Please the Committee

(UPDATE: Some disagree, and I'm willing to learn. Forum is open until Sunday.)




It's no secret that the jazz economy is in a slump. In particular, if you play straight-ahead acoustic jazz, there are far fewer gigs than ever.

In recent years I've spoken to many great professional musicians who have needed to leave New York and begin teaching elsewhere in order to survive. The ratio of jazz college progams to jazz clubs is now absurdly inbalanced. 

From what I know of jazz education, the issue of audience development is seldom addressed. A few times a year I see a "How do we develop the jazz audience?" essay on the internet. Usually the system is held up to blame in some way. Rarely is it suggested that the musicians themselves are on the hook to create engaging art that an audience demands to hear again and again. 

I've got an interview with Bill Kirchner in the works where he says some interesting things, including how he tells students, "You need to improvise a career like you improvise jazz."  But I believe that sort of insight is comparatively rare.


I'm bringing all this up because the details of next Thelonious Monk competition have been announced.  If there is a valid art form, lots of young talent, and no gigs, competitions are the next logical step. 

While I know and deeply respect some major players that have won jazz competitions, I firmly believe there is a dark side to getting judged for your art. 

There have been competitions in classical music for many years now, and few observers would argue they have been good for true artistic excellence. The Ivory Trade: Music and the Business of Music at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition by Joseph Horowitz is highly recommended. When in Warsaw recently, I bought several CDs by Polish pianists who had all either won or judged in the International Chopin Piano Competition. The CDs were bland, and I left them in my hotel room.  If I were trying to find my voice as a Chopin pianist, I might want to stay away. [DTM: Warsaw Rhapsody.]

It's deeply ironic that Thelonious Monk is the name taken for our biggest jazz competition. Read Robin D.G. Kelley's book. This man was frequently rejected by his peers. He didn't have regular gigs until the late 50's. He won over the hearts and minds of the general audience before many musicians accepted him. He is still controversial in some circles. 

Roy Haynes, Ben Riley, Peter Erskine, Carl Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington and Brian Blade are the judges for this year's Monk drum competition. Fine. I almost fell asleep while copying that list, but, fine. Two elderly authentic Monk drummers and four seasoned pros that can play anything. [UPDATE below***] 

Perhaps it's the "play anything" aspect that really bothers me. Monk couldn't play anything. He could only play one thing, Monk. And that one thing burned bright enough that anyone of any background could understand that it was beautiful...

...Unless just enough was known about the "right" way to play mainstream jazz in order to judge Monk "wrong."

Monk wouldn't have been a semifinalist in his own competition.


Everyone who reads this will already understand everything I just wrote. Why am I bothering?

I think it is because I don't know any of the drummer semifinalists:  Dor Herskovits, Noam Israeli, Kristijan Krajncan, Martin Krümmling, Julian Külpmann, Justin Brown, Dustin Kaufman, Abe Lagrimas, Jr., Kyle Poole, Jamison Ross, Colin Stranahan and Oscar Suchanek. It is exciting to think about a dozen cats who might be really, really great. We need charismatic and idionsycratic drummers for the music to move forward. All the most innovative and most popular jazz is deeply connected to the drums. 

If any of those dozen are thinking outside the box, my sympathies. I would break a cold sweat trying to play my jazz in a way to win a competition judged by those six legends and professionals. ("Ok, play 'Confirmation' in front of Carl Allen in order to make the money. Go!")

We need more audience for jazz, and the way to get that audience is not to play jazz correctly. The way to get that audience is to make essential new music. 

In 2012, trying to win a competition is probably seen as a valid career path for young players. Perhaps it is. But even though it will give them sleepless nights, I sincerely hope that at least some of these semifinalists, whether they win, place, or get knocked out right away, have bigger fish to fry than just playing jazz "correctly."


UPDATE*** Just to be extra clear: I respect the drumming of all the judges. Of course I do, who wouldn't! I'm devoted to Haynes, hired Riley, have a possessive love towards Erskine, stood in my seat and cheered Blade, told Allen his quarter notes on the snare for a chorus with Ron Carter made my week, just dug a video with Terri Lyne.  But that committee doesn't seem likely to promote wild-cards over straight solids. Maybe I'm wrong. I hope so. 


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