Monday, May 14, 2007

As if us jazz musician types didn't have it rough to begin with...

Thanks, Louis...

Jazz apocrypha states that when Louis Armstrong was asked what jazz is, he replied, "If you have to ask, you'll never know."

Great. Make this genre even MORE inaccessible by insulting potential fans. "Hello Dolly" my ASS!!!

In the past few years, I really feel that I've opened up my narrow focus of music to include several new genres. I have plenty of people to thank for that (Ed H., my parents, my fellow bandmates...) and I feel that opening up my tastes has made me more well-rounded. Furthermore, it inspires me to learn more about these musicians that I didn't know anything about before.

So when I opened up my Washington Post Magazine yesterday over my Sunday McDonald's breakfast feast, I immediately turned to the article about JAZZ and one man's attempt to keep it alive and kicking.

Dr. Billy Taylor is a DC metro native (like another jazz great, Duke Ellington...who, oddly enough, is not one of my favorites). He's 85 years old, but he doesn't look as old as other 85-year-olds I know. I attribute it to him engaging in a labor of love for many years. In his case, it's teaching people more about jazz, the musical genre he refers to as the classical music of America.

He definitely earned his credentials. He studied piano from the time he was seven years old, and one of his performing landmarks is that he held down the piano bench at the famous Birdland jazz club in NYC longer than most anyone else. Pretty awesome in and of itself. (For those who don't know, jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker managed to get himself banned from Birdland...his own club, so Taylor's tenure there is truly impressive.)

However, Taylor's time as a performer came when many players were into drugs and the aloofness of the "hipster" lifestyle. It wasn't his thing...he thought those things took away from the beauty of the music. Therefore, he changed horses in the middle of the stream. He decided to educate people about jazz instead of just playing it. Taylor, apparently, doesn't do anything halfway either. He's done many things - lectures, radio series, even his "Jazzmobile" which brought jazz to the people. It also gave players "gigs", which further preserves the art form. He still lectures and serves as an arts correspondent for CBS's "Sunday Morning" news show (a favorite of my mom's, BTW).

His quest came at a price...missed time with his wife and children, his own chances to play...but apparently he was willing to pay it. But I think it came at a bigger price...

Let me elucidate for y'all.

Anymore, I sing jazz/standards more than anything else. I feel that the jazz genre is a good fit for me. It allows for more creativity as far as making a song your own, since that kind of behavior is expected anyway. I can sing other types (and do often), but jazz/blues is what I have gravitated to the most these days.

But my friend "L" asked me the other day (over lunch) who my musical inspirations were. I've listed them before, but I'll list them again. Some of them are expected:

  • Tony Bennett
  • Judy Garland
  • Linda Ronstadt
  • The Mills Brothers
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Al Jarreau
  • George Benson
  • Manhattan Transfer/Janis Siegel
  • Joe Williams
However, others are...NOT. Note that some of the inspirations in both lists are recent, and others go WAY back. Unexpected inspirations include:

  • Stevie Wonder
  • Prince
  • Johnny Cash
  • Jim Morrison
  • Billy Joel
  • Beverly Sills
  • Placido Domingo
  • The Limeliters
  • PDQ Bach (Peter Schickele)
  • Heywood Banks
  • The Muppets
Now, many music-types may view this list and think I'm totally wacked. Come on...the MUPPETS? PDQ BACH? They may think that this list is void of purity, and they'd be right. My goodness, how can I expect to reach the fringes of jazz greatness with inspiring figures like Heywood Banks, who sings songs about toast and the pancreas?

Well...they inspire me because I simply like them and what they do. Each artist creates a feeling in me that I want to keep singing, period. In the case of the Muppets, sometimes the first time I heard a jazz tune was on "The Muppet Show". This show also featured many jazz performers throughout their run (Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Lena Horne, Cleo name a few).

However, here's a quote from the Village Voice (cited in the Washington Post Magazine profile on Billy Taylor) that I found quite intriguing.

What nationalist boosters of jazz never expected when they struck gold with their classical allusion is that the two veins of music would end up suffering similar fates...jazz and classical music find themselves limping into the millenium under the burden of a glorious but sclerotic sense of tradition, and supported by an aging audience base that shows no sign of rejuvenating anytime soon.

That's very true indeed. I've seen it in action. I worked for a jazz radio station for about a year back in Iowa. This station prided itself on being the only 24-hour jazz station in a public radio format, and in a state like Iowa, that is indeed impressive. It was a fun place to work in spite of all the drama that happened there, and I learned more about music and the radio industry (maybe too much) than in many of my music classes.

Unfortunately, I saw how jazz audiences can be polarized. Some fans I encountered only liked Dixieland music. Others were bebop all the way...still others were swing fans/straight ahead jazz. As if that wasn't isolated enough, some fans thought that the station shouldn't feature vocalists (and of course, that pissed ME off). This is a definite example of "sclerotic", folks.

Really, jazz preferences are not much different than any other kind of music "fandom". Whether you like country, rock, pop, techno,'ll find "purists" that won't consider anything else within the spectrum other than what flips their trigger (or as my friend DD would say, "raises their fun-meter"...and I'm not even sure why I went there as that metaphor conjures up some phallic stuff).

But when you have a genre of music like jazz, that (if the article is to believed) is dying on the vine, is calling it "America's classical music" really the way to go? Should it be put on a pedestal and worshipped?

I don't think so. Classical music and jazz music, which are both precious, are coming from two different zones. Classical music is more structured, and no matter how many times you play a Bach sonata, it's still a Bach sonata. Treating a living, breathing musical form like jazz as a museum piece...hermetically sealed for all poison. Jazz is meant to flow like a river, not freeze like an ice cube.

To further use DD as an example, I recently took him to a big band gig, and my small group opened up the evening. DD hadn't even heard of some of the songs I sang, and that amazed me at first. I was stupefied that there are people in this world that didn't even KNOW this stuff. Then it hit one time, I was one of those people, and I learned about this stuff by listening and researching on my own. So really, who am I to judge someone else's musical tastes? I'm better off telling them about what I like and letting them make their own decisions.

Should jazz musicians do what Billy Taylor did? He sacrificed his playing career to teach the world that jazz is worthwhile. Is that a logical choice?

For Taylor it was/is. He's happy doing what he's doing, and he's respected by scholars and musicians alike.

But not all of us are Billy Taylor.

Isn't the most important part of preserving jazz is to keep making music? Can't people learn simply from listening to good musicians as opposed to analyzing the whole art form to death? That's how I learned. Building on the DD anecdote I related above, I've learned that whenever I sing, I'm teaching...I'm bringing out a piece that someone hasn't heard before. I'm presenting something that they might be interested in.

I also learn from others when I sing. I learn more music fundamentals from my fellow musicians, and I learn from my audience members. What elements of my performance fall flat? What do people like/not like? What can I bring out? What can I fade back on?

I think I can safely make this next statement. Many of us play because we love jazz, and we love playing.

Speaking for myself, I like making a buck off of singing but I also just like singing within this wide style of music. It raises me up from the doldrums, even when I sing torch songs about lost loves and shredded souls.

I've finally found a way to express myself that I can do effectively.

I'm not lost in a sea of art songs that I can barely comprehend. I'm singing and understanding what I'm singing.

I'm not expecting what I do to be put on a shelf in a glass case to be admired for a while. I'm giving something of's's TANGIBLE.

And (God willing) I'll be doing this as long as Billy Taylor has.