of their exemplary headquarters/performance space.

L to R: Ethan Iverson, moderator Andre Guess, and Wynton Marsalis discuss Jazz and Race matters

L to R: Gene Dobbs Bradford (Jazz St. Louis), Randall Kline (SF Jazz Center), Amy Niles (WBGO) expounding on the life of a large jazz organization

What Does New Orleans Mean Today? was passionately moderated by journalist Larry Blumenfeld, who like me shares the peculiar “ownership” of the essential prominence of that great city shared by those of us who’ve lived there for even the minute that Larry and I coincidentally shared in ’07/’08. Given the questionable approach to jazz performance of certain younger musicians where it concerns stage deportment, the session “Why performance matters: stagecraft masterclass” ought to be repeated at jazz education programs and conservatories as a vital curricular addition.

Drummer-educator Ralph Peterson dropping science on a participant in Jazz Congress’ Ask the Experts roundtable; think speed dating for jazz consultations

Perhaps the warmest, most engaging session of all was the “Jazz legends roundtable”, which brought together three stellar jazz master pianists: Kenny Barron, Joanne Brackeen, and Harold Mabern for a wonderful bit of reminiscence. Hearing Joanne Brackeen recount how she pretty much stumbled upon her opportunity to become the first and only female member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers was priceless, as was the wit and wisdom of Mabern and the erudite Kenny Barron. Though there was a piano standing by, the three masters had no intention of playing – at least not until an audience member asked if they’d grace us with some playing, which solicited beautiful interludes from the trio of practitioners.

Elsewhere there was a Jukebox Jury with jazz radio programmers listening to tracks and being quizzed on whether the selected music stood a chance of making their respective playlists; a session on Jazz in film and TV soundtracks, Building partnerships in secondary markets, The power of crowd funding, Audience development: casting a wider net, New models for jazz education, Jazz vocalists and repertoire, and The artist-manager relationship, among the four rooms of simultaneous sessions running from 9:30am-evening each day.

Despite obvious rewards for the open-minded to be garnered from attending various sessions, the truest value of a conference like Jazz Congress is connecting with others in the business, including various reunions of folks who only see each other annually, catching up with old friends and meeting new, and being introduced to some of the more useful trends in the jazz industry, and particularly in this case, sampling the incredible mosaic of live music offerings across Manhattan that week. That’s the foundational platform of such annual confabs – just as it is in other business pursuits.

The scene at Jazz Congress conference registration

Of equal value is being in New York City for that sumptuous fortnight amidst a veritable flood of tantalizing performance opportunities large and small. Thursday evening after the concert proceedings yielded an amazing set by pianist-visionary Vijay Iyer‘s Sextet at Birdland. Powered by the commanding traps of the much-discussed Tyshawn Sorey, with a remarkable frontline of saxophonists Mark Shim and Steve Lehman, and cornetist Graham Haynes, and bassist Stephan Crump anchoring the bottom, Iyer pilots one of the most deeply engrossing ensembles in modern music, which largely gave wing to the originals on Vijay’s current ECM release, Far From Over.

Chief grocer responsible for that week’s overflowing shopping cart full of goodies is the annual Winter Jazzfest. Running this year from January 10-17, Winter Jazzfest was originally developed in response to the city’s annual influx of performing arts presenters swarming the APAP conference from across the globe. From a jazz perspective that swarm includes the European jazz festival presenter collective and the Western Jazz Presenters, each group in town for their annual meetings to discuss block booking, special project opportunities, and shared presenting perspectives. With all that in mind, presenting the fertile marketplace that is the Winter Jazzfest during the second week in January makes perfect sense.

Founded and produced by the gifted and politically woke Brice Rosenbloom, Winter Jazzfest plays multiple downtown spaces, including clubs, a hotel, and several spaces at the New School, as well as one evening at Town Hall in midtown. The Friday and Saturday evenings of WJF are designated as festival marathons, with simultaneous performances cooking in all of the festival venues. Not for the faint of heart, the temptation for the adventurous is to map out a strategy to catch as many performances as the shoe leather will allow over the course of the two evenings, which begin as early as 5:30 and cap with 1:00am sets.

After a couple of years endeavoring to make as many tantalizing sets at however many spaces that strategy required, discretion yielded the better part of valor. That measure of prudence required a careful scan of the WJF schedule to determine which space offered the most tantalizing aggregate lineup, arriving early, scoping out good seats and basically camping out for the evening. And being a – ahem – seasoned jazz advocate, guaranteed seating is no small requirement; here it should be noted that depending upon arrival time and crowd shifting patterns, certain WJF spaces usually require standing – including one of the primary WJF venues, Le Poisson Rouge, where standing is the rule.

Of the three WJF evenings your correspondent caught, Wednesday, January 10th was the only one which braved seating disparities. But after awhile standing up on creaky knees at Le Poisson Rouge for an evening billed as “Gilles Peterson Hosts British Jazz Showcase,” hosted by the noted UK record producer and re-mixer, I yielded to the call of The Baylor Project at the Jazz Showcase, where seating (and a good menu) is guaranteed. Disappointment at not catching the chief reason for visiting the challenging Le Poisson Rouge, the tantalizing saxophonist Nubya Garcia, aside, shifting to the Jazz Showcase proved a good move. Before the split, vocalist-guitarist Oscar Jerome showed evident skills, including some rapping propers, was followed by the spacey exploits of trumpeter-composer Yazz Ahmed to open the evening.

The Baylor Project proved an infectious, engaging alternative. Drummer/co-leader Marcus Baylor had impressed mightily at the traps driving Kenny Garrett at last June’s memorable DC JazzFest appearance. It was the vivacious vocal half of the project, Jean Baylor, who thoroughly captivated. Ms. Baylor, blessed with a full measure of the Holy Ghost in her vocal timbre, positively inhabits a song! Tenor man Keith Loftis was quite impressive, and as always trumpeter Freddie Hendrix blew heat and fleet of finger; going beyond namesake obviousness he’s an inheritor of a certain measure of the Freddie Hubbard mantle of audacious trumpeters. Given the Baylor Project’s soulful expressions, it’s not surprising that they’ve scored Grammy noms in both the jazz and contemporary R&B categories, despite the fact that theirs is no question a sensibility born out of the art of the improvisers.

The two most thoroughly tantalizing and essential evenings of WJF are their Friday and Saturday night marathons, with simultaneous sets at 11 venues, which for the intrepid seeking the lost chords requires both street map and accommodating kicks. As mentioned earlier, a few years ago I adopted a one venue/camping out for the evening mentality where it concerns these two marathons. As was the case last year, that meant the relatively comfortable confines of the New School’s Tishman Auditorium.

Friday evening also brought good friends Pat and (vocalist) Allan Harris‘ annual Harlem After Dark house party/artist showcase way uptown from WJF’s downtown haunts. After catching a few showcases it was Uber downtown to 5th Avenue and 13th Street for Tishman Aud. That meant missing Steve & Iqua Colson’s Music of Protest & Love (dedicated to Muhal Richard Abrams) and vibraphonist Stefon Harris‘ latest edition of Blackout, with Casey Benjamin, but that was made up for in part by catching a taste of Stefon’s latest muse at manager Karen Kennedy’s subsequent Sunday brunchtime showcase. Next up was guitarist Marc Ribot‘s Songs of Resistance, which could have benefited mightily by the engagement of a vocalist to handle Ribot’s deservedly snarky political screeds, which singled out #45 for some well deserved vinegar. But alas the guitarist-composer chose to handle the vocal chores himself, decidedly a bit less than satisfyingly – more howl than honey.

Flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell, this year’s WJF artist-in-residence, more than rewarded the lengthy trek downtown. She served up a compelling program wrapped in the poetic irony of the late, great Chicago laureate Gwendolyn Brooks. Two sisters served up Brooks’ prose amidst a succulent melange of Mitchell’s original music, which was bolstered by the ever-rewarding presence of Jason Moran at the piano. Few are serving up the 21st century flute with quite the panache and originality of Nicole Mitchell.

On Saturday afternoon the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA) presented its JJA Media Summit at the Jazz Gallery. What ensued were lively and often informative panel discussions before a good audience, including Women in Jazz Journalism, moderated by Michelle Mercer, followed by Black Lives Matter and other Social Justice Issues in Jazz Journalism was moderated by Don Palmer, where I served as a panelist. Rounding out the day was Beyond the Immediate: Photographers, Broadcasters on Extending Outreach, moderated by Howard Mandel. The other panelists and moderators (including some good friends) I knew from past interactions and encounters. I was delighted to meet Jordannah Elizabeth, a bright young sister writing on the music from Baltimore, who served on both the Women and social justice issues panel and brought fresh perspectives to the very worthwhile summit.

A view from inside the JJA Media Summit and the social justice issues panel L to R: moderator Don Palmer and panelists Larry Blumenfeld, Jordannah Elizabeth, Russ Musto, Willard Jenkins, and Greg Tate at the Jazz Gallery

Day 2 of the marathon delivered a healthier portion of the goods, ranging from impressive young vocalist Jazzmeia Horn‘s positive inhabitance of the Betty Carter legacy, to electrified saxophonist James Carter (think Eddie Harris on steroids)’s Electrik Outlet, and the trio Harriet Tubman’s Free Jazz deliverance. In the tradition of Ornette’s freedom principle, Tubman was joined by the flame throwing saxophonist James Brandon Lewis‘ trio, including DC’s own Luke Stewart doubling the bass quotient with Tubman skronkster Melvin Gibbs, and horn work from alto man Darius Jones and the increasingly-discussed young trumpeter Jamie Branch. To paraphrase writer A.B. Spellman, this performance completely cleared my sinuses of whatever congestion the week’s wintry chill might have brought on. If I had head hair, it might have stood on end from the ensuing musical maelstrom! The Sun Ra Arkestra closed the evening performing a live score to Ra’s film “Space Is The Place.” As has been customary with certain WJF evenings, this one brought back potent memories of trolling the downtown lofts in the 70s.

Sunday afternoon surrendered a raft of ultimately engrossing APAP showcases, including Stefon Harris’ aforementioned “informant” – his designation – related to the leader and some of his sidemen seated audience front speaking to his musical sensibilities – playing some, talking some and engaging the invited brunch audience at the Yamaha studio space. Shifting a few blocks westward to APAP’s HQ hotel, the Hilton, yielded the second of the enterprising Pat Harris’ annual showcase afternoons. Among other goodies, Pat served up the charming husband-wife led quartet of pianist-vocalist Svetlana Smirnova and drummer Oleg Butman, two new friends from the November trip to St. Petersburg, Russia for the inaugural Jazz Across Borders conference. Vocalists Brianna Thomas and Rochelle Rice brought their neatly contrasting, very gratifying vocal stylings and engaging delivery to the 4th floor showcase suite, whereupon Penn Station beckoned for the train ride back at the close of one of New York’s most performing arts engorged weeks of the year.

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Jazz Across Borders

Operating in our truly international city has given the DC Jazz Festival a unique programming perspective that reflects what we refer to as The International Language of Jazz. DC’s vibrant community of foreign embassies has been a blessing in our efforts at broadening our year-round programming profile. Our Fishman Embassy Series, named after DCJF founder Charlie Fishman, who early on recognized the possibilities for engagement of DC’s embassy community, has established very fortuitous collaborations with a number of foreign embassies, including the embassies of Switzerland, France, Japan, South Africa, Colombia, Spain, Korea, Singapore, Italy, Finland, and Canada.

Those partnerships have enabled us to expand upon one of our ongoing festival themes, to celebrate The International Language of Jazz through presenting artists native to those countries. There was a time, particularly back in the 40s-through 60s, when U.S. jazz musicians were hungrily sought after overseas, and in many cases their acceptance at foreign ports far exceeded the level of acclaim and acceptance afforded them in their own home country. Fast forward to the 21st century and through those many foreign tours (particularly across Europe) the gospel of jazz has effectively been spread globally. In an increasing number of countries this has included development of conservatory-level jazz education programs, many with curricular consultation from leading U.S. music conservatories and jazz educators. Consequently jazz artists and actual scenes are available pretty much worldwide.

I got a nice taste of that recently when I was invited to participate in the first Jazz Across Borders conference, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Encouraged and supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, and spearheaded by the country’s leading jazzman, saxophonist-composer-bandleader Igor Butman, “Jazz Across Borders (JAB) is a professional platform designed to assemble international and Russian jazz community representatives.”

Igor Butman & the Moscow Jazz Orchestra

The core of the JAB conference was a series of panel discussions, round tables, workshops, and meetings of jazz industry representatives. Each late afternoon/early evening featured showcase performances by some of Russia’s leading and emerging jazz artists and bands in an atmosphere reflective of both the former Jazz Times Convention (reincarnated as Jazz Connect) and IAJE conferences. Also included were jazz club nights, and St. Petersburg does indeed have several vibrant jazz clubs, and a culminating gala concert that included performances by several featured Russian jazz artists and a collaboration between vocalist Kurt Elling and the Moscow Jazz Orchestra.

In somewhat the same manner of January’s Jazz Connect Conference (which in 2018 is being re-christened the Jazz Congress, in partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center) aligned itself with the big APAP performing arts presenter conference in New York City, Jazz Across Borders was held in conjunction with the larger (6th annual) St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum conference. Jazz Across Borders took place on the bustling floors of the St. Petersburg State Academic Chapel November 17-18.

Your correspondent was invited to participate in a panel discussion of festival presenters titled “Jazz Festivals: working with government and sponsors” that was moderated by Elena Zelentsova of Russia’s Skolkovo Foundation. Handheld translators with earpieces were provided as the dialogue shifted easily from Russian to English on the series of culturally diverse panel discussions. Our lively discussion included saxophonist Kent Sangster, producer of Canada’s Edmonton Jazz Festival; Michelle Day, vice president of the Thelonious Monk Institute detailed the history of the Monk Institute’s growing International Jazz Day observances, in 2018 to be held on April 30th in St. Petersburg, a point of obvious Russian pride; and our discussion was rounded out by two gentlemen from Russia’s burgeoning jazz festival scene, Andrei Levchenko, producer of the Kaliningrad City Jazz Festival, and Valery Korotkov, head of JIVE Group agency, which runs numerous festivals, concerts and club events in Russia.

Several other panelists were guests from around the jazz world, including such fellow U.S. participants as artist manager Pat Harris, booking agent Ina Dittke, JazzTimes publisher Lee Mergner, Berklee College of Music V.P. Dr. Larry Simpson, journalist Ted Panken, director of jazz programming at the Kennedy Center Kevin Struthers, international booking agent Katherine McVicker, and Adam Shatz, musician and co-producer of NYC Winter Jazzfest. Other guests in our group of international guests included Ros Rigby, president of the Europe Jazz Network, and producer of the Gateshead International Jazz Festival (UK), Carlo Pagnotta the founder and artistic director of Umbria Jazz (Italy), booking agent Catherine Mayer (Germany), Simon Cooke managing director of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (London), and Peter Gontha, founder & producer of the Java Jazz Festival (Indonesia).

The lobby bar at the Hotel Krempinsky in St. Petersburg was a convenient hang for our group of visiting conferees from the US, UK, France and Italy during JAB

Throughout JAB the energy in the venues and the hallways was palpably high and there were an impressive number of millennials in the house; all were quite eager to soak in the jazz vibe. The White Hall room which hosted the various forums and panel discussions – on global issues ranging from festival, concert and club presenter concerns to jazz media and jazz education panels, to such more specific concerns as panels on “The peculiarities of working on tours for foreign performers in Russia and Russian performers abroad,” “The specifics of promoting jazz artists in Russia and abroad,” and “Russia: New opportunities. Infrastructure of Russian jazz market: myths and reality,” to an overview of “the history and development of Russian jazz art fem the 20s till present,” a discussion that included Igor Butman among its speakers. On the roundtable discussion on promoting jazz artists in Russia, agent-manager Pat Harris suggested that from her perspective one thing the fall of the record industry has done is to level the playing field. In this modern paradigm there is no longer a certain class of artists blessed with that label deal leg up on the field. Throughout the two days these sessions were packed with genuinely eager-to-be-informed and attentive conferees.

Packed, attentive audiences like this were the rule during the Jazz Across Borders conference

The showcases featured many of Russia’s most talented ensembles, with a particular bent towards younger, emerging talent. The impressive LRK Trio (piano-bass-drums) concluded its set with the pianist strapping on accordion and the band adapting a traditional Russian folklore dance to its decidedly modern jazz perspective. Later, the Yakov Okun Quartet weighed in from a more traditional modern approach, in a relaxed, reflective manner. Throughout, the fresh, youthful energy of the attendees was quite refreshing, a sensibility which also permeated the clubs we visited, including White Nights Jazz Club. There was an energizing zeal for the music in St. Petersburg that was quite positively affirming. The showcase bands performed with a passion and desire to seek the original that was quite impressive. At the 6pm Black Hall showcase on Friday, Dock in Absolute brought the funk, opening with a nice balance of bass clarinet and electric bass with a fresh feel wrapped in old socks.

Dock in Absolute showcasing

The closing gala concert featured Igor’s exceptional brother and sister-in-law Oleg (drums) and Natalia Butman (piano & voice) in trio, conference guest John Beasley conducting the Moscow Jazz Orchestra through one of his (Thelonious) Monk’estra charts, and the evening’s featured set with the roaring orchestra skillfully framing and accompanying vocalist Kurt Elling’s set. before yet another deeply attentive full house in the big hall at St. Petersburg State Academic Chapel. Yes, jazz does indeed live a charmed life in Russia!

Kurt Elling and Berklee’s Dr. Larry Simpson chillin’ at the Hotel Krempinsky following Kurt’s conference closing triumph with the Moscow Jazz Orchestra

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