Tag Archives: Nate Chinen

“THE TRISTANO SCHOOL” (New York Times, Jan. 9, 2011)

First, the picture — from the Bettmann / Corbis archives: the original jazz club Birdland, perhaps on opening night in 1949.  From the left, Max Kaminsky on trumpet, Lester Young on tenor saxophone, a nearly-hidden George Wettling on drums, Hot Lips Page on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto saxophone, Lennie Tristano on piano.

Had I been there at that front table, I would not have been turning my head away to see what the other people or the photographer happened to be doing, but that matters little now.  (And where are the acetates of this music, broadcast by the Voice of America — this imagined blues performance, especially?)

The photograph accompanies an article by Nate Chinen in The New York Times, relevant to my anticipation of tenor saxophonist Ted Brown’s upcoming gig:

Had he enjoyed a different sort of jazz career, you might say that Ted Brown was finally making a comeback. A tenor saxophonist drawn to a light and lyrically swinging style, Mr. Brown turned 83 last month, with just a handful of albums to his name. For the better part of 30 years, from the early 1960s on, he made his living as a computer programmer. “I’m not good at going out and getting gigs,” he said recently, sounding resigned and matter of fact. By his account his last booking in New York as a bandleader was in 1976 at the short-lived Midtown branch of George Wein’s Storyville club.

His next booking is Wednesday night at the Kitano Hotel on Park Avenue, and the circumstances are ripe for his return. Mr. Brown was among the early protégés of Lennie Tristano, a blind pianist and composer who charted his own course through modern postwar jazz before withdrawing into a reclusive life of pedagogy. (He died in 1978.) The music of the Tristano School, as it came to be known, was for many years the province of niche enthusiasts, and only a rare point of reference for musicians in the jazz mainstream.

That’s no longer the case, thanks to the ascendant influence of a generation of players — like the saxophonist Mark Turner, 45, and the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, 40 — who have been vocal in their admiration for Tristano’s harmonically daring, melodically intricate music. Greater availability of that music has furthered the cause, as have scholarly examinations like “Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music” (University of Michigan Press), published in 2007. The Tristano School, always ahead of its time, has come to feel congruent with ours, exerting real influence among younger musicians, including some of the brightest and best.

Mr. Brown, a first-wave initiate with stories to tell, should be of serious interest to them. “I moved from Southern California to New York in September 1948,” he said in a phone conversation, speaking from his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. “I had been to New York when I was in the Army in ’46, and heard a lot of music on 52nd Street. I wanted to get back here, and I wanted to find a good teacher.”

Tipped off by an Army acquaintance who had studied with Tristano, Mr. Brown attended a private session and soon became a disciple, joining two other gifted saxophonists: Lee Konitz, who at 83 is among jazz’s great unfaltering elders; and Warne Marsh, who died in 1987. Mr. Brown’s best-circulated recordings were all made with one or the other of these peers.

Tristano was an imposingly dexterous pianist with a commitment to contemporary harmony and the forward-skimming melodic line. Born and raised in Chicago, he moved to New York in 1946, when bebop was ascendant. His music resembled bop in its brisk variations on standard themes, but was less rhythmically volatile and more sternly obsessed with pure improvisation. He took part in the New York scene for a while, earning the respect of some prominent critics and musicians — including Charlie Parker and the pianist Billy Taylor, who died last month — but even then Tristano’s primary focus was on developing musical ideas in a workshop setting.

“Right at the beginning he told me he didn’t want students who were coming in for a few lessons and popping out on the road,” Mr. Brown said. He remained a student for seven years, helping establish a rehearsal studio above an auto shop at 317 East 32nd Street in Manhattan. The address quickly became the title of a Tristano School anthem.

“It’s gotten blown out of proportion,” Mr. Brown said of Tristano’s aloof and imperious reputation. “He was strict, but he also had a very human side.” Yet it’s true that Tristano issued scathing judgments of other musicians, and that he maintained a compulsive control over his music, gradually abandoning live performance for the studio, where he could overdub parts — as on his pioneering, self-titled 1956 Atlantic album — and stamp the output with metronomic precision, often using an actual metronome.

“He was a cult groove weirdo,” said Ethan Iverson, the pianist in the Bad Plus. “I really disapprove of the way he separated his scene from other cats who could play.”

In 2008 Mr. Iverson published a thoughtful essay on his band’s blog, Do the Math, praising Tristano’s singular genius but taking him to task for his social disengagement. In the end, Mr. Iverson wrote, it helps to think of Tristano not as a jazz musician, but rather alongside the player-piano visionary Conlon Nancarrow and the modernist composer Charles Ives, “both experimental American hermits who decided not to play with others.”

Seclusion was one reason for Tristano’s obscurity. Another, more complex, was race. (Mr. Iverson’s essay delves into that issue in detail.) Tristano played with a number of black musicians, but his inner circle was white, as was the perceived affect of his music. “Lennie’s concept was first to get a rhythm section playing very basic, so that what he was doing would be in clear relief,” Mr. Konitz explains in the 2007 book “Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art” (University of Michigan Press). Given the centrality of dynamic rhythm in jazz, that approach alienated some listeners from Tristano’s music.

“People thought it was cold,” Mr. Turner said. “The African diasporic rhythmic element was not there, not strong enough.” In his own music — notably with Fly, a leaderless trio that will appear at the Jazz Gallery on Tuesday — Mr. Turner set out to make an adjustment. “That’s something that I wanted to do, was bring that into the fold,” he said. “The harmonic information, the melodic information, all of that is so interesting, so why can’t it be brought into a warmer place rhythmically?” (He has a tune called “Lennie Groove.”)

Growing up in Southern California, Mr. Turner discovered Warne Marsh and responded to the style. “It was almost like a no-no,” he said of his interest in the Tristano School. “No one was doing it, no one in the quote-unquote modern mainstream jazz world.” He responded to the articulate force of the music, but it was more than that: “Something about it spoke to my own personal life and upbringing, being a person of African descent brought up primarily in Caucasian neighborhoods. I felt I was going out on a limb, kind of like when I started listening to rock music and new wave and ska.”

Because Mr. Turner is one of the most emulated saxophonists of the last 15 years, especially among music students, the Tristano School has seeped into the consciousness of a new generation of players. Some of his colleagues, similarly revered by the conservatory crowd, have intensified the process. Mr. Rosenwinkel, a longtime band mate of Mr. Turner’s, favors the harmonic involution and long, unfurling lines of the Tristano School. The drummer Jorge Rossy, another Tristano enthusiast, was a decadelong member of the extremely influential Brad Mehldau Trio. And of course there’s Mr. Iverson, who like Mr. Mehldau has played occasionally with Mr. Konitz.

There was a post-bop Tristano School undercurrent well before Mr. Turner and his circle. The critic Stanley Crouch has astutely argued that Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock drew from Marsh and Tristano, and there’s at least a whisper of Tristano in Keith Jarrett’s pianism. But widespread acknowledgment of the influence is new. “When I was coming up, I felt like I was really excited about that music and had very few people to share it with,” said Michael Kanan, another contemporary of Mr. Turner’s and the pianist in Mr. Brown’s quartet at the Kitano. “Now I’m encountering more young musicians interested in that music than I’ve ever seen.”

Among the 20-something pianists who have a clear admiration for Tristano is Dan Tepfer. “There are tracks of his that just can’t be ignored,” Mr. Tepfer said. Two years ago he released an album called “Duos With Lee” (Sunnyside), featuring Mr. Konitz. With two saxophonists closer to his own age, Noah Preminger and Dan Voss, he has played gigs around the city featuring nothing but Tristano School music.

Because of obvious precursors, saxophonists may be the chief new inheritors of the style. In addition to Mr. Preminger and Mr. Voss, a noncomprehensive list would include Lena Bloch, Ben Van Gelder, Jeremy Udden and Ben Wendel in New York, and Brad Linde in Washington. (For what it’s worth, all of these musicians are white.)

The streamlined aspects of jazz in the contemporary sphere make for a naturally receptive Tristano moment. “I would say there was a certain ‘straighter’ feel to the way Tristano and his school played eighth notes,” Mr. Wendel, a member of the band Kneebody, wrote in an e-mail message, “and this fits in with how a lot of present-day players approach time.”

For his part Mr. Brown, a profound admirer of Charlie Parker and Lester Young, looks to a more classic mode of interplay. “I always liked the concept of swinging and melody,” he said. One of his best albums, “In Good Company” (Steeplechase), from 1985, features the guitarist Jimmy Raney, the bassist Buster Williams and the drummer Ben Riley: a deeply swinging rhythm team.

What still distinguishes Mr. Brown as a Tristano-ite is the resistance to pattern work and cliché in his solos. “He’s just such a pure improviser,” Mr. Kanan said. “He plays these lovely, beautiful melodies, one after the other, never repeating himself. And never playing in a way where it seems like he’s trying to get attention.”

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THE FIRST SET (THE EAR INN, April 25, 2010)

It was just another extraordinary Sunday night at The Ear Inn on 326 Spring Street.  The Ear Regulars — Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, Harry Allen, and Neal Miner — embodied all the jazz anyone could ever want in about an hour.  Bix and Louis floated by; King Oliver looked in the doorway; Don Byas and Count Basie sat a spell; Billie, Lester, and Ben made themselves to home. 

And in the corporeal audience, New York Times jazz critic Nate Chinen and his wife Ashley sat close to the band, Nate taking notes and feeling the rhythms, Ashley smiling. 

Many bands play ROYAL GARDEN BLUES fast and faster; the Ear Regulars looked back to the easy stroll of a Basie small group.  The first few seconds of the video are disconcertingly blurry, but they improve and the music is always in sharp focus:

SOME OF THESE DAYS is a finger-waggling song — “You know, you do that one more time and I’m gone!”  This band doesn’t have it in its collective heart to be threatening, but they certainly had fun with this melody:

Then it was time for a pretty song of romantic jubilation, at “rhythm ballad” tempo, I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME:

LIMEHOUSE BLUES is too interesting a song (especially with its dramatic verse) to be consigned to oblivion, so the Ear Regulars make a point of bringing it out regularly:

What would life be like without a beautiful ballad by Harry Allen?  Here. his choice was the ruminative, sad SEPTEMBER SONG:

Showing us once again that “the material is immaterial,” the Ear Regulars launched into one of the oldest “songs to blow on,” TEA FOR TWO, with delicious results:

The music was wonderful — you couldn’t miss it — but just as delightful was that Nate, bless his heart, wrote it up for the Times in a way that showed that it does mean a thing . . . and he felt the swing.  Here ‘t’is:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/arts/music/27kellso.html

GEORGE WETTLING’S RIGHTEOUS RAGE

The man in the picture looks serious, intent, but hardly dangerous.  He is George Wettling — known for his wonderful drumming with Eddie Condon, Max Kaminsky, Jimmy McPartland, Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Ruby Braff, Pee Wee Russell, Art Hodes, and many others. 

In my recent, quite amiable discussion of Moldy Figs and Mossy Stones with Nate Chinen, one of my friends, drummer Mike Burgevin, brought up a piece of jazz legend: he had read somewhere that “George Wettling flattened a critic.”

Inquiring minds want to know, of course, and so Stompy Jones (my Canadian ally) asked me what I knew about this incident.  I knew nothing, but suggested that the critic in question might have been Leonard Feather, who expended a great deal of energy in the Forties making fun of the Condon bands — so much so that Condon dedicated a mocking title to him, and later on Muggsy Spanier made a record called FEATHER BRAIN. 

I inquired of fellow scholars and drummers Hal Smith and Kevin Dorn, but no one seems to have particular details of this incident.  And the less I know about it, the more it piques my interest.  Let us assume that it actually happened, of course.  Did Wettling read something in DOWN BEAT, say, by Mike Levin, the critic who compared Lester Young’s tone to cardboard, meet him on the street, swing once, connect, and leave Levin horizontal?  Or was it a critic who actually came to hear Wettling in person who may have told George that his style of drumming was old-fashioned.  “Stop playing that bass drum.  Go take some lessons from Tiny Kahn or Max Roach.”  BOOM!

Those with information are invited and encouraged to write in; aspiring playwrights are also encouraged to submit five-minute playlets on the theme. 

And then, when we’ve collectively solved this mystery, perhaps someone can explain the astonishing and continuing interest in photographs of Billie Holiday’s “man,” Louis McKay.  Hundreds of people seem to be searching for Mr. McKay.  With all due respect, why?

NATE CHINEN: “FIGS AND STONES”

Nate Chinen writes about jazz for The New York Times, JazzTimes, the Village Voice, and he also has a thriving blog, “The Gig”: http://thegig.typepad.com/blog/2010/04/mossy-stone.html#more

Until this year, I would have perceived him as living on the other side of the Jazz Divide, because we clearly loved very different — even irreconcilable — music.  But my opinion changed last January when Nate sent me a friendly email:

I don’t believe we’ve met, but I wanted to get in touch. I’m working on a JazzTimes column about the “new” strain of jazz traditionalism, and the ways in which the culture(s) of swing and bebop have continued to thrive, often well out of the reach of mainstream-media coverage. You struck me as an ideal person to sound off on such matters, so I’m wondering whether you might have some spare time this afternoon or evening. We could speak by phone or I could shoot you a few questions over email. Please let me know, in any case. I’ll look forward to making your acquaintance.

I was delighted — someone was graciously asking whether I would like to discuss my favorite subject!  So we spent an hour on the phone.  Nate asked pertinent questions, listened closely, and let me talk.  I told him that this “new traditionalism” was deep and inventive.  It wasn’t simply young people copying old records. 

I spoke at length about the performances I had seen in New York and elsewhere — musicians comfortable with many approaches to improvising, able to encompass Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and James P. Johnson in a single solo without seeming exhibitionistic or synthetic.  I told Nate about nights at The Ear Inn, where musicians of different “schools” found a common language  — connecting George Mitchell and Don Cherry — that was communal, genuine, and satisfying.  (I also urged him to join me there some Sunday, and he said he would.) 

Of course, I mentioned the names of my living heroes (my readers will be able to name a dozen) throughout the conversation, in hopes that he would understand that jazz — the religion of JAZZ — was very much alive here and now. 

As our conversation progressed, Nate was enthusiastic about his inventing a new name for the old — derisive — term for people who loved older jazz players and styles.  In the ideological wars of the Forties, they were “moldy figs,” defending their territory against the interlopers Bird and Dizzy.  Nate had come up with “mossy stones,” and his coinage made me think of a quotation from W.B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”  If I had been worried at the start that Nate was uncomprehending or hostile to my sensibilities, this phone conversation had given me reason to relax.

Yesterday, Nate informed me that the article had been published:   

Figs & Stones

Some time ago Michael Steinman, a professor of English at Nassau Community College, was out to dinner on vacation when the conversation turned to jazz. Hearing of his love for the music, someone at another table proudly claimed that he had been at Carnegie Hall in the early ’60s, for a concert that included tenor titans John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. “I told him my taste in jazz went back a bit further than that,” Steinman recalls. “He looked at me and said, ‘Wait a minute. Are you a moldy fig?’”

The fact that you’re here, dear reader, probably means you know that them’s fightin’ words. To be seen as a moldy fig, at this point in jazz’s post-history, is to be lumped together with the loonies and curmudgeons, hopelessly out of step, terminally uncool. Like Renaissance faire habitués and Civil War reenactors, the moldy fig longs for some receding point on the timeline, striving to transplant its bygone values to an inhospitable soil. Jazz, for such a creature, is a firm ideal, lovingly and narrowly circumscribed.

What’s funny is the fact that “moldy fig” connotes two distinct jazz factions that should be fundamentally at odds. The term originally referred to the early jazz traditionalists who saw the music as having peaked in the 1920s. Soon it was also leveled at swing adherents who decried the advancing tide of bebop. Both meanings were in circulation in the 1940s, reflecting a pair of schisms in jazz at the time. As Bernard Gendron once put it, in a definitive essay on the subject: “The first of these conflicts pitted swing against the newly revitalized New Orleans jazz that it had previously supplanted, and the second against the bebop avant-garde movement that threatened to make it obsolescent.”

Pluck in the face of obsolescence is what unites the moldy figs of both persuasions today: the Benny Goodman fan club, say, with members of the Sidney Bechet Society. The term has even become a badge of honor among some listeners—though not for Steinman, who runs a blog called Jazz Lives. “Traditionalism to me is not tuba and banjo,” he writes in an explanatory note, distancing himself from the moldiest of fig trappings. But he’s clear about the music he loves—“[My] heroes include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Eddie Condon,” he writes—and he uses his platform to champion it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the moldy-fig legacy as it applies to the next wave of jazz traditionalists. While the music has advanced (I’ll refrain from writing “evolved”), the shadow of obsolescence has been lengthening. It no longer stops at the breakthroughs of bebop, or the refinement of modal jazz. So even though jazz’s mid-century modern constituency still has a lot to be thankful for—the Jazz Icons DVD series, for one, and present-day paragons like tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander—the center of the music no longer reflects that reality.

Perhaps you can identify. Depending on your tastes, you might be among the jazz diehards disillusioned with what’s become of the jazz media, with its fetish for newness. You nod your head when you hear of the death of jazz, as it’s commonly understood. Well, don’t look now, but you might be a mossy stone.

Allow me to explain. A mossy stone is a jazz adherent whose core stylistic allegiance is to the music pioneered in the 1940s, streamlined in the ’50s and diversified in the ’60s. This region of inquiry begins with bebop and ends with free jazz, cutting off at the early stirrings of fusion. Wynton Marsalis, once disparaged by critic Gene Santoro as a “latter-day moldy fig,” actually fits this bill: Though vocal in his advocacy of swing and earlier jazz, he’s a modernist at heart, as his own track record proves. (Listen again to his last few albums on Blue Note.) But you could despise Marsalis and still be a mossy stone. All it takes is a tacit understanding that jazz innovation peaked by about 1967, and that nothing of real, lasting value has changed in the music since.

Right about now you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of a mossy stone. Simple: I made the term up, while pondering the distance between results in critics’ polls and readers’ polls. Obviously I’m riffing on the aphorism “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” with its valorization of forward motion. I’m also invoking the Rolling Stones, and rock, with its progressive connotations. A mossy stone finds no traction in the straight-eighth groove and fusionlike flow of so many jazz albums today. He or she appreciates the Monkish aspects of a pianist like Robert Glasper or Jason Moran, but not so much the hip-hop inflections. You can be a mossy stone at any age—I bet there are more than a few working at the high school level—as long as you possess the same stubbornness exhibited by the moldy figs all those years ago.

As someone sympathetic to the mossy stone agenda—I too have wondered why young musicians can’t occasionally carve up a standard, or just swing a little—let me offer a reassurance. Moss may be disconcertingly similar to mold, but that’s fine. As Gendron observed, regarding the two schisms in 1940s jazz: “Both contests were fought on much of the same discursive terrain.” Likewise, the mossy stone and the moldy fig have two very different record collections, but they’re cousins in many respects.

Of course moldy figs have had a longer time to refine their contrarianism, honing an admirable combination of staunch defiance and pragmatic resignation. When I mentioned my new bit of jazz taxonomy to Steinman, he picked up on this right away, despite his reflexive wariness about labels, especially those dreamt up by jazz critics.

“Have you read ‘Easter, 1916,’ the Yeats poem?” he asked. Yes, but it had been a while. When I consulted the text, I found its vivid image of a stone planted in a stream. The water moves, as do the reflections of clouds along its surface. A horse and rider splash along. “Minute by minute they live,” Yeats writes. “The stone’s in the midst of all.”

Anyone who’s been interviewed dreads being misquoted, so I was thrilled to find that Nate had paid me the great compliment of accuracy.  And he had given me a short solo at the start, middle, and end — generous journalism.   But the piece does raise a few issues for me, and since Nate invited me to address them here, I will take him up on it. 

I am delighted that he gives such serious attention to this “new traditionalism.”  It would be very easy to depict this phenomena as more evidence of The Death of Jazz: “See, all we have left is these shrinking audiences on cruise ships and jazz parties listening to stale perfomances of jazz-by-rote.  People who are almost dead listening to music that certainly is.” 

Although I am not ready for Medicare, it would also have been easy to satirize or stereotype me: an eager chronicler of a moribund art, recording its final wheezes.  I am pleased that neither of these approaches color Nate’s essay in the slightest.    

But I find it curious that the musicians whose names I utter in his essay are all dead.  It suggests that my “new traditionalism” is entirely antiquarian, as if I did not delight in current performances by players very much alive.  Yes, my iPod is full of now-dead players, but I’ll bet Nate listens to some dead folks, too.  He even writes obituaries of them, as in the case of John Bunch. 

Was it that Nate didn’t want to turn his essay into a list of names?  Or was it that he did not want to offen worthy players by omitting their names?  I admire tact, but Nate’s editing makes me and the Mossy Stones (who share my initials) seem to be the Emily Griersons or Miss Havishams of Dixieland, if you will.

At first glance, changing Figs into Stones sounds wonderful.  But “moldy fig” is such an archaic term that only those deeply involved in jazz history (“Jazz Battle” or “Squabblin,” if you like) would even recognize it.  True, I am pleased to no longer be compared to rotting produce.  And Nate does generously praise the “mossy stones” for their insistent devotion to the art they love. 

But do these names really matter? 

Given the minute notice jazz gets in the larger media, is this meditation on nomenclature the most profound way to bring attention to rewarding music?  And, given the divisive nature of much of the writing purportedly about jazz, is setting up a new sub-category of listeners a good thing?  Perhaps we should be attempting to bring the “schools” and “allegiances” together, so everyone could be open to music that could go back to ragtime and forward to hard bop and beyond. 

But this is the beginning of a deeper conversation — an optimistic one, not mourning the death of jazz but celebrating the life around us.  Nate and I agree that there is astonishing music to be heard and loved, now and in the future. 

And my invitation to dinner at The Ear Inn is still open!

JOHN BUNCH by RANDY SANDKE

Randy Sandke writes:

Someone should really acknowledge the passing of John Bunch.  He was a truly unique stylist and a brilliant improviser.  I remember listening with awe once as he played multiple choruses on the blues, every one taking up a new idea and developing it through each 12-bar sequence without being the slightest bit pedantic.  I thought I was listening to the spontaneous creation of a 20th Century Goldberg Variations.  John had a all the qualities of a great player – originality, flawless technique (which never called attention to itself), great subtlety, and infectious swing.  All he lacked was the major recognition, partly because his personality was very much like his playing: no flash or gimmicks.  Also, perhaps because he was identified as a “mainstream” player, which signifies lack of originality in critical parlance.  But as Harry Allen once said, John was always the most modern (and timeless I would add) player on the bandstand.

<http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/02/arts/music/02bunch.html>

Nate Chinen’s piece in the NY Times was respectful and accurate to a point, but again, it implied that John was a “swing” player (there’s that word again).  John’s conception began with bebop, and his whole approach (rhythm, harmonic, melodic) was much more in the Hank Jones school than Teddy Wilson, though again, he spoke unequivocally in his own voice.

John was also a gentle and self-effacing person, on the reserved side, but one who had a wealth of fascinating stories to tell: of being shot down over Germany in WWII and spending months in a prisoner-of-war camp (all of which he told me as we were touring Germany); how his trio in Indianapolis couldn’t find a bass player so they used Wes Montgomery playing bass lines on guitar; and how, after playing with a young Freddie Hubbard, he thought “this guy sounds terrible; he’ll never make it.”

John will be sorely missed by those who knew him and those who revered his playing.  Like any true artist, he leaves a void that cannot be filled.

I can only add that I first saw and heard John play with Ruby Braff in the early Seventies.  In retrospect, I was so awed by Ruby’s playing that it took some time for me to actually hear closely what John was consistently, quietly doing.  But I can still see and hear Ruby standing by the piano while John soloed, urging him on, agreeing, smiling at what he heard. 

In a musical landscape of extroverts and self-dramatizers, John pursued his art — serenely and thoughtfully, with wonderful swing and understated eloquence.  In my experience, certain musicians, now gone, were always reliable and more: seeing them onstage, I could relax, knowing that the music was going to be superb.  Jake Hanna, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, John Bunch.  We are fortunate to have heard them, to have been welcomed into their individual rooms.

To hear more from John himself, visit Marc Myers’ invaluable JazzWax, where he is posting an interview he did with John — incomplete but invaluable: http://www.jazzwax.com/2010/04/interview-john-bunch-part-1.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Jazzwax+%28JazzWax%29&utm_content=Google+Feedfetcher

WHAT BEN RATLIFF WON’T SAY

The posting below found its way into the JAZZ LIVES mailbox, thanks to John Herr:

ben-ratliff

January 12, 2009
Talk to the Newsroom:
Ben Ratliff, Jazz and Pop Critic
Ben Ratliff, music critic, is answering questions from readers Jan. 12-16, 2009. Questions may be e-mailed to askthetimes@nytimes.com.
Mr. Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times since 1996.
Born in New York City in 1968, he grew up in London and Rockland County, N.Y., and studied Classics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings” (2002), “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound” (2007) and “The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music” (2008).
Among hundreds of reviews, reported stories and obituaries in these pages, he has written about Duke Ellington, Slick Rick, Shirley Caesar, Dorival Caymmi, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Johnny Paycheck, Cat Power, Slayer, Donald Lambert, the Stooges, Tito Puente, Miley Cyrus, Prince, Gal Costa, Bo Diddley, Bebo Valdes, the Texas A&M University Marching Storm, community singing in East Lansing, Mich., the praise-rock house bands at the High Desert Church in Victorville, Calif., and much else.

Why Isn’t Jazz Audience Bigger?

Q. Why isn’t there more of an audience for “straight-ahead” jazz? Or put in a different way, how come established jazz artists who have been active since the ’50s or early ’60s are given only niche status (or no visibility at all) by the media? Do you feel the media plays a role/responsibiltiy regarding the public awareness of such artists as Freddie Hubbard, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton, for example? Why is it that the general (U.S.) public have no awareness or appreciation of this genre?
— Paul Loubriel

A. Paul: This is a big question. I’ll try to hit some parts of it but I probably won’t answer it to your satisfaction.
In the last 60 years, people almost completely stopped dancing to jazz, and far fewer people grew up with pianos in the house. I think that has a lot to do with why jazz is no longer the popular vernacular art it used to be. When you dance to music (in all ways — partner dancing, stepping, headbanging — just reacting to music with your body) or when you play it, then you own it. A lot of people born since 1960 don’t feel that they own jazz.
Absolutely, the media plays a role in why the average person doesn’t know who Cedar Walton is. But I think the mainstream media — obviously we’re not talking about jazz magazines like Downbeat, which has Benny Golson on the cover this month (a good example of the kind of artist you’re talking about) — doesn’t, by definition, deal with the kind of art that post-bop mainstream jazz has become, which is an art of tradition and very slow refinements.
Mainstream publications, generally, want to run music stories about what’s new or radically different, or about trends. (This could get into a larger issue about the shallowness of the general perception of “news.”) With classical music, they put a lot of stock in premieres or big, notable new compositions. In jazz there are few premieres and few big, notable new compositions. One has to sniff out what’s interesting, however it presents itself: it could be a one-night gig attended by 15 people or a sold-out run.
As for the general public, they’re not buying albums as much anymore, and as much as jazz is a recordings medium at all, it’s still an album art.
I believe that jazz needs more jazz clubs (with small cover charges), because it’s still a social music. The way to know about Cedar Walton in 2009 is to go see him at the Village Vanguard.
By the way, I see that The Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times, in reviews and articles and listings, since 1980. Not too bad.
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Here’s the email I sent to Mr. Ratliff:

I’m happy that the Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times.  But there’s a wide range of creative improvisation going on not too far from the Times’s offices that never gets mentioned: consider Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri at the Ear Inn on Sunday nights (8-11), where the regulars and visitors include Michael Blake, Scott Robinson, Steven Bernstein, and others.  If “the media” define Jazz as no longer newsworthy, then people who love Jazz come to reject “mainstream” media and turn to smaller magazines and weblogs. 
Sincerely,
Michael Steinman

P.S.  Come down to The Ear Inn on a Sunday night and I’ll buy you a drink.

 (I didn’t mean this facetiously: I would stand Mr. Ratliff a second drink or even a Cobb salad if he showed proper appreciation of the music . . . and wrote about it.)

I don’t mean to demonize the media or Mr. Ratliff, but his apparently candid answer has some large omissions in it. 

The standard argument has a good deal to do with the aging of the jazz audience.  Newspapers and magazines rely on advertisting to support themselves, and their research has shown, on whatever evidence, that the 18-35 group spends the most money.  That group has little or no knowledge of jazz, so it stands to reason.

But that argument isn’t entirely true.  Jazz clubs in New York are often full of people who have years to go before they apply for Social Security. 

When anyone goes to the opera, there are many white-haired people in the audience, the house is full, and the Times provides full coverage of, say, a Renee Fleming performance. 

The answer, for better or worse, is money.

Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center take out substantial advertising in the paper (with full-color glossy advertising supplements) and run weekly ads in the Arts section — so there’s a substantial amount of money changing hands.  In addition, when Ms. Fleming has a new CD, Decca or EMI or London takes out a full-page ad in the Sunday Arts section.  

The Ear Inn or Smalls doesn’t have that kind of advertising budget, so I am not surprised that Times critics don’t make their way down to those clubs to hear Kellso or Ehud Asherie. When I was trying to get more publicity for the Cajun jazz club, now demolished, I wrote directly to Nate Chinen, asking him to come down and hear the music — Kellso, John Gill, Kevin Dorn, Eddy Davis among others — and he never responded. 

I said above that I am not surprised.  But I am disappointed in the lack of candor displayed by Mr. Ratliff and others.  When I read a “jazz magazine” and see an ad for Victoria Vocalist on page 8 and a glowing review of Victoria’s new CD on page 9, my innate skepticism springs to life.  Whether the ad came first or the review is not entirely the question, but their proximity removes the possibility of objectivity.  (Only those jazz magazines that either have no advertising or, like Cadence, keep the two entities separate, can aspire to honest objectivity.)

So all I would like someone from the Times to do — it doesn’t have to be Mr. Ratliff — is to say, candidly, “Look.  We don’t review jazz of the type you admire because we haven’t found a way to make sufficient income from it.  We used to be able to make money from it — in the Seventies, when the Newport Jazz Festival concerts took place in New York, they took out ads in the paper, and they were reviewed.  Now we can’t.  Rather than say that we need to review ONLY those artistic performances that pay for themselves, we’ll just say that the audience has changed, people no longer have pianos in their house, and so on.  It sounds so much nicer.”

In the Fifties, when record company executives used to pay disc jockeys to spin their new records on the radio, it was called “payola” and it created a scandal.  The word fell out of use some time ago, but the concept, I fear, is still thriving.  A pretense of journalistic objectivity is not the same thing as objectivity.