When the outspoken musician and multi-instrumentalist Nicholas Payton deemed himself the preserver of “archaic pop” he was giving a kind of true, historical legitimacy to one of the world’s most iconic forms of music: Jazz. The Music given to the world by the uniquely melded culture of the African who was once taken against his will and in shackles (no less) as a slave by his white principals to America. The enslaved men and women, desperate to preserve his sanity, far away from the God he knew and fearful of the white God he had been forced to accept as his new saviour they cried their troubles in the form of The Blues, then celebrated – first in secret and then openly – the triumph of their freedom with Jazz. But it was (and also still is) not all about the idiom anymore.
There are folks predominantly white men in suits who saw and see money – vast sums of it – in this strange and seductively rhythmic music many mainly white and rich folk began to appropriate the music, creating a forum for it to be performed not only in illegitimate venues but in music halls, and recorded not only in juke joints but proper studios. With spin doctors and small and big bankrolling from benefactors, who began to see their investments multiplying as well as with the love and respect of true aficionados – mainly foreigners from Europe – all of whom began to see small; then larger returns on investment The Music spread far and wide reaching such proportions of growth over a hundred years that it was once and arguably still is the most popular music in the world.
And so, to telescope a not so fictional account of The Rise of Jazz into a paragraph one is now faced with the conundrum: not whether it is still Jazz, or what one should call it (Mr Payton may be justified in wanting to preserve the music – to be the saviour of the music of “the African American”, his music – as Black American Music). It’s more a question of whether we are doing right by it; being its most conscientious shepherds, if you like, as we as artists and audiences, listeners, fans and critics, and club-owners Jazz music festival directors and marketers. Being a festival’s music director is perhaps the most critical factor in keeping the music alive and growing simply because through his or her management decision the music is going to get to the widest possible audience and thereby stay alive. So why, then is the so-called future of Jazz and its spread always being called into question?
Several years ago, I volunteered – I thought “worked”, but as I was never paid, the correct nature of my relationship was “Volunteer” – with a group that can only be described as being run by a group of evangelists – probably closer to zealots – at Toronto’s Distillery District. At one point during my involvement I became involved in a concert by the fast-rising star David Virelles, who was “returning” to Toronto from New York, his adopted home, with his new mentor Steve Coleman, who had also brought along another prodigiously-gifted musician and trumpeter Jonathan Findlayson. The trio was to perform at the organisation’s salon and one of my tasks was to stand at the door and collect an entrance “fee”. No tickets were being sold for obvious reasons, not the least of which was probably to lead the IRS to believe this was a non-event, but we were going to make it worth the while for the musicians to provide us with the unique brand of their “hearts-of-fire” music.
As I recall the audience was mainly friends and admirers of Mr Virelles and others – myself included – comprised avid fans who’d heard of, or were aware of the urban legend that was Mr Coleman and his mBase Collective. Everything was going fine – that is, people were stuffing my hands with paper dollars and entering until a young chap, eyes as large as a beagle’s and almost in tears, told me he had no money to pay, but, “Man,” he said, “I really have to get in…” “And why should I let you in?” I countered, “I’ve been told that only paying patrons can be allowed in,” I said. “Please, man,” he begged. “I’m only a first-year student (at U of T music school)… I don’t have a job and…” He looked genuine and distraught, and close to tears and he went on to say that he had piano lessons, once, from Mr Virelles before the pianist relocated to New York. That broke my heart. I let him in and later topped up the tip-jar with a ten-dollar bill from my pocket before I handed over the proceeds at the door to Mr Virelles at the end of the concert – a brilliant one, I might add. What’s the point of this story, one may legitimately ask? Here’s my answer:
If you were, like me, not an avid, but a “rabid” music fan and yet unable to attend the performance at the 39th edition of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, by Bobby McFerrin ($65.60 – $91.10 taxes and fees included), or (because I’ve seen him before and would lust after any performance by) Kamasi Washington ($49 to $70 taxes and fees included), or the double bill by Herbie Hancock and Thundercat ($82.85 to 105.85 taxes and fees included)… need I go on? Probably not, for two reasons: staff of the festival would give me the official party line that there were also many “Free” concerts, or that as a member of the media I could request (but was not guaranteed) a free pass to cover the event. Also the “artist has to be paid” and “there are huge costs involved” in putting on such an event. And they are all legitimate reasons… Or are they just excuses?