Tabatha Fireman / Getty Images; Nicola Antonazzo; Peter Van Breukelen / Redferns / Getty Images – Generation Next:
Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings and Makaya McCraven are among a lauded crop of relatively young jazz players.
The first two weeks of January in New York form a most important stanza in jazz. That’s when the live industry gathers for the Association of Performing Arts and Professionals, which dovetails with the 10-day Winter Jazzfest, an event that serves as a platform for new and established acts across a broad spectrum of the genre, and the Jazz Congress provides two days of examining the music’s past and future through panel discussions and educational sessions for musicians.
More than any time of the year, the jazz landscape is filled with hope. It’s a chance for presenters and fans to see burgeoning talent such as the Ezra Collective, Makaya McCraven and Nubya Garcia, absorb and share opinions on funding, touring and marketing and raise a glass to a world that is stretching the definition of the music in the 21st century through the efforts of Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Shabaka Hutchings and other groundbreakers.
What’s clear is that just as rock, pop and hip-hop have dramatically evolved over the last several years – and an old guard dominates the road business – the same holds true for jazz. The music is evolving, and a new, younger audience raised on hip-hop, beats and indie rock is embracing the broadness of the new music around the world. After extensive interviews with musicians and people from multiple sides of the business, here’s a look at what’s on the mind of the jazz world in 2019.
A New Marketplace
Universal Music’s Verve Label Group, which includes Verve, Impulse! and Decca, exemplifies the broad range of the genre having signed the 35-year-old saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, a leading force in the growing London scene, whose album with the Comet Is Coming is due in March. The company is also in talks with the Grammy-nominated 15-year-old pianist Joey Alexander, who has been a media darling for his exceptional bebop-oriented work over the last four years.
“It’s no secret there are thriving jazz scenes all around the world at the moment, including in the U.K., in Chicago, in L.A. and New York,” says Verve Label Group President and CEO Danny Bennett. “The more these artists travel and tour, the more people are coming out of the woodwork to see them and then engage with their recordings. The audiences for this music are getting younger in every country, which is great to see.”
Hutchings leads three bands: Sons of Kemet, Ancestors, and The Comet is Coming, which has a five-city tour planned for March in conjunction with the release of their next album, and will play Europe before and after a Stateside run. While The Comet Is Coming, an experimental trio of sax, electronics and drums, benefits from its major label association, most of the new world acts are operating at a grassroots level, recording for small indies, booking their own tours and alternating between sideman and bandleader.
“There isn’t that infrastructure anymore,” says Lee Mergner, Jazz Congress organizer and former JazzTimes publisher. “Artists have to do more for themselves, probably manage themselves, and do things like social media.”
They’re not, however, registering pop star numbers: Kamasi Washington, Christian McBride and Terence Blanchard – some of the brightest names in jazz – have fewer than 50,000 followers each on Twitter; the Grammy-winning singer Cecile McLorin Salvant has 15,000 fans on Instagram and drummer Justin Brown has 26,000.
“For the development of the music, venues need to develop an audience and a taste for the music,” says Anna Sala, who manages Ravi Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders among others.
“There are only a select few who can regularly tour performing arts centers” – Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter – “and what happens when those guys die?”
Sala wishes venues would follow the lead of Chicago Orchestra Hall programmer Jim Fahey, who booked a one-off with the Nicholas Payton Television Orchestra and will present Payton in a Jazz in the Key of Ellison program in February.
“It worked fine and it was in the black,” she says. “He’s curating music and programming with a lot of knowledge. He can see the value of bringing in” unique programs.
One solution: Festival Productions SVP Darlene Chan, producer of the Playboy Jazz Festival in Hollywood, says “Nonprofit is the only way to survive,” a point driven home by festivals such as Newport, Monterey and the 10-day Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
“We’re not programming for economic reasons,” says Rainbow Robert, Vancouver’s managing director, artistic programming. “We present music not supported by most presenters. We want to make the local arts community more adventurous so we’re looking for things that will light the artistic community and our audience trusts us to shock and amaze them.”
Jim Marshall Photography LLC / Courtesy Universal – Love Supreme Redux:
The John Coltrane quartet (from left): Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner were featured on the 2018 release The Lost Album: Both Directions at Once, originally recorded in 1963.
New York vs. The Rest Of The U.S.
The rise of Kamasi Washington has put a new focus on the West Coast Get Down in Los Angeles and a host of musicians have been coming out of Chicago recently, but one rule seems to never be bent.
“People don’t understand the scale of New York in the jazz world,” Mergner says. “Even if it’s for a short time, you have to move to New York. The way it matters in the scale of things is not comparable to any other form of music.
“You go to Smalls, you see a crowd that’s a different audience than the one lined up at the Village Vanguard. Then you have the Brooklyn clubs. Younger people are coming to the music differently than previous generations.”
Festival Productions’ Chan says jazz is thriving in Los Angeles but “our problem is geography,” which affects musicians as well as the audience. “We don’t have that drop-in connection between musicians” the way New York does, she said at the Jazz Congress conference. And when it comes to booking shows, they’re limited to weekend slots or else “making programming so compelling it can’t be missed.”
SFJAZZ has the weekend issue as well. While they present 450 concerts a year in their two halls, one seats 700 and other holds 120, all shows are done Thursday through Sunday.
“We’re reliant on our membership,” SFJAZZ director of programming Lilly Schwartz said at a Jazz Congress panel, noting that the company has 14,000 people paying for early access to tickets, which discounts ticket prices.
History vs. The New
Programmers have long been enthralled by round numbers associated with the legends of jazz: 100 years of Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong; Kind of Blue at 60; artists such as Charles Lloyd and Wayne Shorter celebrating 80th birthdays with concerts. Blue Note Records just rolled out its offerings for its 80th anniversary this year, which includes a triple-bill tour of performing arts centers in the fall with Kandace Springs, James Francies and saxophonist James Carter and a branded cruise to the Caribbean that sets sail in January.
Unearthed albums by John Coltrane, Sonny Clark and Eric Dolphy were among the most discussed of the year. How can a new act compete with unheard work from legends?
Zev Feldman, co-president of Resonance Records, which released the Dolphy album, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions, says, “It’s been a blessing that we have been able to do projects on the historical side but I have to constantly remind people that we do new records, too. Eddie Daniels’ Heart of Brazil album was just nominated for a Grammy.”
Verve’s Bennett says the label treated Coltrane’s The Lost Album: Both Directions at Once was a frontline release with marketing dollars behind it. From his perspective, it fit the current climate of jazz.
“I think it was great timing, in that artists like Kamasi Washington, Shabaka Hutchings and other younger acts all had new albums out around the same time, but it would have been irrelevant if the music on the lost album didn’t stand on its own.”
Artist manager Tulani Bridgewater-Kowalski says that young musicians “need to know the marketplace. Don’t be derivative. All the great stuff that’s been done will stay great. What are you going to do?”
A Global Shift
Not long ago, less than a decade, actually, American jazz musicians could spend their summers in Europe playing festivals and clubs, sightseeing and eating well. The world is now full of excellent jazz bands playing regionally year-round, which means the demand for American stars on international festival lineups has dwindled.
“Back in the day, if there was a guy from Poland who could play real jazz it was unusual,” says Mergner. “Now it’s everywhere. Musicians from Africa, Japan, Israel. The chickens have come home to roost from all that ambassador work that jazz musicians did for all those years. Plus, Europeans have built their own sound. It keeps it alive, keeps the music moving forward. Same in South America. Go to any region and you’ll find great musicians building their own scenes. They don’t need to import American jazz musicians in the same way they used to.”
Paradigm agent Todd Walker notes, “I feel jazz is a little segregated. It works when Americans go to Europe but it’s not the same for them coming over here.”