Building Jazz Communities

There was a posting online that lamented a local jazz scene, of which I’m personally familiar. While the complaints were valid ones, the proposed solution didn’t convince me. I had some thoughts on the matter to share.

Every strong jazz community needs four elements in order to take root and grow:

1) Education/exposure –

Jazz must be heard, talked about and presented throughout the city, in a variety of media.
Get someone to write a specific jazz column in each of the entertainment magazines, in the newspaper, maybe even start a jazz publication.
Get a jazz interview show on TV, with vintage video and local works. Whatever radio there might be, get jazz in there.
Get local recording labels to release sampler CDs of jazz, getting hookups with local and chain outlets- coffee houses, chill lounges, restaurants- anywhere, everywhere.
Get musicians to volunteer once a month to perform in schools for ages 4-18. We should never complain about what kids listen to if we won’t give them options, ’cause MTV wants their ears, and tells them so emphatically.

2) Tiered club system –

Most cities have veteran jazz players competing with college kids for the same gigs at the same pay. It not only hurts the musicians, but it doesn’t help the public to learn what is good, not just what is cheapest.

Strong jazz cities have a tiered system:

Entry-level – these are the places where college students or new players in town will work to get experience, get heard, make mistakes, build a following. These should be the most plentiful clubs in town- about 60% of the jazz scene will be this level.

Mid-level – strong local players, visiting bands who have not quite gone national/international. Perhaps they have CDs out, but no major-label support. About 30% of the jazz scene’s clubs are at this level.

Headliner level – there must be a jazz place where the big names can perform. In an established jazz market there are several, but to begin with one would be a good first step. Then, when Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, Joe Lovano or whoever come to town, we know where they’ll be.

3) City involvement –

The local business community can help with sponsorship- banks, builders, car dealers, airlines, anyone. The jazz columns I mentioned above, for instance, could be ‘brought to you by ______’; so could special concerts- overseas musicians could have plane tickets, meals, hotel rooms donated in exchange for promotional mentions.

Jazz clubs can reverse this, too: a local school could have a children’s talent show
MC’d by a jazz performer, or perhaps a small sound system could be loaned for the event (Light and Sound provided by Tritone Jazz Spot).
Find different ways to keep the jazz community involved with the community at large.

4) Community spirit –

All those involved in presenting jazz- record labels, club owners, musicians, reviewers, everyone- must begin to think of themselves as part of a collective committed to advancing the music, not as competitors. No great jazz scene can be built around one venue: the Village Voice, a major entertainment/culture magazine for New York City, has over 20 pages of listings for jazz. Most cities don’t even have 20 clubs.

Club owners and promoters, support one another, share info about jazz events, even if they are at other venues or sponsored by other promoters. In Tokyo, nearly every jazz club has a table or wall display of flyers, handbills, posters, magazines about jazz happenings around the city. They do this because what helps jazz helps them: can you call yourself a lover and supporter of jazz, and not tell your patrons that Herbie Hancock or Toots Thielemans is in town?
You could even work together on an annual jazz calendar, so that your big event doesn’t conflict with someone else’s, and everyone has a shot at having success on their major projects.

Collaborate on festivals, educational events and the like. Realize that it is better for the music and everyone concerned to share the credit on a well-run, well-attended event than to have five separate ‘festivals’ that bring in only a handful of people and no money. Then all the critics have their proof that jazz is not financially viable, no one wants to hear it, it’s a dead genre.

Musicians:

create social groups and cooperatives. Hang out together away from the gig. Talk about the music, about playing it, writing it, learning it. Admit what you don’t know, and learn from one another- no one has it all together, so you help me with my harmonic approach, and I’ll share what I’m going for rhythmically…
Be generous with constructive criticism: learn how to give and receive it with equal grace. It may be hard to imagine, but at one time we weren’t the monster players we are now; lending a hand to those coming up is a way to thank those who helped us.

Cross-pollenate, work in different personnel combinations, open yourselves to new ideas and approaches.
Jam together away from clubs- in each other’s homes, at rehearsal rooms, civic centers, any non-commercial venue you can find, so that you have no consideration but the music itself.

Challenge yourselves and one another musically:
Get off-book and play your gig without reading the same tunes- you probably know them by now, so force yourself to memorize them, and see how much freer your playing is.

Figure out what are the ten tunes you play the most at gigs, and don’t play them for a week- work on other stuff.
When you put your top ten back in the lineup, bring something new to them- different keys, tempos, rhythmic feel- anything that gets you hearing something new.

Be available to songwriters and arrangers among you; help them develop their music. Play one another’s tunes. Some of us wouldn’t know who Dave Brubeck was if Miles hadn’t chosen to play Dave’s stuff, giving him credibility to another audience.

Remember that what Miles and Monk and Dizzy and Bird did with the music had never been done before. It does not honor their art nor their memory to merely recite what they did 60 years ago and call it jazz. Jazz has always been about freedom, freedom to create new music in the present moment, built on a knowledge of the music’s past. In every gig, no matter how small, challenge yourself to find the fun and excitement, and bring it to the surface.

Resist the notion that there is any such thing as a ‘background music gig’. Background music is a decision made by the listener, never the musician. A musician always strives to play music worthy of being heard, listened to. If the people in attendance choose to focus on their food or conversation, it’s their loss, but music always gets into their ears, even when they don’t listen actively. Make sure you mean what they hear.

There are doubtless many other ideas that would help build or strengthen a local jazz scene. I hope that some of the suggestions here will fuel discussions, more suggestions and, finally, action.

It takes a village to create a happening jazz scene, and there is always more that can be done besides complaining that it’s not as good as New York or Chicago or Tokyo or somewheres else.

Now’s the time…