Atlanta jazz manifesto
What's wrong here and how to make it right
In its short history, jazz has functioned as marching music, brothel and honky-tonk music, dance music and music designed for intensive listening. That all four varieties developed during jazz's earliest New Orleans period alone is fascinating. Contemporary thinking, however, finds the principal phase of danceable jazz coinciding with the commercial big band era and jazz's progression to listening music occurring at its succession from swing to bop. If this latter timeline is agreeable, it appears that jazz musicians have been demanding a certain "listening etiquette" from their audiences since at least the early days of bop in the early to middle 1940s. Several issues ago, this writer did his share of chiding in a column titled "Chat-Stained," where I drew attention to the pervasive rudeness of Chastain Park Amphitheatre's chatty concert-goers. I appreciate numerous readers' e-mail responses and am relieved to think I'm not the only "stiff" in Atlanta. But since then, I've found myself contemplating a related topic, attempting to discern the reasons why jazz has such a difficult time thriving in this city of over 5 million — a city comprised of many residents who could (I won't say "should") derive a sense of ethnic pride at having contributed so admirably to a very sophisticated, internationally lauded, purely American artform.
Limited presentation of jazz occurs at several of the city's major concert venues, nearly all of its colleges, a very few nightclubs/restaurants and the annual Atlanta Jazz Festival. But this is minimal. The greater metro area receives an overall failing grade in its support of jazz. Of course, this statement begs the age-old question, "What is jazz?," but let it suffice to say that the jazz in discussion is not that of the smooth, fusion, funk, pop or avant-garde variety. While some people will undoubtedly take exception to these omissions, I refer strictly to mainstream-rooted jazz — jazz of the straight-ahead variety — the type of jazz depending most significantly upon the rhythmic intricacies of swing, with chordal and modal harmonies designed to foster improvised melodic development. This is true jazz, music that holds a specific, indelible charm and intense appeal. There is no substitute.
It seems odd that jazz music doesn't affect many more Atlantans in this way, but naturally — no matter the sublime attributes of any music, nor its history, nor the history of one's exposure to it — the old adage, "different strokes for different folks" will always apply. This is a given. Food for thought:
For several decades, an incredible quantity of mediocre or unquestionably poor instrumental music has been released, marketed aggressively, played on radio and subsequently purchased. This music demands nothing of listeners and is relegated to background sounds conducive to conversation. For many, this is "jazz," and this is how jazz is perceived to function.
Face it: straight-ahead jazz is too demanding for many. Never having had ample exposure, most Atlantans tend to shy away from the in-your-face aggression indigenous to much of its improvisation. The nonverbal musical language used to convey such a broad spectrum of high emotion is not interpretable by the masses.
Along the same lines, instrumental jazz demands the active participation of listeners, since there is no libretto for immediate relay of the song's intent. Full appreciation takes a great deal of open-mindedness, imagination and at least some familiarity.
A heavy detractor on the local level — one that many of us have griped about — is Atlanta's tightly held position as Trendy Town. Many Atlantans are eager to jump on the bandwagon of any faddish music being hyped. They seem unwilling to make artistic judgments, certainly non-discriminating in their tastes, and/or perhaps unwilling to risk their reputations by listening to music that is not particularly popular at the moment.
In summation, Atlanta's refusal to support jazz seems to stem from several sources, with the most pronounced being a lack of exposure — an ignorance for which few individuals can be blamed, yet must be shouldered by our community as a whole.
It is high time we devise a strategy. At the start of the new millennium, jazz is precariously poised in Atlanta, but it does not have to be so. The musicians and their supporters must take the time to devise an organized, carefully orchestrated plan of action aimed at salvaging Atlanta jazz from extinction — complete with mission statement, timely set of goals and specific actions. If ample participation, finely tuned organization and quality leadership of this movement is intact, locally based corporations will respond with funding.
Education must be a primary focus. This entails workshops aimed at developing an understanding among children and adults. Jazz concerts that are affordable — preferably free — must become readily accessible to diverse neighborhoods throughout the community. Let it be known: Jazz in Atlanta is down but not out. Suggestions and commentary are welcome.
Incoming/Upcoming: Spivey Hall presents vocalist Andy Bey's Quartet Oct. 14, saxophonist Jackie McLean's Quintet Dec. 2, pianist Brad Mehldau's Trio Jan. 27 and violinist Regina Carter March 10. The Variety Playhouse features saxophonist Sonny Rollins Oct. 6 and Cubanismo! Oct. 7. Churchill Grounds presents the Winard Harper Quintet Set. 29-30. The Robert Ferst Center hosts keyboardist Keiko Matsui Oct. 10, Patti Austin Nov. 11, Dave Koz's Christmas Show with Rick Braun, Peter White & Brenda Russell Dec. 9. The ASO presents trumpeter Doc Severinson Oct. 27-28 and guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli Dec. 21-22. The Tabernacle features saxophonist Maceo Parker Oct. 1 and the FunkJazzCafé Oct. 7. The Rialto Center features Buena Vista Social Club Sept. 15, Bale Folclorico Sept. 29, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band Oct. 13, Dianne Reeves Jan. 13, Ravi & Anoushka Shankar May 6 and Branford Marsalis with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra May 19 (www.rialtocenter.org).
Inside Info: The Atlanta International Jazz Society can be reached at 404-876-4725 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Pianist Bill Anschell's Trio performs "Jazz on the Lawn" at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m. Churchill Grounds presents the Swing Association Sept. 15-16, vocalist Gwen Hughes Sept. 22 and the Ken Watters Group Sept. 23. Vocalist Kim Rushing appears every Wednesday and Friday at Eclipse di Luna. Guitarist Mike Kelly's trio plays Saturdays at the 1848 Wine Loft in Alpharetta. The Woody Williams Duo performs Wednesdays at the Café in MJQ. Pianist Ted Howe and Friends perform Thursdays & Saturdays at Arturo's Trattoria in Dunwoody. Earmail, led by pianist Walter Bland, performs Tuesdays at Gladys Knight Chicken & Waffle, Wednesdays at Sage in Decatur and Friday-Saturday at Cino's Grill in Marietta. Huey's on Peachtree has begun presenting jazz on Saturdays. Milestone Records has issued Bill Evans: The Last Waltz, an 8-CD box of the pianist's last stand at Keystone Korner in Sept. of 1980.
Speak Out: "Without naming a lot of people, I'd have to say that Rashied Ali and Nana Vasconcelos are two people who consistently inspire me. They draw upon so much history and accomplish such depth in what they're playing." — drummer/percussionist Woody Williams
Spivey Hall (770-961-3683); Variety Playhouse (404-521-1786); Churchill Grounds (404-876-3030); Robert Ferst Center (404-894-9600); Symphony Hall (404/733-5000); Tabernacle (404-249-6400); Rialto Center (404-651-1234); Eclipse di Luna (404-846-0449); 1848 Wine Loft (770-428-1848); Arturo's Trattoria (770-396-0335); Gladys Knight Chicken & Waffles (404/874-9393); Sage (404-373-5574); Cino's Grill (770-509-5522); Huey's (404-873-2037).
In Here: Your direct line to this column by e-mail:
email@example.com; or voice mail: 404-296-1503. Venues, colleges, radio stations, musicians and readers are encouraged to submit listings, information and perspectives.