A few weeks ago I took a look at summer jazz festivals that had to close shop for financial reasons. I got the idea for that post by reading a story in the Arizona Republic about the Sedona Jazz On The Rocks festival being put on hold. One of the fest's board members was quoted: "It may not be a conventional-jazz festival. We may bring in a group like Kool and the Gang, who have played at a lot of jazz festivals — acts that have a broader appeal."
Arizona Republic writer Larry Rodgers also interviewed Larry Gittens, a trumpet player for K&TG, about the band being a jazz festival ace-in-the-hole for putting butts in seats (as promoters like to say). I know Larry from my days in Fresno, Calif., where he still lives. I know him to be a serious jazz musician, as well a thoughtful guy who regularly performs with his own jazz group. Here he is in a lower-key setting:
Larry Gittens from Kool & The Gang Lets Loose Again!
Larry studied at the Berklee College of Music, and has played with Sonny Stitt and Grover Washington, among other jazz elders. He's also performed with The Stylistics, and was once musical director for Stevie Wonder. I suspected he'd have some insightful thoughts for those who might immediately groan when seeing K&TG, or Chaka Khan, or [insert popular band name] as headliners at jazz festivals.
Larry, it must be a tough spot to be in when jazz festival promoters hire Kool and the Gang. The band has obvious commercial appeal to a wide audience, which draws people to the festival. But jazz purists would complain that a jazz festival should feature only jazz musicians. How do you, as a graduate of the Berklee jazz program, feel about those kinds of complaints? Are they fair?
Larry Gittens: Yes and no. The true jazz side of me somewhat frowned upon this initially, because I was raised listening to real improvisations from jazz giants. However, I never underestimated the power of grooves coupled with dance. It has a profound effect on the listener, be it jazz or funk.
Do you feel caught in the middle by seeing both sides of the issue?
LG: No, because if the promoters are responsible, all can enjoy the musical event.
Do you ever get attitude from the jazz musicians at the festivals?
LG: Let's keep it real: yes on both sides.
Here at A Blog Supreme we've been taking note of how many summer jazz festivals have had to cancel or postpone this year because of the economy. Have you seen the band doing fewer jazz fests this summer? Do you have any idea if the bookings have picked up for next summer?
LG: Quite the contrary with Kool and the Gang in terms of straight-ahead jazz festivals. Our bookings for straight-ahead have increased (Montreux, Montreal, Saskatoon, Toronto, etc.).
How many horns are in the Kool and the Gang horn section?
LG: Four. Tenor sax, trumpet, alto [sax], trombone.
You mentioned to me that you and the rest of the horn players are all great jazz fans and have played jazz for many years. You also said you guys show your love of jazz during your solos. Can you explain that again?
LG: OK. Instead of using easy, repetitive funk licks, we introduce more complex jazz ideas.
So pop music fans are actually getting exposed to jazz and don't even realize it?
LG: Yes, essentially, but at the same time they're getting all the groove they can handle, bro.
One last question: can you tell us about your experience at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year? As a jazz fan that must have been quite an experience for you.
LG: The greatest experience that happened for me personally was meeting the legendary Quincy Jones and speaking with him one-on-one for over 20 minutes about our mutual hero, Mr. Clark Terry. It was fabulous — and not to mention, he was our emcee the next day for our concert.
It's hard not to make judgments and second-guess jazz festival promoters who use popular music bands to help them cover their costs. Having been both a festival promoter and being a musician myself, I'm appreciative of Larry for putting some real-world thought into that messy philosophical intersection of Art vs. Commerce. My thanks to Larry (and his daughter Susan Nury) for taking the time.