A Tale Of Two Concerts: NEA Jazz Masters Vs. Winter Jazz Fest

In the span of five days, two entirely separate jazz concert events in New York City brought the same enormous smile to my face.

At first blush, they appear completely different in audience, performers and programming. The Winter Jazz Fest was a series of 60 performances staggered in five severely overcrowded West Village venues over two nights; owing to its location and price ($30 for the entire moveable feast), and the many up-and-coming acts who played sets, the crowd skewed young. The NEA Jazz Masters gala (listen to it here) was the lavish culmination of days of ceremonies, wherein jazz legends (the youngest being 66) were honored in front of their peers and given brief performance opportunities with the Jazz At Lincoln Center orchestra. It was a three hour ceremony attended mostly by arts officials, associates of the musicians, and — despite a free giveaway of tickets — the older crowds who usually come to Jazz At Lincoln Center Rose Hall events.

But what made both so enriching, so fundamentally uplifting, so hopeful for whatever future is in store for improvised music, was a simple, if sometimes overlooked idea at the heart of jazz: community.

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It's easy to write off something like the NEA Jazz Masters event, especially if you're a younger musician deep in the trenches, or you're inclined toward the sort of cynicism the modern jazz economy encourages so readily. The argument goes: why is the federal government, through the National Endowment for the Arts, spending so much money to honor musicians largely past their musical primes? And doesn't that take money out of the pot for the generations that are to sustain jazz (and sustain their rent payments) today?

But then you stumble upon the photo shoot and banquet for the NEA Jazz Masters, past and present, and see them chumming with old pals who they used to hang with every day but almost never see any more (performing and age being what they are), and they're all beaming and laughing, happy as clams. And then folks like James Moody and Gerald Wilson and Jimmy Heath get to tell embarrassing stories about their colleagues on stage, well beyond the two-minute scripted plan but never long enough. (Kenny Barron had a predilection for peanut butter sandwiches, it would seem.) And the obvious joy these Jazz Masters have in being recognized: after decades of arguing for their craft as serious art, they're getting the one honor they thought might never come — and they get to celebrate it with their friends. The combination of exuberance and experience, all gathered together under one roof, is volatile in the best possible way.

And when you get to thinking about it, don't our musical heroes deserve those luncheons and $25,000 grants? Don't they merit a modicum of financial security in their old age? Aren't they overripe for some official recognition of their contributions to a great cultural export? Even if you're not a jazz partisan as I am, the argument for helping out those who dedicated their entire lives to art, with uncertain material reward, and who often can no longer make a living from that art, is a powerful one.

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It's easy to see the community at an event like Winter Jazz Fest: jazz lovers, at least for that very moment in time, are all around you. For about a four hour peak every night, at all five clubs, people were climbing over each other to get a glimpse of the action. Vijay Iyer, playing the coronation show after his trio's Historicity was named the critics' consensus album of 2009, called it the best audience he's ever had for a show in New York. (So crowded was it that a man toward the back of le Poisson Rouge passed out, presumably due to overheating and claustrophobia.)

Winter Jazz Fest was started as a showcase for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, whose annual conference convenes in early January. By my rough estimate, those people were easily less than 15% of the audience — folks roughly under 40 were clearly the core demographic. Ratliff circulates the ticket sales figures of 1,200 for Friday night, 2,500 for Saturday night. So literally, thousands of young people flocked to a festival of largely instrumental, improvised music last weekend.

But huge, young crowds alone does not a community make. Neither does the fact that seemingly every major jazz writer in the tri-state area was about, though that certainly helps. (Jim Macnie came in an enormous boot cast to support a ruptured Achilles tendon.) Ben Ratliff's report in the New York Times — front page Arts section, with a huge photo of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire — does a good job of explaining the appeal: "buzz," he writes, like "a jazz equivalent of South by Southwest." You couldn't trip over an outstretched leg without hearing someone comparing itinerary notes or telling of being shut out of a packed venue. That orbiting stream of information promises a lot for the good word escaping the sometimes closed loop that is jazz.

What also made the festival so festive was that the musicians stuck around to see each others' sets, whether to drink and socialize in the background or to listen intently. I spotted saxophonists Noah Preminger and Darius Jones, and the pianist Eldar, catching some music, even though they didn't play in any of the groups; there were several more such musicians. Jacob Teichroew reports for About.com that drummers Kendrick Scott and Johnathan Blake were treating their comrade Mark Guiliana to some gentle heckling from the upper deck of Kenny's Castaways. For two days, Bleecker Street was the new 52nd Street, with musicians checking out other acts between sets because they could. And this doesn't happen in the modern New York club scene terribly often: musicians getting together not to woodshed in private quarters, but to be inspired by the finished products of their colleagues. In talking to players, by far the line I heard most often was something to this effect: "I wish we could have a Winter Jazz Fest every weekend."

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Of course, major events such as these require some cost and effort, and so they can't happen every weekend; besides, their scarcity is part of what makes them so special. They do, however, teach lessons to be learned for the rest of the year. Our jazz elders are to be supported, honored and asked to tell their histories while we still have them. (And not just a long weekend each year.) Our jazz contemporaries' performances are to be attended and discussed while they're at their most ravishing and prolific. (A stunning amount of music still happens every week without a Winter Jazz Fest.)

Most of all, there's this mysterious notion of community, of a group of people who intersect over a common interest. And for jazz, so much more of a network of interconnected independent agents than almost any other musical form, understanding that tangled weave of intersections is part of the joy. You can't replace the rapport built over years of collaboration. You can't learn to play without mentors to emulate and peers to play with. You can't substitute the personal information exchange of jazz without losing some fundamental flavor of the music.

Thankfully, the hive-like interchange generated in the last five days has real reverberations, heard in further performances and future collaborations and the many, many (other) reports from the scene that have emerged since. I know the lesson of community is a helpful reminder for our blog: it asks us to reconsider how best to explore the jazz network, and extend the conversation into this space. The Internet might be very good for that sort of thing, it turns out. But every once in a while, it's more than very good to gather many of the participants under real roofs as well.

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