Thursday, September 08, 2005

The state of Jazz in L.A.

Lynell George's big piece on live jazz in L.A., Off the radar but still flying: L.A.'s jazz scene is as sprawling -- and as tenacious -- as the region itself has been quite the subject of conversation lately, both in the office here at the L.A. Daily News and in the Usenet newsgroup

I planned to respond on the newsgroup but stopped to think about it. There is more light in the darkened tunnel of the L.A. Times piece than I initially detected. And I just don't know what a working musician "deserves" as far as "respect" and a livelihood goes. It's one of the things that kept me from pursuing a career in music (not having talent pouring out of every orific was the other). Anyhow, here's some of what I wrote and never posted (but, as you can read, I am doing so now:

This is a tough one for me. I am familiar with the article, and I think it's overwhelmingly more than a little negative, with no not enough mention of the fact that live jazz is struggling all over the country and that L.A. isn't an anomaly when it comes to a less-than-ideal jazz scene.

When you read the Lynell George piece, I wish you could read the companion article by the great Don Heckman (he's the jazz critic for the Times), which for some reason is not on the L.A. Times Web site anymore. It talks about L.A.'s place in jazz history, from Jelly Roll Morton through the Central Avenue scene and the West Coast sound. He doesn't even mention Ornette, Bird's time in L.A. or the explosion in fusion (much of it birthed at the Baked Potato club in Studio City) and all the smooth jazz that happens here (and which gets a lot of attention in terms of airplay and sales, whether you like it or not). Even without all that, Heckman does mentions the many and varied kinds of music that do happen in L.A., especially Latin jazz, which is very big and well-attended here, and the growing avant-garde jazz movement (Vinny Golia, Nels Cline, etc.), plus a host of ethnic improvised music (Persian, Celtic) as well as folk and bluegrass (not mentioning the jam band phenomenon, which is big here, too) that are all part of the greater music scene, which has a potential to grow and morph into something new and exciting.

And there are performers who are making their mark, none of whom are mentioned in the Lynell George story. What about John Pisano, whose Guitar Night has survived multiple venues to become an L.A. institution? And L.A. is just teeming with great players who work a lot, both live and on records.

And there's a growing free-music scene (as in free of charge, not of Western harmony) in L.A. From the major museums to downtown office areas, festivals, the Grove shopping area and more, there are always jazz events that expose people to this great music at no charge.

Bottom line, people like John Pisano who constantly promote what they are doing and work hard at it will be heard. Just as Jimmy Bruno has a pot cooking on every fire (yes, he's in Philly, not L.A., but he's the best example of a guy who really knows what it takes), those who know how to hustle will rise to the top -- the same in L.A. as anywhere else.

Could we use a bunch of clubs in one easily accessible area? Yes. Could we use more coffeehouse venues that welcome jazz music? Also yes. Do we need more players who work to build a following through regular gigs? Yes.

In the Times story, the top three clubs, in terms of prestige and ability to attract national acts -- the Jazz Bakery, Vibrato and Catalina's -- are featured. Catalina's is in Hollywood, but Vibrato is up on Mulholland Drive in the hills between the Westside and the San Fernando Valley, and the Bakery is in Culver City -- neither of the latter two exactly centrally located. And two of the three (Catalina's and Vibrato) are pretty darn expensive, what with covers and high food and drink prices.

At the smaller clubs, it's hard to know what will make a scene happen. I tend to think that a lot of regular performers who are there either weekly or monthly, peppered with higher-profile acts who drop in occasionally. But I don't run a club and really can't say for sure what works.

I work at a newspaper (the L.A. Daily News, smaller and more suburban than the Times) and I can tell you that the clubs are NOT doing their job when it comes to publicity. There are some good independent publicity people, along with some performers who really know how to put themselves out there, but most clubs have no idea how to get themselves written about in newspapers and magazines.

And music journalism in general, not just jazz, is in a pretty sorry state these days. In most print and broadcast media, music takes a very-far-back back seat to movies and TV. And things like "American Idol" and whatever the latest rap innovation happens to be are making all the noise.

The whole situation is tough, and there are no easy answers.

A lot of people are moaning about how jazz in L.A. is not as big or important as N.Y. What can you do? L.A. will never be N.Y. But it is possible to have a scene, or many different scenes here, and there are players that are working a lot -- not necessarily making a ton of money in the clubs, but working quite a bit just the same. It's not like playing jazz clubs was lucrative in the '70s and now not so much. And I hear the New York players all the time saying how getting a paying gig in that city is next to impossible.


Aaron Hanscom said...

I listen to jazz for the same reason I eat oysters: to develop a taste for something that's supposed to be great. My sister's Miles Davis CD has helped matters slightly, but it is good to know there are so many places in Los Angeles where I can sample good live jazz.

Steven Rosenberg said...

The music of some jazz performers is more accessible than others. The more you know the repertoire (if it's standards) or are aurally familiar with the language of jazz, the more you will be able to enjoy it. It's the same as with any other music. Since popular music is on TV and radio all the time, we have an ingrained familiarity with it and its language (notice the repeated use of the word "language" -- it's helpful to think of music as having a vocabulary and grammar that changes in accordance with the kind of music and how closely those kinds hew to the established conventions of the genres they're from).

There is a large group of jazz performers whose music is most accessible (and to some degree, only accessible) to those who are very familiar with the genre -- i.e. other musicians. That limits your audience to a great degree.

Miles Davis is unique in many ways, one being that the kind of music he played changed significantly just about every three to five years between 1949 and his death in 1991. From bebop to "cool," to modal to hard bop to fusion to funk -- there are many Miles Davises to choose from. Miles was one of the few jazz musicians who was actually a musical leader in the black community, with a sizable audience and reputation in both the black and white music worlds.

Most people start listening to jazz in general, and not just Miles, with the "Kind of Blue" album, which is from the modal period, and which features John Coltrane in the band. Traditional jazz fans go for the '50s Miles, with the Gil Evans arrangements for both jazz and classical instruments, still pretty much in a bop style. Hard-core jazz players gravitate to Miles "second classic quartet" of the mid-to-late '60s, with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter -- a melding of traditional hard bop and chord-less free playing that was meant to counteract what Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were doing at the time.

Well, enough of that. Jazz is hard music to make a living with. Always has been. These days there are more CDs than ever -- it's easier to make one, if not easier to sell it.