Fear and Loathing in N’awlins?

Originally published on JazzWest.com

Fly out of SFO at ungodly hour. With props to Dennis Miller, why are all the flight attendants so damn surly now? They sure seemed nicer back in the days of sexist and misogynistic America (even my ultra-feminist wife Carla, along for the ride, agrees.) In these times, “Hi, I’m Cindy, fly me” has been replaced with “Hi, I’m Jack, and to hell with you.” And Jack doesn’t look as good in high heels…

Oh Christ, now I’ve done it, I may as well stop the article and cut my losses. I can already feel the hate mail emanating through cyber-space from the flight attendants’ union.

We’re heading to New Orleans for the IAJE/Jazz Times combined yearly jazz convention. Up until this one, these events were two separate entities, with the oleaginous Jazz Times confab serving as a meet-and-greet for what passes as the “jazz industry,” filled with slippery characters, critics, A&R, radio folks, and marketers, all deluding themselves that a demanding and esoteric art form could somehow be profitable…

Meanwhile, the IAJE, held in such hot beds of jazz culture as Anaheim and San Antonio, was a place where the jazz education polyester police could listen rapturously to endless big band versions of Sammy Nestico and his ilk and celebrate obscure trombone luminaries with Prince Valiant hair cuts.

The Jazz Times convention lost money every year, so this year they decided to merge the oil and the polyester and hold it in the cradle of jazz, N’awlins.

“Damn! Okay, Mr. High and Mighty, Mr. Condemning from the Mount. Didn’t I see you peddling yer demo at the jazz times convention last year? And aren’t you the same Zilber who runs a jazz program at one of the local colleges? Jeez, talk about oil and polyester all rolled into one…who died and appointed YOU King Judge?”

“Guilty as charged, my inconvenient doppelganger. All I can plead in my own defense is…well, I speak from experience.”

“Shit. That is one weak-ass answer. I’m outta here. Where’s my new Santana CD? I need some spiritual enlightenment.”

Man, that is one pissed doppelganger. Um…where was I? Oh yeah.

Having been at both conventions in the past, I have to say this is a marked improvement. Even though the polyester jazz ed police have given their students a highly distorted view of the jazz tradition (in many of the big bands, which make up the bulk of college “jazz” programs, most of the players can’t take a credible solo but they can tell you the name of Stan Kenton’s barber), the students themselves are saucer-eyed kids in a candy store.

For their part, the oily ones are reminded that there is a motive other than profit in this art form, and the artists get to play and network in a situation where assuaging some club owner or spinning a “concept” album to a jaded A&R guy is not the main part of their day. (The extraordinary disconnect among the industry types, educators and artists is the subject for another article, so I’ll move on.)

A First-Time View of New Orleans

Carla and I have never been to New Orleans before, so are curious about this town. We decide to rent a bed and breakfast on St. Ann’s in the French Quarter, rather than hunker down at the convention hotel. We’re a two-block walk from Bourbon street and an easy 15-minute stroll from the convention itself.

New Orleans strikes me as not a particularly cultured city, but a lively one. Bourbon Street is a trip, the world’s largest frat party, filled with party music, drunken twentysomethings and various live sex shows. If you don’t want to get drunk, laid or listen to mediocre covers of Neville Brothers tunes, this town may not be for you. Also, they don’t seem to have gotten the word about cigarettes and cancer. N’awlins seems to be under the impression that second-hand smoke is when you smoke with your left hand instead of your right, and non-smoking sections are a table-by-table proposition.›

The musicians I talk to say there’s a lot of work (some corners have live bands in all four clubs) but the pay is dismal. Fortunately, the cost of living is also easy, with a two-bedroom hang in the French Quarter running as low as $675.

New Orleans in Black and White

Two things are striking for the Bay Area refugee. First, the black population is much more substantial and visible than in our fairly pale climes, and the town seems much more comfortable in its racial interactions than does ours, even though we are — on paper, at least — far more liberal in our views.

The second is that this whole deal with the Confederacy seems to be something folks still haven’t gotten. Confederate flags abound as memorabilia, along with highly offensive “sambo” cups and “the South will rise again” T-shirts. You don’t have to read Howard Zinn to know that the entire raison d’Õtre of the Confederacy was the preservation of slavery, so it’s oddly creepy to see such times and institutions celebrated so casually.

I mean you can’t escape it. That awful legacy is an intrinsic part of N’awlins culture, from the plantation tours to the David Duke bumper stickers. You’ll be drinking a cup of what they call coffee down there, something poisoned with chicory, enjoying a stunningly landscaped square with immaculate greens, statuary, etc. Then it hits you. You’re in Jackson Square, site of the famous slave auctions.›

Of course, the fair point to be made is that we in the Bay may not have the same historical baggage, but on a practical day to day level, black and white cultures interact far less self-consciously and more regularly than do our (Oaktown excepted) de facto segregated communities. That seems to go for the music communities, too, but this, too, is fuel for another day.

Getting Down to the Business of Jazz

The conference itself is a trip. There are two coveted hangs: The exhibit area and the second floor atrium where lobby concerts are held (and where it’s easy to slip in to the bar for a libation). The “eye on the prize” factor is very high indeed, with relentless self-promoters cornering record execs, radio guys pitching journalists, etc., all squeezing past a gauntlet of semi-interested observers.

In the midst of all of this, I run into my fellow Bay Area travelers Anton Schwartz, Jenna Mammina and Andr» Bush wading through the fray. Good to see some familiar faces, and it’s a real pleasure to reconnect with a host of old friends from NYC. Last year I was hungrily hunting a deal (got one, thanks for asking), so it’s very interesting to be more detached this time around and just enjoy the ride.

Some notes on the music: Basically, it’s like old home week. Half the people featured are playing comperes from my NYC days. It’s great to hear Dave Berkman’s quartet, and nice to see this former Brooklyn neighbor getting his props for some beautiful music. My former student Roberta Piket leads her trio through a concert of Richie Beirach-flavored originals and reharms, and it’s wonderful to watch and listen. Old friend and playing pal Jeff Williams is on drums, and I think he’s made a deal with the devil, as he looks the same at 51 as he did at 31. Sounds just as good as ever.

Reconnect with Jim Cifelli, talented trumpeter and composer. If you haven’t checked out his new Jazz Nonet CD, do. Also, reacquainted with Bruce Saunders, excellent guitarist, whose Ornetteish set featured N’awlins drum legend Johnny V.

Was introduced to Randy Brecker…for 37th time. It was great to see Dave Liebman again — we’ll be playing together at The Jazzschool on March 12. Big fun. Nice to run into Dave Stryker, superb guitarist with Stanley Turrentine and another former neighbor. Carla, Andr» and I hang with my buddy James Genus after his Tain Watts set at the House of Blues.

Coolest moment of that gig? We’re chowing down in the restaurant after the set. Two tables away is Herbie Hancock. Closest thing to a deity in jazz today. He tells James, “Man, wanted to hear you, but the food’s better in the restaurant.” Such is the price of art and food, even if James is now in his quartet. Of course, what group of note has James NOT been in?

Celebrity and the Sub-Culture of Jazz

What I find most compelling is just how small a subculture jazz can be. I mean, Herbie and Wynton and Mike Brecker have to be the three biggest superstars in jazz (as opposed to fuzak or smooth jazz or whatever you to choose to call it). Here’s one of them, the jazz equivalent of a Tom Cruise or Madonna, eating his crawfish unmolested. As a quiz, we ask the waitress if she knows who he is. She replies “of course I do, he’s Herbie Hancock.” We’re impressed. “You know Herbie?” “Nahh, somebody told me he was a famous jazz piano player. Never heard of him. Now you know who was good? That guy from Arsenio.”

Most dispiriting moment of the week? Critical and industry darling Patricia Barber is featured in the conference night club. The machinery-generated buzz about this singer has been almost deafening. The club is packed, with lots of luminaries, players (“hey, there’s Lovano), industry-types (“There’s Howard Mandel”) wanting to check out what the deal is. We’re sternly lectured not to talk or smoke: this is an artist.

Set starts off with an insipid instrumental version of “No Greater Love.” We’re all staring. Okay, where’s the punchline? Tepid handclaps. Next, a wordless vocal on “Blue Bossa.” More luke than warm in the response. The last thing I hang for is a meandering tune which uses only the ’A’ section of “Killer Joe.” By this point the club is half-empty, everyone is hanging in the lobby, talking like they’ve just witnessed a bad traffic accident. “This is what the critics are writing about?” The jazz marketeers strike again.

Guess they’re all in thrall, or should I say in Krall to the idea of finding the next hot crossover singer. I want to shake Mr. Famous Journalist who has been on the Barber Bandwagon and say “just what are you hearing, here?” (Guess I won’t be working that gig real soon, but, for what it’s worth, my issue is not with her, but with a cynical industry mind-set that can hype this while so many good musicians will never be afforded such a chance. I understand it in pop, but not in a music which makes noises about the art coming first. Ah, no point. I’ll save it for another column.)

[Mike: You’re now up to three more articles for JazzWest. Wayne]

Most incandescent memory of the week? We’re having dinner at an Italian restaurant in the French quarter, Maximo’s, with Mike Charlasch, the marketing genius from Verve, and the afore-mentioned Mr. Bush. In come the Sabins, Glenn and Ira, publishers of Jazz Times. No, “eyes on the prize” types, that’s not the deal. You know those incredible photos from NYC jazz clubs in the 40s: Bird at the Royal Roost, Ella singing with Duke and Benny Goodman listening rapturously in the front row? You know the ones, where you can hear the music if you listen closely enough? Well, Maximo’s is covered with these shots, all taken by Herman Leonard. He’s still alive 50 years later, and he’s come into the restaurant with the Sabins. The whole table applauds. What else can you do?

To wrap, these images are not meant to encapsulate or define the conference. Just one man’s snapshots.

I’ll say this, though. The joining of IAJE and Jazz Times has greatly improved both. The “eye on the prize” gang has to be a little more circumspect and pay at least some tribute to the notion that jazz is an art form, first and foremost. The polyester crowd is confronted with the concept that there is more to jazz than bowdlerized big band charts. The students, the lifeblood of creating an informed audience, are exposed to some of the best and the brightest in the jazz world. And the artists meet the other elements which round out that world in a non-combative and supportive atmosphere. Whether you’re eyeing the prize or eyeing the scene, it’s a scene worth making.