Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Jazz, and Apple Pie: Building an American Audience

Why don’t Americans go for jazz?

“Because 95% of the great jazz musicians have been black,” was Nels Nelson’s clutter-cutting reply at “The Philadelphia Jazz Legacy: Past, Present and Future,” held during the Mellon Jazz Festival.

Nelson, dean of local jazz journalism by virtue of criticizing the art form for the Philadelphia Daily News since 1959, is no sensationalist. And the question is no “pushpin is as good as poetry” issue, because jazz’s strange status as a cultural orphan in its own country cuts to the heart of Americans’ ambivalence toward fulfilling their cultural destiny as the Land of the Free.

The majority American flees from the pleasure of jazz because it too painfully reminds him of the unfinished business of freedom. Lawrence Welk is an acoustical cocoon; rock and roll is a hyped-up alternative to the more sober agenda of social justice; high culture is perceived as perennially more permanent than America’s only original contribution to the world’s musical culture.

The first time I got flack as a high school teacher, for example, was when a Michigan State English professor complained to the principal that I was wasting his children’s time playing Stan Kenton’s “This Is an Orchestra” in tenth-grade English, even though the LP was a brilliant metaphor for creative democracy—in jazz, the players pick a key and a tempo, then solo, each relishing the others’ differences as much as getting off on creating their own.

Judging from the insights of the Mellon panel gathered (it thrilled me to note) on Walt Whitman’s 167th birthday, the climate of belief has improved immeasurably from East Lansing in 1953. Still, the audiences for jazz are miniscule, though they are inching forward on radio.

Ted Eldredge, manager of jazz station WRTI at Temple University, revealed the startling statistic that among the biggest givers to their recent beg-athon were the Friday morning fusion fans—10% of the take. But the all-jazz format may be sailing into rough demographic weather: 70% of the fusion givers are between 25 and 49 years old.

When I told my black neighbor that, he moaned: “What are those kids going to listen to when they’re our age? The music of their youth simply won’t age.” I told him it wouldn’t matter, because they’d all be deaf by then anyway.

Eldredge has been a broadcaster for 33 years, 20 of them in commercial radio, and he brings a hard, pragmatic, even cynical attitude to his starry-eyed students at Temple: If it pays they’ll play it, alluding to the surprising news that commercial WMGK is testing the jazz waters for two hours every Sunday morning at 8 a.m.

When needled by the audience, afraid that the fusion contributors would take the purism out of WRTI’s jazz, he backed off, saying only two cuts out of ten or twelve an hour were by the likes of Jeff Beck, the guitarist the panel used as a whipping boy for the “crime” of fusion.

Put a Muse’s Nine of a panel together and the debates over purist versus “compromised” jazz tend to become semi-theological, sounding like medieval disquisitions over how many angel-haired hipsters can dance on the end of a diamond stylus. Luckily, the audience contained 66-year-old Cleo Robinson Anderson, who chided the more Utopian spielers: When she was three in 1923, her daddy gave her a crystal set and by the miracle of radio she heard her first swatch of Kansas City Blues.

She allowed as how even now she could hear the influence of guitarist Charlie Christian in the work of the Grateful Dead. This self-identified mental-health professional warned the deep thinkers not to get too far away from the people in their lucubrations.

Happily, there’s solid evidence that more and more Philadelphians will have access to jazz. Diana Klinkhardt of the Philadelphia Jazz Society described her group’s success in getting PRISM cable to air a half-hour program financed ($10,000) from National Endowment for the Arts and State Humanities Council funds. PJS is also investing in the future with its McCoy Tyner grants to promising young players such as Joey DeFrancesco, Jonathan Cesar and Antonio Parker.

Spencer Weston, the articulate programmer for the Afro-American Historical Museum, criticized the panel for concentrating so much on radio, to him, an antediluvian medium. Instead, go after TV (European jazz festivals run on prime time, sometimes live), videos (you miss too much of the gestural in jazz on a 1-D medium like radio) and, better, press coverage (though when the two dailies featured this symposium up front in their weekend leisure guides, fewer than 50 showed up to listen).

Weston also programs one of the two most consistently good live jazz series, with $45,000-a-year support from Kor-brands, the distributor of Beefeater’s gin. (I’ll drink to that!)

Ludwig van Trickt has $20,000 in arts grants to program the Painted Bride jazz series. He was the most irredentist of the black spokesmen, mocking mainline media for allowing “assorted minstrels” like TV’s “Mr. T” and “Webster” to flourish whilst Downbeat hasn’t given the nod to a black jazz star in five years.

That Ludwig van may be a trifle impossible to please devolved later in a soporific interlude on the need for more “role models” for young musicians. Whenever everyone else thought (and spoke) Wynton Marsalis, he described the two-track genius as “boring.”

Once again, Spencer Weston got the thinkers back to reality by reminding them that more people heard Louis Armstrong do “Hello Dolly!” than his legendary Hot 5 stuff: and that the greater world knows Duke Ellington more for “Satin Doll” than for his more highly regarded symphonic suites.

Such distinctions don’t interest the entertainment lawyer on the panel, one Lloyd Remick—who reps Grover Washington, Jr., so he can’t be as bad as the Apple Pie Theory of Life he says he lays on his students at Temple Law.

This “slice of living” paradigm rests on the incontrovertible truism that 90% of a thousand bucks is less than 40-50% of a million. It is not sinful. Remick insisted, to use your God-given talent to make a lot of money doing what you love to do. But it takes talent, luck and contacts (make that CONTACTS) to make a superstar.

So give a slice to a lawyer. Another slice to a PR person. Yet another to a manager (“to show you how to bob and weave your way through the jungle out there”). I couldn’t help imagining what the Duke or the Count or the other musical royalty of America would make of the conglomeration of their art.

I was mulling these immeasurables while walking down Chestnut Street when, yo and behold, I heard the sounds of jazz emanating from in front of the Beneficial Savings Bank. When the alto player finished, I asked him if he knew the Duke’s “Satin Doll.”

“That’s an easy one,” he countered easily and played two choruses, separated by his own baroque inventions. The best buck I spent that day I slipped into his instrument case.

How long had he been busking? Since 1977. After graduating from George Washington Carver High School in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1969, he came up to Philly. He plays his appointed round every weekday lunch hour, June through September. In October, he descends into the more salubrious clime of the subway, a kind of musical vent performer.

He is given $10 plus carfare a day by pleased listeners. Not much for Remick to slice up there. But 32-year-old Tommie Taylor struck me as a happy man.

From Welcomat: After Dark, July 9, 1986

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