Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reno Jazz Festival 2013

Last weekend, I flew to Reno, Nevada. No, I didn't go to gamble or see Sawyer Brown in concert. (Anybody remember Sawyer Brown? Winners of Star Search?Are they still touring? Seems like a band that would play Reno once a year.....)I was asked to be an adjudicator at the Reno Jazz Festival. This festival, hosted by the University of Nevada Reno, has been running for 51 years, and is primarily a competition for middle school, high school, and college jazz bands. It's a huge event, and it's remarkably well organized considering there are usually around 300 bands, 9,000 participants, and 60 judges/adjudicators. There are also some professional performances; this year the featured acts were Dave Douglas and Matt Wilson. There are also some additional clinics and performances; I gave a piano clinic, participated in an adjudicator jam session, and also one afternoon concert. Other than that, it was wall to wall adjudication for me.

So far in my career, I haven't done that much judging of competitions. I was rather surprised that the good folks at University of Nevada Reno had asked me to come. I ended up having a really wonderful time. I was assigned to be the feedback judge for high school combos. I didn't give any scores, but I gave constructive commentary for each group that I listened to. I alternated between listening to a band for 25 minutes, bringing them to the "feedback" room, talking to them for 25 minutes, and then running back to the concert hall to hear the next band. It was back and forth all day for both days. I actually had a lot of fun listening to the high school kids at all different levels and critiquing them. Most , if not all, of the students and their directors were very receptive to my feedback. I think it's important to stay positive in these situations; after all, I could barely play at all in high school, so already most of these kids are in a better situation than I was at their age.

I have to give it up to the folks who organized this festival. When I imagine all of the work that it would take to do something like that at PSU, I shudder to think of the magnitude of responsibility. School of the Arts Director David Ake and trumpet professor and festival organizer Larry Engstrom did a wonderful job of making sure everything ran as smoothly as it could. It's kind of an odd place to host a jazz festival; Circus Circus, the main hotel where everyone stays, is part of a Vegas like casino complex which has almost nothing to do with a jazz. I participated in an adjudicator jam in a Mexican bar/restaurant right in the middle of the casino. I'm not sure if our uptempo version of "Lover" made us any friends besides the jazz festival participants.

Portland State University brought two excellent groups to Reno. One of our groups, a quartet called Reverse Mermaid, tied for third place among college groups. I didn't get to hear either group because I was busy judging the high schoolers, but I heard that they both did really well. I had coached both groups and contributed some arrangements to the second group. The Reno Jazz Festival  are great about sending mp3 files with and without comments. When I have the time, I'll listen to them and give them my own feedback.

I happened to find this set of videos from the faculty concert that took place on the Saturday afternoon of the festival. It was rather impromtu, but I had fun playing after listening to so much music for two days. You'll hear Tom Wakeling on bass, Don Aquilo on tenor saxophone, and the fabulous Mark Ferber on drums. Enjoy the videos and maybe I'll see you in Reno next year!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tour Diary: Ballard Jazz Festival

Seattle, just like I pictured it....Space Needles.....and everything....
I just got back from a long weekend in Seattle. No, I don't live in Seattle, I live in the other famous Pacific Northwestern city(and no, not Vancouver, either). A mere 3 hours by car without traffic, and merely 8 hours with traffic.......Seattle is a city with a lot of natural beauty and culture. Yes, it rains a lot, and it rained A LOT during this trip. However, I'm used to it, having lived in Portland for a year and a half. ( I think the rainy-ness is worse in Seattle. Honestly, the weather in this part of the world is really mild compared to the east coast.)We actually stayed in West Seattle, which from downtown Seattle is about a 15 minute drive without traffic.......2 hours WITH traffic.....I love the little bungalows in West Seattle, and the views are breathtaking. We rented a really lovely 2 bedroom house; my wife and son wanted to come up for the weekend, so we made a little vacation out of it.

I performed for 4 straight nights at the Ballard Jazz Festival. Ballard is a little neighborhood about 10
to 15 minutes from downtown. It's kind of a hip and happening spot for young people to congregate, with bars, coffee shops and restaurants. There are also some nice residential neighborhoods. The festival is the brainchild of the proprietors of Origin Records: drummers Matt Jorgensen and John Bishop. Both are great musicians in their own right, and their multi-talents include running a successful record label and a jazz festival. I really dig the fact that some musicians were able to create and control their own events and include other deserving musicians in the process. I can't even imagine how much work it took to put this festival on. The trick is that not only do Jorgensen and Bishop organize and promote the festival, they also play in it as well. I'm extremely impressed with their ingenuity, and they have been successful for 11 years. Here's hoping for many more.

Matt Jorgensen
I'm honored that they asked me to do 4 nights of gigs. The first three nights were at a venue called Conor Byrne( it's pretty much an Irish Bar..). Night one featured the theme of "Brotherhood Of The Drum"; I played organ with the Matt Jorgensen Trio featuring guitarist Tom Guarna. Although the set was a mere 45 minutes or so, it was very highly concentrated music; both Guarna and Jorgensen were on fire from note one. I felt like my reaction time was a little slow, but I tried to keep up the best I could.

The second night, we added bassist Paul Gabrielson and turned the same group into the Tom Guarna Quartet. I was relieved to not have to worry about the bass lines. This was my first time playing with Gabrielson, and he is quite a strong player. He and Jorgensen had a nice lock, and once again Guarna was shredding like gangbusters. Both nights had an attentive, enthusiastic crowd. The Ballard Jazz Festival is well promoted and seems to be a popular event. I believe that there are jazz fans everywhere and it's really just a question of getting them all to come out at the right time.

Night Three was basically the same group as night one except we called it the George Colligan Trio. So we did mostly my tunes and a few standards. I don't get to play organ that often(well, it wasn't
Tom Guarna
even a real organ, but it's a Nord Electro;close enough for jazz....), so I feel rusty sometimes. Holding down the bass line is quite a different feeling from just comping chords. I try to cover my technical shortcomings as an organs by playing with the best rhythm I can and trying to keep a certain amount of intensity in the music. The crowds were enthusiastic, but they ebbed and flowed, due to the fact that this night was what they call the Ballard Jazz Walk, where there are many different bands playing at once; listeners go in and out of venues up and down the block like trick-or-treaters on Halloween. I only went across the street to see the Portland crew of Jeff Baker on Vocals, Darrell Grant on piano, Dylan Sundstrom on bass, Jason Palmer on drums, and David Valdez on alto sax. They were really throwing down, considering they were backing a singer(come on, Jeff, I'm kidding around!)

The last night was held at the Nordic Heritage Museum. Two bands would perform; first was trumpeter Lew Soloff, back by Milo Peterson on guitar, Essiet Essiet on bass, and Sylvia Cuenca on drums. I got to hear just the tail end of the performance; they played a mellow version of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing", and ended with a rousing rendition of "Caravan", on which Soloff showed off his impressive virtuosity. I was really looking forward to being reunited musically with one of my first bosses in New York, alto and soprano saxophone master Gary Bartz. (This set again featured Jorgensen on drums and Phil Sparks on bass.)I worked with Bartz back in the mid 90's, and the time I spent in his bad was a real learning experience. Bartz's music is truly connected with the legends, and it's amazing to bask in his energy and wisdom. Bartz has wisdom in his choice of notes but also his choice of words; during our soundcheck, Bartz remarked that "people think it takes a lifetime to play this music. It actually takes MANY lifetimes!" (This is something that we need to relate to our students, who are under the impression that it takes 4 years of college to learn jazz.)

the Great Gary Bartz
I don't know if was the nostalgia for New York in the 90's, or whether it was just the pure joy of listening to one of the most unique alto saxophonists alive, but I was smiling pretty much the entire concert. Gary isn't slowing down as he's getting older; he's playing better than ever. Bartz knows how to swing and how to play modal music, but sometimes it's almost like he's playing rubato over the swing. It's so lyrical; not too many younger saxophonists know how to play like this. Bartz is also a master at quoting other melodies as part of his solo; however, he does it in such a way that it is never corny or contrived, it always feels natural, so natural that you might not even realize that it's a quote. During our version of "Star Eyes, " I believe he quoted maybe 3 or 4 other melodies in rapid succession as he improvised.

I always remembered that Bartz liked to find tunes which were kind of off the beaten path; on this night, we ended up doing a duo version of a Sidney Bechet tune called "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere", which was used by Woody Allen for his recent film, "Midnight in Paris". I always loved comping behind Bartz, whether it be a rubato ballad or a furious swing tune. This gig really brought me back. It's always great to play music with great players, and this gig was really something special. I left Seattle with a really positive, optimistic feeling about music. Congratulations to Matt Jorgensen and John Bishop and everybody at Origin for another great Ballard Jazz Festival.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Warren Wolf Interview Part 1

Warren Wolf is an amazing young multi-instrumentalist from Baltimore. He plays the drums quite well, and I've hired him and worked with Wolf the drummer in a number of settings. He is THE premier young vibraphonist on the scene. He also plays piano and bass extremely well. I hope he doesn't play anything else! You might have seen him with Christian McBride or Wolf's own group. I was able to finally sit down with him and find out how he turned out so well.

GC: Warren Wolf! I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, finally getting to it! How’d you become such a bad motherfucker?

WW: (laughs) That’s a very long story.

GC: (laughs)

WW: In basic detail, my dad, Warren Wolf Sr.. His main day job was a school teacher. He was a Baltimore City Public School teacher, he taught History - U.S. history, World history, things like that. He also had a band on the side. Music was a serious hobby of his. I would say around 1978 or 79, the year I was born, he wanted to buy an instrument. He wanted to do something completely different than what everyone else was doing, so no saxophone, trumpet, or drums, things like that. So he bought a vibraphone. I was born in November ‘79, and a couple years later, three years later, he got me started.

GC: Wow, so you started at three. Wow!

WW: Now that’s not just vibes, that’s everything. From the vibes to basic piano to drums. It started at three. Most people, as far as drummers go, most people know that I’m a left-handed drummer. I’m not a left-handed person though. I’m a left-handed drummer because my father’s a left-handed person. So the way he played drums - that’s how I saw the drums coming up. I saw the drums set up as a lefty. So I thought “oh, that’s right, that’s how it’s supposed to be.” Then I got older and started going out and seeing all these cats playing right-handed drums and I realized that I’m the wrong person. So that’s the drum side... as far as mallets go, I took lessons at Peabody Preparatory with Leo LePage. He’s now deceased, but he was with the Baltimore Symphony. He was also a jazz drummer when he lived in Boston back in the day. Took lessons with him every Saturday for like an hour, outside of my normal practice that I did every day from the age of three to seventeen, I practiced 5 days a week, 90 minutes. 30 minutes on drums, 30 on vibes, 30 on piano. That ranged from jazz to classical to pop music to Motown. Everything, just about. My father wanted to give me a crash course in music.

GC: That’s very regimented, for such a long time. It sounds like it must have been very focused if
 you were compartmentalizing it like that.

WW: It was very focused. I mean, my dad - he knew what he wanted me to be from the moment I was born. I didn’t have a choice so much.

GC: But you do love it.

WW: No I do love it. I didn’t really start loving it until middle school jazz band. But before that - what kid wants to be in the basement? I had a typical childhood - I went to school, got home and watched my cartoons. But when my parents got home, around 5, it gave them a half hour wind-down time and then my father was like “okay, let’s go”, and we were in the basement from 5:30-7pm every day. After that, I do homework, eat dinner, go to bed, do it again the next day. Saturdays were the day at Peabody, an hour at Peabody. Then after that - I have two older sisters, so I would just play with them or go outside in West Baltimore. Same for Sundays - I didn’t grow up in church, so they were just another free day, with family or whoever.

GC: So would you do music that day?

WW: No, no music.

GC: So you don’t know life without music.

WW: Pretty much. It’s pretty much all I know. I mean, just like any typical kid, at least what I saw growing up in Baltimore, I see sports on TV and rap music and so I knew that stuff, but music was and is my life.

GC: Did you do any listening? I assume he had a lot of records.

WW: He had a pile of records. I don’t recall anything in particular. But I always had a good ear, I just didn’t know it then. He’d put on the Yellowjackets, Spyro Gyra, Anita Baker...all of those records are what I remember. That’s what he played in his band. He had kind of a fusion band that played around Baltimore, called the Wolf Pack.

GC: I don’t know them.

WW: No, no, it wasn’t a band that actually went out. Just a local band that played restaurants.

GC: Was it like... did you ever know that band Moon August?

WW: Oh yeah, I knew them, with Harold Adams on tenor. I think they were more on the swing side.

GC: Really? I thought they got...smooth...at a certain point.

WW: I think they did a mix of things, they played classic songs like “Sugar”, “Stolen Moments”. Then they’d easily go into something like “Sweet Love” by Anita Baker. That’s what I grew up listening to. And my parents still do this to this day, they still play a lot of Motown songs from back in the day. I heard all of that stuff, Motown, Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson - I heard all that stuff growing up.

GC: That’s how you make a virtuoso I suppose. You get to the point where you’ve just been doing it for so long. I mean, you’re a lot younger than me, but you’ve probably been playing longer than me.

WW: This is year 30 for me now.

GC: Yeah. I’m 42. I didn’t even really get serious about piano since I was 21.

WW: Yeah, I’ve been playing for a long time, but like I said I didn’t really start enjoying it until I got to middle school. I went to a school called West Baltimore Middle School, back in the day in the 60s and 70s, they called it Rock Glenn Middle School or Junior High School. The band teacher was Betty McCloud and we had a jazz band, concert band, wind ensemble, but the jazz band consisted of 8 trumpet players, 6 trombones, and a pile of horns. No bass player, but I was the pianist and sometimes drummer in the band. I think what made me really start liking music - like I didn’t really understand the concept of changes and playing in the key. My whole thing back then was play whatever the hottest song was on the radio for your solo.

GC: (laughs)

WW: One of the songs that we did - we actually did not play jazz oriented big band charts. We were a big band in that setting but we played songs like “Eye of the Tiger”, things like that. One of the songs was “Louie Louie”. So when they got to the keyboard solo they were like “alright Warren, you go!” and I forget the name of this girl, but she was very popular. This was 1990 or 1991. And I could sing the chorus of this one song... (sings chorus) and I learned that on piano. So I used to play that on the solos and I would watch how my peers in the auditorium would react - they’d get up and start clapping and dancing. So I was like “wow, if I can get that reaction playing songs like this I wonder what it could do for real?” So at that point, I think it was 6th or 7th grade, that’s when I really started loving music.

GC: You liked the attention.

WW: Yeah.

GC: So your concept was “get house immediately”?

WW: Nah that wasn’t really the concept but that’s just what happened.

GC: It’s kind of a concept!

WW: Yeah, I guess. I mean, like I said, I knew a certain thing about changes but not too much.

GC: When did you really learn about changes?

WW: It kind of slowly picked up - I can’t say there was a given moment. My dad had these charts, I remember when I was starting to learn how to read. He had a big band chart of St. Thomas. And it had some time of solo in there, written out. And I remember playing it and I still remember how the solo goes to this day but I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just like “okay I’ll read it down, this sounds good over this.” At some point in middle school my dad would take me out to the club. We used to go to the Sports Lounge. Organ player, his name was Chico (that’s all I know him as) and the drummer Bobby Ward. We used to go over there, and he’d play the vibes, and sometimes his band would go over there. There wasn’t anything that I specifically worked on to learn what changes were, it was more just playing and playing. Like I said, I always had a good ear but I never knew it. One of the classes that I had at Peabody was classical theory.

GC: In high school?

WW: Middle school.

GC: Wow!

WW: I had to separate myself between high school and Peabody, but I’ll talk about that in a minute.

GC: Okay.

WW: I took a theory class in middle school and I was pretty terrible at it. My teacher always had said “he has a great ear”, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. Eventually after I graduated middle school and got to high school - Baltimore School of the Arts, fall of 1993, the staff told me that I could not attend Peabody anymore and I could not study with the percussion teacher because the teacher at the School of the Arts was also a member of the Baltimore Symphony, but he was strictly classical. His name was John Locke. Basically they didn’t want me studying with two guys from the Symphony, they already had someone there at the school. So I got accepted into the school. How I figured out I had a good ear - I had perfect pitch, but this is how I figured it out. Ninth grade, 1993, there were a lot of students who were trying to figure out a popular song - a Mary J Blige tune called “Real Love”. Very popular back then. The students couldn’t figure it out at all. I was like “hey, I can play it!” They didn’t know what it was, we were freshman. They said “yeah right”, and I just got on the piano and played it right away. They were like “wow! Can you play this one?” They kept asking me. And I had never played these songs before. So I did some research after a while and found out I had perfect pitch, and that’s why a lot of people said I have a good ear.

GC: Why didn’t they tell you?

WW: I don’t think they knew. I think it was just something I had to figure out on my own.

GC: It’s interesting, you taking those classical lessons and your ear never coming up.

WW: That’s another problem in my youth. I was at Peabody Prep for years and I wasn’t just some little kid taking lessons. During that time I was also going on tour and performing as a soloist with the Baltimore Symphony. My first concert as a soloist with the Symphony I was  about 8 years old. I played all sorts of Concertos, Bach’s Concerto in A Minor, Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C Major.

GC: On mallets?

WW: Yeah, on the marimba. I also did a two week tour with the Symphony when James Galway was a soloist. We did John Corligiano’s “Pied Piper Fantasy”. And we all know the story of the Pied Piper - the guy who comes and takes the kids away. I was one of the little kids, we had a snare drum/field drum part in that piece. We did that for a long time. Basically I did on and off work with the Symphony for 14 years.

GC: Wow! That’s amazing. So you went to school for the arts, and then you went to Berklee.

WW: Yep. Fall of 1997.

GC: How old are you?

WW: 33. Just turned 33.

GC: So what was Berklee like for you? Did you feel advanced?

WW: Um...Berklee was cool. I feel I learned, like any serious musician, I learned more outside of the school. I learned some things in the school, how to write music, how to notate it, certain things about harmony. But a lot of the things they teach at Berklee, I was just like “what’s the point of this?” Like in Harmony 4, we were analyzing pieces of music and putting brackets around chords and indicating whether or not it was a ii-V, and I used to always think “what the hell, why would I ever use this?” Basic stuff in Harmony 1 and 2 was what I needed, then I was cool. Same for Ear Training. I think any college that has a music program is going to have pros and cons. Some things are good, some aren’t. A lot of those classes at Berklee I think were just designed just to take your money.

GC: Ugh, and that’s a whole other conversation.

WW: (laughs) Yeah.

GC: As an educator myself...well, maybe we’ll come back to that. Berklee used to be a place where people would just come through. Most people didn’t finish Berklee - the joke was that if you actually got a degree from Berklee you were probably sad cause no one come through and took you away. But I think times have changed, I think people want their degrees and it’s not quite the same in the industry.

WW: I don’t think so. I mean, I finished the school.

GC: Did your parents want you to get the degree?

WW: Yeah, but I mean...I got a Performance degree. I didn’t really need to go to Berklee to get a Performance degree because with the type of work that we do, it’s like... who cares if you have the degree? It’s either you can play or you can’t play. It’s not like I can just go to Christian McBride and say “hey, I have a Performance Degree from Berklee, get me in your band!” I mean - I do think it’s necessary for other types of things, like if you’re doing Music Education or Music Therapy, of course you need that. Berklee has all of those. Everything else just depends on how good you are.

GC: So did you start hooking up with the cats you play with now at Berklee?

WW: Yes. One of the first people I met at Berklee who really helped me out was Jeremy Pelt.

GC: While he was a student?

WW: Yeah.

GC: Is he your age?

WW: He’s about 4 years older than me. You know, being a new person on campus a lot of people just start talking about you. Actually one of the first people I met up there was Jaleel Shaw. I just happened to be walking around the hallways, because that’s what freshman do, and I met Jaleel and a friend of mine, Rashawn Ross, trumpeter for Dave Matthews. All these guys were in the room, just playing, and there’s a set of vibes in the hall. So I’m seventeen years old, just walking around I asked to play with them. They said “sure, come in!” And we played for maybe an hour and a half or two years. Jaleel must have gone around telling people “check out this cat on the vibes, he’s the guy!” So word starts getting passed around and Jeremy finds me. It was easy to find me because I lived in the dorms. He asked me to do a couple of cafe shows - Berklee had this thing where students would perform in the cafeteria, just give us a little bit of experience being a leader. So I did that, and my name eventually got passed on to Wayne Escoffery. He gave me my first gig as a leader at the club Wally’s. John Lampkin was another part of that, him being from Baltimore and he’s always trying to look out for the guys, you know, like “yeah that’s my boy from Baltimore, you gotta give him a chance!” I remember my first gig at Wally’s, John wanted to give me the chance to play. I never got paid for that gig.

GC: (laughs)

WW: But the gig was like 50 bucks for 4 hours. They let me play everything that I knew. So I called all the tunes that I knew from Baltimore...”Sugar”, “Stolen Moments”, “Ornithology”, “My Little Suede Shoes”...songs that they don’t play at the club. So they said “oh yeah, you sound good, come back tomorrow”. So I come back the next day and they start calling tunes that I now think everybody should know but at the time I had no idea what they were. Like...”In Your Own Sweet Way”, “You Stepped Out of a Dream”. So instead of writing all this stuff down, cause at this point I had perfect pitch, I figured “well I don’t have to know the melody right now, I can at least hear these changes out.” So John, Jeremy, Darren Barrett, Jaleel Shaw...those were the main ones that really got me started in Boston.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Best excuses for not practicing:

1. Fell asleep at 4:30 in the afternoon
2. Watched a Gilligan's Island Marathon, followed by a Three's Company Marathon
3. Had to make sourdough bread
4.  Couldn't find my instrument
5.  Left my instrument in my other pants
6.  My dog ate my instrument
7.  Sold my instrument for crack
8. Had uncontrollable diarrhea
9.  Had uncontrollable diarrhea AGAIN
10. Couldn't find my fingering chart
11. Teacher didn't tell me I have to practice more than once a year!
12. Thought that too much practicing would make me go blind, but I think that's something else…..
13. Got married and had children
14. Have neighbors who hate music. They also hate me.
15. Left my instrument at a vegan strip club
16. Wanted to take it easy after the New York Marathon. I watched the whole thing on TV!
17. Had to go to the Portland Farmer's Market, since there's no other place in Portland to buy fruit
18. Couldn't sit still after 7 Starbucks Grande Lattes!
19. Had uncontrollable diarrhea after 8 Starbucks Grande Lattes!
20.Thought Practice Makes Perfect, and yet, Nobody's Perfect, so that contradiction really threw me off for a while…
21. Don't need to practice because somebody told me to "work it out on the bandstand"
22. Don't need to practice because I don't want to "play licks"
23. Don't need to practice because I want to be "in the moment"
24. Don't want to have "too much technique" and be a show-off, like that guy, what's his name, who's so busy working because he "shows off" by being able to read and knowing tunes and sounding great. What a darn show-off!
25. Had to put cover sheets on the TPS reports

26. Watched a Star Trek Marathon, followed by a Charles in Charge Marathon
27. Had to read " Atlas Shrugged" for a second time. Ha Ha, Now I get all the jokes!
28. Too busy blogging
29. Very busy reading blogs about how to practice
30. Sold instrument for heroin
31. Sold instrument for a Starbucks Card
32. Sold instrument to pay for music school
33. Sold Starbucks gift card to pay for music school
34. Got arrested for selling heroin to pay for music school

35. I figure I know about 17 tunes, so I should be cool
36. Camped out all night for Justin Beiber tickets
37. Too busy watching Ken Burns "Jazz" documentary
38. Got married and had children….AGAIN
39. Left my instrument at a vegan Satanic Church
40. Why practice when it's so sunny, rainy, snowy, dark, cold, or warm outside?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Norway Stakes A Claim in Jazz

That little Red house might be a jazz club!
While browsing the news feed on Facebook, I came across this article on the NPR Site: "How Norway Funds a Thriving Jazz Scene" by Michelle Mercer. (The writer, who recently penned the biography "Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter," happens to be married to an old friend of mine from Baltimore, bassist Marc Niehoff).

This article piqued my interest for many reasons. I have always been aware that European nations, due to their financial contribution to the arts in general (much more so per capita than the United States), have supported so many more jazz tours than the nation where jazz was born. However I have always resisted the notion that Europe should become the de facto "new home of jazz," maybe because 1) I have not figured out a way to live in Europe, and 2) perhaps I have some kind of subconscious national pride about Jazz music. (I suppose those who who would label me a "Blame America First" sort of liberal might be surprised to hear that occasionally, under circumstances, if the wind is just right, I'm slightly proud to be American. It usually clears up after a good night's sleep and some Tylenol...)

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the British writer Stuart Nicholson wrote a book a few years
ago called "Is Jazz Dead? Or Has It Moved To A New Address." This book was actually a more in-depth version of a New York Times article written in 2001 (the book was published in 2005) based on the same premise; Nicholson contends that European jazz musicians are not only better funded, but also more innovative and more interested in furthering the development of the art form, while American musicians like Wynton Marsalis and others are merely regurgitating the past, treating Jazz more like a museum piece rather than a living contemporary art form.

While Nicholson makes some valid points, I feel that he uses pretty selective and at times, dubious examples to prove his point. Let's take the example of Wynton Marsalis, who, as we all know, has a very rooted philosophy: Jazz music is about the blues and swing and if that isn't in it, it's not happening and it isn't Jazz. OK, fine, but that's ONE musician out of hundreds who are known, and thousands who are unknown. Many American Jazz musicians are going further; it;s just that we can't get funded. Our cultural system in the U.S. is mostly based on commerce. If you sell, you get to play and you get attention. And usually, you will sell if you get a record deal, or you have a hit song, etc... It's also incredibly competitive in the United States; most people cannot compete with Wynton Marsalis' fame. Meanwhile, in European nations, there are considerably fewer jazz musicians, and it is much easier to get public funding.

Case in point: the Swedish trio known as E.S.T., or the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, was a very successful jazz group in the late 90's and into the last decade. (Svensson tragically died in a scuba accident in 2008.) Our writer Nicholson holds up E.S.T. as an example of music with the "Nordic Tone," and claims that they are much more innovative than the current crop of American musicians. E.S.T was highly popular in Europe, it's true. They had major funding from the Swedish Government, to my recollection. Musically, I think E.S.T. was pretty good; not particularly innovative to my ears, and certainly they didn't play anything that the Keith Jarrett Trio played better years before. Honestly, it seemed unfair to me that a pretty OK Swedish group, thanks to plentiful Swedish money, could become mega-stars playing jazz while so many great American jazz musicians I knew could barely get one gig a year. (I'm not really trying to bash E.S.T., I'm just saying that an American group playing the same music without funding would be unknown.)

That silly national pride combined with my own glorious self interest made me think quite unfavorably of Nicholson's suggestion that Jazz is now a European phenomenon. I don't necessarily mean the book itself; many have taken issue with it's selective journalism and I think they are right.  Many of Nicholson's arguments just don't hold up when you really think about it. I'm talking about just the idea of Jazz in Europe. I still wanted the old paradigm of Europeans booking American jazz musicians in their festivals to go on forever. Instead, nowadays, when you look at the European festivals and venues, it's more often than not European musicians and groups. This is not only due to more interest in European jazz musicians, but it's also for basic economic factors: why pay 1500 dollars for a plane ticket from New York when you hire someone from Berlin and pay only a few hundred Euros for a ticket? Plus, the fact that it's far easier for European musicians to get government money for a tour; in the U.S., it is really difficult to get any kind of grants.(I've gotten a few; back in 2003 I received a Chamber Music America Grant and an Arts International Grant. It's very competitive. I applied for the CMA grant many times again and never made the cut. Arts International is now defunct as far as I am aware.)

This, from the NPR article by Mercer, really struck me:

For now, though, most Norwegians still consider art and culture too important to be left entirely to the markets. As long as art is considered a public good, it will pay for Norwegian jazz musicians to dream big — and write lots of grant applications.

Lage Lund-a seriously bad cat from Norway
I still believe that Jazz is America's art form. I question whether the music being called "Jazz" in Europe is actually Jazz; it might just be jazz influenced improvised music. There is nothing wrong with that at all. But this idea of music and the marketplace is the dilemma. In America, we are all about the market. The success of your art is based on sales. YOU as a person are judged by how much money you make, how big your house is, what kind of car you drive. I think many Europeans don't see the world in this way. They see culture as part of the public good, rather than a commodity. Despite the economic doom and gloom going on worldwide, Europeans have at least built societies which have the people's interest at heart. When I look at how our government lets the interests of the 99 percent slip into the ocean, then I wonder whether we have the strength as a society to save our own cultural institutions. And if this is the case, if we as a society cannot hold on to what's important, then I say Europe already has more of a claim to Jazz than we would like to admit.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Putting the virtue in virtuosity

Joshua Bell-virtuoso violinist
I'm totally loving my lecture classes this term, and it's just one week in. We've had some really stimulating discussions. Has anyone learned anything? Well, who knows. Nobody had their eyes closed, at least not that I noticed. I have to make sure to keep a certain amount of control of the class, because, what with the internet and everyone's short attention spans, it's easy to go from talking about Duke Ellington to videos of cats leaping over furniture. Still, I don't want to just lecture; I want people to actually think about things in a different way. Don't get me wrong, I have power points and planned lectures: sometimes, the best time is had when we improvise!

Today's Jazz History class got into a great discussion regarding the concept of virtuosity. This came about after hearing three contrasting examples of jazz music. The first was Louis Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues." The second was a tune from Michael Brecker's first album, called "Choices." The third was a live performance by Esperanza Spalding, an original tune called "I Know You Know." The point of the exercise is to compare and contrast the three tracks, which represent the past, present, and arguable future of jazz, respectively. Another point of the exercise is to listen for the textbook "salient characteristics" of jazz music: blue notes, syncopation, improvisation, polyrhythms, call-and-response, and swing. We know that in some music,  some of these elements will not be obvious at times, and even some will not exist at all, and yet we can still call the music jazz.

One common denominator in these three tracks was a presence of a virtuoso star soloist. What is a virtuoso. We agreed that a virtuoso is someone who is beyond outstanding on their instrument, who has a high level of technical ability. Indeed, the textbook definition of "virtuoso" is as follows:

 A Virtuoso (from Italian virtuoso, Late Latin virtuosus, Latin virtus meaning: skill, manliness, excellence) is an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in the fine arts, at singing or playing a musical instrument.

Further description from wikipedia:

The defining element of virtuosity is the performance ability of the musician in question, who is capable of displaying feats of skill well above the average performer. Musicians focused on virtuosity are commonly criticized for overlooking substance and emotion in favor of raw technical prowess. Despite the mechanical aspects of virtuosity, many virtuosi successfully avoid such labels. Once more commonly applied in the context of the fine arts, the term has since evolved and can now also simply mean a 'master' or 'ace' who excels technically within a particular field or area of human knowledge—anyone especially or dazzlingly skilled at what they do.

We agreed that Louis Armstrong was a virtuoso cornetist. In his day, no one could do the kinds of technical things he was doing on the trumpet. Armstrong was known for playing 100 high C's in a row and then a high F at the end of the night. However, beyond just his physical talent for this, he was more swinging, more inventive, and more charismatic than any jazz instrumental soloist who had previously existed. So, this implies that it takes more than mere high notes to be a virtuoso in our eyes. (I'll get to high notes later.)

Michael Brecker is still worshiped for his speedy phrases. However, I think that beyond the "Brecker licks" that every tenor player loves to play, there is a lot of passion and inventiveness in Brecker's playing. So once again, it's not just merely being technically impressive; it's a certain level of artistry and using technique to create an emotional response. Some might disagree in preference of other tenor players. I can enjoy the simplicity of Charlie Rouse or Stan Getz as much as the blazing ferocity of Michael Brecker.

Our discussion started going left when we got to Esperanza Spalding. My contention is that, due to her fame, critics will write that Spalding is, AS A BASSIST, in the same league as Dave Holland, Christian McBride, Ron Carter, etc. I think that this notion is dubious. However, Spalding, as a bassist/vocalist/composer/performer is without a doubt a virtuoso. She is dazzlingly skilled at what she does.

Was Theolonious Monk a virtuoso? Most of the jazz musicians said "yes", despite the fact that Monk is known for unorthodox piano technique, highly angular and confusingly simplistic melodies, and a strange, perhaps off putting stage presence. For the benefit of those civilians in the class who had never heard Monk, we watched some concert footage of Monk with his quartet. Even with Monk's odd phrases and clunks and spaces, we still agreed that Monk was a virtuoso at being Monk.

In almost the same breath, I asked if Bob Dylan was a virtuoso. The initial reaction was "NO!" Now, I'm certainly not a Bob Dylan fan by any stretch.  However, is he a virtuoso at being Bob Dylan? Whether you love his music, or think he can sing at all, he is an original and identifiable musical force. Indeed, one of the things I think that the blues and the folk influence in American music has done is made it so that you don't have to be the best singer on the block to make music. In Italy, you cannot perform opera unless you have Luciano Pavarotti type of chops. However, you DO have to have a distinctive sound and a unique message, which, I will say begrudgingly, Bob Dylan does.
(Here again is one of my favorite videos, from the We Are The World sessions, where Dylan lays his track down. It's pretty funny, all due respect.)

I have found that the older I become, the less impressed I am with the traditional virtuosity. I want to hear SOUL, I want to hear MEANING. I still like a lot of music that many folks might think is pretty heady. Still, I remember as a kid being blown away by Maynard Ferguson (may he rest in peace. I heard he went out on a high note....). Ferguson's higher louder faster technique was really amazing to hear live. However, I find myself now unable to listen to more than thirty seconds of high note trumpeting. I think it has it's place, and I certainly wish at times that I had better range. However, I don't think high notes are necessary to make good music. Sadly, many trumpet players around the world, who I'm sure are fine human beings, seem to spend most of their time trying to play as high as they possibly can on the trumpet. I was hanging out on youtube.com, drifting around, and at a certain point began to notice that many trumpet players had posted videos of themselves playing double high C's, or even above. (I've posted a few below, just for fun. You'll probably have a headache after you listen to them. There are hundreds of them.....) Uhhh, yeah, that's great , fellas, but can you play me a melody? What about playing some blues? How about something with rhythm?

All of this leads me to believe that the transformation of the idea of viruosity is a good thing. We want to play out instruments well-really well. But musical vision and artistry is so much more than that. I'd rather hear Miles Davis play one middle register note with feeling than all of the triple high C's in the world. I mean, if you had a choice between being Miles Davis, or being able to play a triple high C, which would YOU choose?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Spring Term: Finding The Balance

My Spring Break is NEVER like this......
Spring Break is over. I had a blast:driving around Ocean City in a convertible with my shirt off, hangin' with my best buds, walkin' down the beach, dancin' by the pool, slammin' down brewski's, hooking up with random chicks.....yeah.............oh wait, I'm sorry, that wasn't me at all. I guess television has always given me this idea of Spring Break that I'll never get out of my head. Actually, I went with my wife and son to New York City. 3 year old Liam was actually pretty good on the long flight from PDX to JFK. Bringing the infant Liam on a plane was much more challenging: there was definitely a lot more diaper changing and screaming and squirming. This time, during the descent into New York, Liam sat on my lap and looked out at the Queens skyline as we turned in for a landing.

 It's always fun to go back and see New York. I miss it sometimes; many of my good friends are

there, and certainly many of the best musicians in the world are there. However, I think the West Coast lifestyle has spoiled me a bit. It's still wintery cold in New York, whereas Portlandlers are starting to put their winter jackets in the storage closet. New York has been slowly transforming itself from a mecca for artists into a playground for the wealthy. If you aren't a hedge fund manager, you will have a hard time in New York. I think even the hedge fund managers are complaining about the prices now. Portland has always been known as a place where "a musician can buy a house." Real estate in Portland is, at least for now, much more affordable than New York.

Now that we are back in Portland, it's time to get back to work. This term, I'm teaching both Jazz History and a brand new class called Jazz and American Culture. The latter is more of a jazz appreciation class, although it also deals with the cultural relevancy of jazz and related forms of music. We are two classes in, and we've had some really great discussions. The Jazz History class also promises to be interesting because we have a mix of jazz majors and non-majors in the class. (I call them civilians.)This will be an interesting way for players and non-players to find out what the other is thinking about various sub-genres of jazz. Both classes are lecture classes, however, it's much more stimulating for all if we have discussions about the music and the history. I think that a pure lecture class can be useful, especially if there are over 150 students; however, with interaction, the students feel better about the class, which hopefully will make them feel better about the music.

Give it to me straight, McBride!
I'll still working with many ensembles. I was working with an ensemble a few days ago, and the bass player and drummer just were not hooking up. So I stopped and worked with the bass player. This young man is very talented and precocious, however, he is still somewhat inexperienced, and he has certain technical limitations. He's got a lot of passion for the music, and does a lot of listening at home, which is REALLY important. When he walked a bass line in time, I noticed how inconsistent his quarter notes were. They were actually quite sloppy, if we listened to him play alone. I wanted to critique him, but I didn't want to be too harsh, so I started to say, "You know, it's actually pretty good...." And then this young bass student said, "NO, DON'T DO THAT!" By this, he meant, "Don't sugar coat it, Professor, give it to me STRAIGHT!"

Now, this young man has been working with Mr. Thara Memory, an Portland based musician who is
Esperanza Spalding and Thara Memory
known as a trumpeter, educator, and director of the American Music Program. He is also known as a mentor of Portland's own, bassist and vocalist and composer Esperanza Spalding; and if you haven't heard of her, then you might want to just crawl back under your rock. Mr. Memory has a reputation for being somewhat of an old-school type task master. Some say he is too harsh at times; however, I recently gave a clinic to his young band, and honestly, I had very little to say. Memory certainly gets results; his band of high school and even middle school kids play with a precision and enthusiasm that rivals most college and some professional bands. All the music was memorized and they swung like there was no tomorrow.

So my young bass student, coming from this environment of seriousness, didn't want me to be NICE. He wanted me to tell him how to get better. This is really important, because why would anyone go to music school, or for that matter, anything school, if they didn't want to get better? And yet, because of the softening of our society, there has been a relaxation of our expectations of students and young musicians. We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and we don't want to step on anyone's toes, and everybody's a winner. Without any sort of motivation, how can we expect our students to get better? Are we preventing ourselves from "giving it to them straight' because first we don't want them to feel bad and second because we want them to keep paying for school? And when I say "we", I most definitely include "ME!"

I don't know if being an old school hard ass teacher suits me personally; however, the proof is in the pudding. Thara Memory's band sounded amazing. Case closed. As an junior educator trying to find my way, my question to myself is how can I get the best results from students and be honest with students without making them cry. (And I have made students cry, if you can believe it; I was a guest clinician in Groningen, The Netherlands, and all I did was ask a young Korean piano student, after she played,  if she had ever heard a recorded version of Herbie Hancock's "Tell Me A Bedtime Story." She burst into tears! I guess I just have that kind of effect on people...Ugh...)

I think there is a way to strike a balance. We need to be honest without being hurtful. Lately, I find that my pendulum swings widely and wildly from side to side. I'm either too nice or too mean. Also this week, I think I was overly harsh to a young musician who was having some issues on his instrument. I felt bad after the fact. However, I think the intent was correct. We need to "give it to them straight." After all, if you go to a doctor, and your body is riddled with tumors, you wouldn't want you doctor to come in and say "Hey, you are doing great! Picture of health!" You want him to tell you what's going on! Now, not every doctor has the best bedside manner. At best, your doctor could say, "Well, Mr. Jenkins, our tests show that there are a number of tumors in your chest. I've scheduled you for surgery at 2pm on Wednesday. I can't say for sure what the prognosis is, but we'll do our best." Of course, you might get a doctor who will say, "DAMN, YOU GOT TUMORS OUT

I hope you won't take offense at my attempt at facetiousness. My point is that in an academic environment, the most important thing is the LEARNING. So if no one is learning, it seems like we could be doing something else with our time. (perhaps DRINKING....ha ha). My quest is to be more efficient and more effective. How can I get the most out of the students without torturing them? This term is another 10 weeks of finding the balance.