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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