Jazz Musician Says Genre is Dying

Jae Sinnett loves Jazz. He hosts a jazz show on his local radio station. He's also a jazz drummer and composer. But despite his devotion, Sinnett says the genre is under siege. He explains why he believes Americans are falling out of love with jazz.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. This used to be the sound of a hot Saturday night.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

MARTIN: Jazz is the original American music that was the soundtrack for nightclubs worldwide. These days, hip-hop has claimed some of that scene but jazz certainly hasn't disappeared. But many jazz artists feel their art is under siege, getting edged off the radio dial and out of the record stores. Here to talk with us about the future of jazz is Jae Sinnett, jazz drummer, composer, longtime host of a jazz radio program on NPR member station WHRV in Norfolk, Virginia. That's where he is now. Hi, Jae.

Mr. JAE SINNETT (Jazz Radio Host; Jazz Composer and Drummer): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Thanks for talking with us.

Mr. SINNETT: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you may not even remember how this happened, but how did you fall in love with jazz?

Mr. SINNETT: With jazz? You know, it's interesting because I was a musician, actually, when I first heard jazz, and when I first heard jazz - I wasn't playing jazz, I was playing classic soul music and rock and funk and those kind of things, but when I first heard jazz, I honestly didn't get it because it was the complete antithesis of everything I was playing at that moment. In other words, you had - I was dealing with music that you had very simple, repetitive rhythmic devises in the music. It was based on a groove, a specific type groove. The harmony we were dealing with was at a much lower level in terms of complexity and it was mainly vocal.

And then when I heard jazz, I heard these very complex, sophisticated rhythms, this very sophisticated harmony, and it was primarily instrumental. So, it was confusing to me and, honestly, it was a turnoff at first, simply because I didn't understand it. But I was fortunate enough to have knowledgeable people, informed people around me that sat me down and said, Jae, look, there is a method to the madness, you just have to be patient. And really, they turned me onto a different way of listening to music.

MARTIN: I think that jazz is on our minds lately for a couple of reasons and I want to talk about those separately. But one reason, I think, is Hurricane Katrina. And many people were worried, not just about the people of New Orleans and the city of New Orleans and also the rest of the Gulf Coast, you know, has to be said. But also, fear that the culture that has nurtured so much of the jazz scene might have been destroyed and might never have come back. Do you, as a jazz artist, have that concern and do you think that some of those fears have been justified?

Mr. SINNETT: What a lot of people may not realize, particularly over the past 15, 20, or 30 years or so, there's not much jazz in New Orleans. I mean, but we know the history of that music and that the connection to that city and in many cases, the inception of the music, you know, came out of there. But I think with Katrina it brought to the attention that history and they felt that, I think a lot of people felt that, wow, that the connection to that history has now been severed because a lot of the artists that are still with us, some of the older generation of the artists, you know, they're no longer living there or they're gone. And I wrote a song, actually, on my new album I dedicated a song to New Orleans called "Crescent City Undercurrents," and the whole point of the song was to remind people of that wonderful tradition with the second line rhythms and the swing.

(Soundbite of "Crescent City Undercurrents")

Mr. SINNETT: And then there's a part in the song where it deals with the destruction.

(Soundbite of "Crescent City Undercurrents")

Mr. SINNETT: So it's the New Orleans story, the Crescent City story. So it's bringing the attention to a lot of people who may not have known about that history, or at least, I think, more importantly, knew what it sounded like. What the sound of that city was like. Because there was this very specific sound that came out of New Orleans.

(Soundbite of "Crescent City Undercurrents")

MARTIN: Just back to something you said. You said that there really isn't that much jazz coming out of New Orleans. Why is that and what does that mean? Where is the jazz scene? Or is that part of the issue that perhaps there really isn't a place where the jazz scene is concentrated in a way that we are used to thinking about, or what may have been the case a generation ago?

Mr. SINNETT: Back in the day, like the '40s and '50s, they used to have something called the "cutting sessions." We more or less identify them as jam sessions. You know, musicians would go to these clubs and they would jam and jam and have a good time in a playful, competitive kind of way. One of the things that kind of slowed that whole scene down was the disappearance of the piano out of the clubs. And I thought about that for a long time, you know, and a lot of club owners said, well, you know, the piano takes up too much table space in the restaurant. Or, it's too costly. We can't put this in here. And so gradually that scene disappeared out of the clubs. And then it became like with just about anything else in our society. It became an issue of commerce.

You know, it's a business. It has to survive. Jazz is a very intelligent, it's a highly intelligent very, very complex music, and to go in and expect a lot of people to come around and support this music, I don't think that's the mentality today. So you have a lot of other kinds of music like blues, for example, something with a repetitive beat that people can connect - more people can connect with, and that's what's happening in New Orleans. When I was - last time I was down there, which has been a few years ago, there was more blues than jazz, and you had some of the more traditional jazz down there that I was able to hear, but not as much as I thought that there would be.

MARTIN: On the other hand, sort of the other side of this story, Herbie Hancock's newest recording, "River," which won a Grammy for album of the year. Let's just listen to a little bit of that.

Mr. SINNETT: I'm glad you brought that up. I'm glad you brought that up.

(Soundbite of "River")

Ms. CORINNE BAILEY RAE: (Singing) I'm so hard to handle I'm selfish and I'm sad Now I've gone and lost the best baby That I ever had Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

MARTIN: That was the title track from Herbie Hancock's latest release, "River," featuring Corinne Bailey Rae. So you're saying you're glad I brought that up. Why are you glad I brought that up?

Mr. SINNETT: Well, because a disturbing thing is happening with this since Herbie won this record, and just about, I would say over 90 percent of the articles I've read about Herbie winning that Grammy for record of the year was - their argument was why he shouldn't have won it. And the common reason that I'm seeing is 55,000. Do you know what I mean by that?

MARTIN: I don't.

Mr. SINNETT : That was the sale - that was the number of records sold before Herbie won the Grammy. Fifty-five thousand. They were saying, well, you know, Kanye won and sold millions, Amy Winehouse won millions of records. You know, it's really about commercial successes.You know, Herbie made an artistic record and when you really take - get away from the vocals on that record, it's a jazz record. It's a very atmospheric, sophisticated, conceptually designed around ballads record. It's a harmonically deep record.

Now, you know, when you consider that jazz is great American music, it's been four or five decades, I think 1963, since jazz won record of the year for Grammy presentation. I mean, that's astonishing to me. So maybe there's a beacon of light now that has been shined upon us to perhaps make people look a little bit more deeply into what art is really about. What it means. And I'm so happy that Herbie won this record because it was the only jazz record nominated for record of the year.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with musician and composer Jae Sinnett about the future of jazz. What does that say? How do you - how do you interpret what that means? Does it mean that it's a good news, bad news story? That people who understand and appreciate music are still seeking it out, or is it that there's just got to be this ongoing fight to maintain space for jazz amid all the commercial pressures? They've always been there.

Mr. SINNETT: Oh, it's always been there. You know, but I think people, musicians, record music for two reasons. For commerce, or for artistic achievements. And I think people need to recognize that now, and I think it's so bad right now, most people don't even know when they're listening to a real instrument in commercial music.

I grew up in the era of the '60s and '70s, coming through that when funk was funk. You know, when you had great songwriters like Maurice White and Stevie and Billy Joel and Elton John, and all these great songwriters, and Donald Fagen, or Steely Dan.

(Soundbite of "Gaucho")

STEELY DAN: (Singing) Just when I say "Boy we can't miss You are golden" Then you do this You say this guy is so cool Snapping his fingers like a fool

Mr. SINNETT: They were writing great pop music that were all influenced by jazz. You know, during the history of like the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye was a jazz drummer. I mean, the Four Tops sang jazz before they got - before Berry Gordy wanted them to start selling some records.

MARTIN: Doesn't every generation always say that, you know, society's going to hell on a hand basket, they're destroying what was best about my era. I mean, one of the - you mentioned Amy Winehouse, isn't that part of her appeal, is that she's jazzy?

Mr. SINNETT: No, her appeal is that she's done some kookoo things. You know, I mean, what do you hear about more, Amy's music or her behavior?

MARTIN: It all depends on who you talk to.

Mr. SINNETT: Really, think about it. Now what if she was an angel?

MARTIN: OK, but jazz artists have had some interesting back stories too, haven't they?

Mr. SINNETT: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: And doesn't that add to their mystique?

Mr. SINNETT: But the difference with the jazz musicians, they probably welcomed the press on their behavior. At least they're getting some sort of press.

MARTIN: So what's the difference? Craziness and artistry have often gone hand-in-hand. So tell me, what's the difference? Why aren't you just being a classic, old head hater?

Mr. SINNETT: No, I think that's partially a myth with the jazz musicians, because you had to also consider the societal mechanisms that the jazz musicians had to deal with in that part of our not-so-bright history, and I think a lot of that was brought on because of the social conditions. I think about Charlie Parker. I mean, he lost his daughter. I mean, that pushed him over the edge. That helped push him over the edge, but all you heard about was his drug abuse, but you didn't hear about probably the psychological complexities that he had to deal with as a result of that. So I think part of that is, you know, a little stretched out. Yeah, there were some musicians that had some problems and they did the drug thing, and that was one of - but I have to try to put myself back in those days, and you know what I mean? And see what it was like for them to deal with those situations back then.

MARTIN: Why don't we talk about today and what you're listening to today. Do you feel that - are there any jazz artists coming onto the scene today that you think are particularly worthy of our attention?

Mr. SINNETT: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Well, tell us a few.

Mr. SINNETT: There's saxophonist Chris Potter. A wonderful saxophonist. I think Chris has the ability to take the tenor saxophone to different levels than a soprano saxophone. And his writing, taking the music in different directions.

(Soundbite of Chris Potter on Saxophone)

Mr. SINNETT: There's Christian Scott, the young trumpeter out of New Orleans. Actually, Christian is doing some very interesting things that I think can get people thinking about the music.

(Soundbite of Christian Scott's music)

Mr. SINNETT: I can go on and on and on with these musicians, but the problem is, how do we get, you know, more people to realize that this music is meaningful and it's worth something for them to investigate?

MARTIN: There are fewer places to hear jazz music, perhaps.

Mr. SINNETT: Yeah. You're right, you're right, there are. It's a struggle, but it's a struggle for the simple reason - let's break it down simply. It's a struggle because the masses don't understand the music. And when I go in and talk - do these lectures with these kids in these clinics in master classes, and I say to them, you know, what reason do you have to like jazz? You don't really hear it on the radio stations you listen to. I remember seeing a hip-hop video, and I can't remember which one, but in the video you had this bass player playing an acoustic upright bass, which is usually associated with jazz. You saw somebody playing a trumpet, you saw someone playing a drum set, but when you're listening to the song, there's a sample bass, there's sample drums and there's no trumpet! It's everything's on keyboard. So it's being that - it's wanting that association with something that is so hip and so cool, but then again, on the other side, we can't go all the way because we feel we might be too artistic and lose the audience.

And I think this is where we need to focus and getting these kids to believe that this is something worth their time, and you know, they don't hear it on the radio. They don't hear it on TV. Certainly not on MTV. So, you know, if you hear it on BET, it's at some ridiculously late hour in the evening, so we need to get to them somehow to let them know that hey, this is really worth your time. This is something profoundly important to our culture. I mean, this is great music. You just have to be patient and take a little bit of time, and it goes back to what I said earlier about having someone to sit down and share their thoughts about the music and teach them.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for taking the time to sit down and share your thoughts about the music. Before we go, you are a composer. One of the interesting things you've done is as a drummer, you've also composed music, that, what's the way to describe it? Brings your instrument out front. And so, as we go, give us a cut to go out on.

Mr. SINNETT: You want something funky or do you want something swinging?

MARTIN: Your call.

Mr. SINNETT: Well, let's go with "Cliffhanger."

MARTIN: "Cliffhanger" from "It's Telling: A Drummer's Perspective." Jae Sinnett is a jazz drummer, composer and radio host. He joined us from member station WHRV in Northrop, Virginia, where he hosts "Sinnett in Session," and "The R&B Chronicles," and you can find out more about these programs at our web site, npr.org/tellmemore. Jae, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SINNETT: Michel, it's been a pleasure.Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of "Cliffhanger")

MARTIN: Remember, at Tell Me More, the conversation always continues. We want to know what you think. Jae Sinnett says Americans are falling out of love with jazz. Are you? Should we care? We also talked about the protests of the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing. What's your take? Should the Olympic Committee have chosen the city, given China's human rights record? And another heated issue we talked about, the stress on families in immigration detention centers. How do you think the government should handle undocumented families? We'd like to know what's on your mind. Visit our web site at npr.org/tellmemore to tell us more. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. ..COST: $00.00

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