'The New Face Of Jazz': An Interview : A Blog Supreme Writer Cicily Janus spent the last few years of her life compiling a new book of interviews with jazz musicians: both "living legends and the artists of tomorrow." She writes on what, why, and for whom.

'The New Face Of Jazz': An Interview

Billboard Books
The New Face Of Jazz cover
Billboard Books

About a year ago, a curious new website appeared, claiming to represent The New Face Of Jazz. With so much of jazz's public image oriented toward the music of decades past, it seemed important to follow. But who was this new face? How would it be profiled? Why was it being done? Who was behind it?

In the following months, those questions were slowly answered as details emerged. And earlier this week, all was revealed with the release of a new book called The New Face Of Jazz. Subtitled "An Intimate Look At Today's Living Legends And The Artists Of Tomorrow," it's comprised of short profiles and personal statements from many of today's top jazz musicians. Its scope is impressive, from the hotly buzzed-about talent of today, to wise veterans of the scene, and great artists who enjoy very little press attention.

Author Cicily Janus spent the last few years of her life gathering interviews with all the artists in the book -- and more -- then compiling them all together. Over e-mail, I asked her to lay out the whys and wherefores of her project.

Patrick Jarenwattananon: So, I can tell people how it's arranged and laid out, and a bit of who's profiled -- but it's still kind of an unconventional book. So from your perspective, what is it?

Cicily Janus: The book is certainly eclectic. I would like to think of it as a true glimpse/look at the artists for who they are not what they do, and of course, in their words. One might say that it could be considered autobiographies of their spirit.

PJ: Why did you write it? Who is it for?

CJ: When I came to realize that hardly anyone I knew (and I consider my circle of friends to be well-educated and very cultured folks) could name a single player alive and well on the jazz scene today, I knew something had to be done. As a reader, I was also frustrated with the endless supply of books out there on Coltrane, Miles, etc. Why do we keep hashing their lives over and over again and ignoring the Coltranes of today? We're allowing jazz to pass up this generation and the next ones by revering the past as if it's the only period in this art form that matters. And if you talk to the musicians you will find that this is a never-ending source of frustration for them too.

This leads me to your next question: who did I write it for? Well, I wrote it for anyone interested in the lives of artists and what drives them to be who they are on a daily basis and dedicate their whole lives to a mostly thankless position in the world. I also wrote it for the musicians. I wanted them to have a safe place to talk about their lives, their opinions, their philosophies on life and so on and so forth. I pretty much let them have free rein over the direction of the interviews. I wanted them to be comfortable. Truly, this is their book as it contains their words, their souls and the spirit behind their music. You could say too that I wrote this for those jazz lovers that want and need to get to know what's out there in the here and now. I want readers and jazz and music lovers to stop judging jazz on one thing they heard one time in one place and find out that there is so much more to this music than one human could ever absorb in their lifetime.

PJ: Not to judge a book by its cover -- well, ok I lied. The New Face Of Jazz: what's the thinking behind the title?

CJ: It started out on a play on words. As I said in my introduction, "although we've all seen and heard the past, I can guarantee that jazz is vastly different now. It's a new face. Its tradition has sewn its lines in the wrinkle of time while moving ahead and forging a path of its own. And although its face has changed the accompanying melody has been sung since the beginning of time." Also, what is more human than for us to judge someone by their face, or what you are greeted with first? That's where the lines from my introduction come from. If we look at jazz as if it has a new face, or should I say a new front/ideal/etc., and recognize that this music is wholly human ... we'll see that indeed it deserves to have a new face to introduce it to the world.

PJ: What got you interested in doing this project in the first place? I mean, a compendium of modern jazz artists isn't the most salable of the pitches to publishers.

CJ: As I said in the earlier question, when you realize that people are pretty much complacent with their thoughts on jazz and don't really know what's out there now, and this is one art form you absolutely love and support, you must do something about it. When I started out on this book I began it as a guide to jazz around the country. Clubs, venues, festivals, schools, radio stations, etc. When I began that leg of the book I realized that festivals, clubs and whatnot were closing left and right. If the book did get published it would be a used car by the time it hit the press.

So I went after a few friends of mine from music school, a few guys I knew that were very successful (Vincent Gardner, Doug Wamble etc.) and asked them about their lives. How difficult was it to make it in the jazz world, really? As a writer I'm sure you know this, but sometimes during a project you get an AHA! moment, as Oprah would say, and that was my moment. I began to realize that these guys were successful, modestly so, and no one knew them and their stories were absolutely wonderful. Their opinions were strong; their lives deserving of the recognition that comes with decades upon decades of hard work. Once I started collecting the stories through interviews I sent it off to an agent, Gary Heidt, and he pretty much took me up on it right away. Selling it to Random House's Billboard Books/Crown Books was just icing on the cake. From what I understand there are a whole lot of jazz fans on the editorial board there!

PJ: How did you get into writing about jazz in the first place?

CJ: I was raised around jazz, born with it in my blood I suppose. I then went on to college at the University of North Florida to study jazz trumpet. After a serious burnout period I went into nursing. I didn't really find it to be what I needed it to be as far as fulfilling my creative side. So, I began to write. This was about six years ago. When my fiction was suddenly tanking and I realized that it didn't hold my interest like interviewing folks and writing assigned spec pieces, I had to change my genre. For a year or so before that I had thought of this idea about writing about jazz. The saying in the writing business is to always write what you know. Well, I knew jazz like an old friend and that's why I felt confident enough to take this project on.

PJ: There are an awful lot of names here. How well did you know these musicians and their music before starting out?

CJ: I knew a good majority of them before I started out. Some of them were musicians I drooled over when I was a jazz studies major trying to find my voice. Some of them were musicians I thought had no recognition but deserved it, i.e. Scott McQuade from Oklahoma City. He owns that scene and has made a very nice life for himself and his family through sticking to his musical goals. How would anyone know about him if they didn't live there? Give Scott's music a chance and you'll hear what I heard. Drive, talent and sheer ambition.

Once I got a nice core of musicians I began to ask the musicians to name five people that they thought were amazing people in addition to at the top of their game in whatever scene they were a part of. I began to call them and get familiar with their music. Of course not everyone made it in. But I can certainly say that now that I've been through this process I know each of them intimately through their music.

PJ: Looking through the names, there are a number of people who you designated as "living legends," as opposed to "artists of tomorrow" (and everything in between). I'm thinking of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Arturo Sandoval, Steve Swallow, James Moody, George Benson, McCoy Tyner ... and even a foreword and afterword from Marcus Miller and Sonny Rollins. Some of these folks could have been in a "New Face Of Jazz" book 40 years ago, or more. I sense their wisdom is necessary somehow, but I want to hear it from you -- why are they included here?

CJ: I was expecting this question to come up! I wanted to include a well-rounded picture of the jazz scene today. This must include those that have lived through the past and are still here mentoring, playing, practicing and shaping jazz today and for tomorrow. I only "labeled" them so that those who were not in the know would be more informed as to their stature within the community of musicians. The community on a whole is so vast that I could not even begin to find or encompass every great player around.

Plus, I wanted to include the wisdom of these greats for the other musicians who might pick this book up and who struggle to find their way in this art form on a daily basis. I think what they have to say is just as valuable and valid in this book as that of the newer cats like Jim Black, Chris Tarry, Vijay Iyer and Ari Hoenig. Of course it is. I think including them also helped achieve a balance and create that bigger picture as to where jazz was and how it's evolved into what it is now. This also lets those that have been critiqued and hardly interviewed for who they really are throughout their careers, have a voice that is solely theirs and without the supposition that they are someone they're not. To me, they are the foundation for the New Face and new voices that are shaping our generation's version of this art.

PJ: What did you stumble upon in trying to talk to everyone? Did you actually meet everyone here in person?

CJ: I wish I could say I met everyone in person. I would be the luckiest person in the world if I had. I met a good majority of them at some point or another in person, but certainly not all.

I stumbled upon a lot in this process. I found that if you're trying to do anything on your own of this magnitude, the musicians don't necessarily care, nor do their managers. There are a lot of names that are blatantly missing from this book because I was denied interviews over and over again. Diane Reeves lives in my town! I contacted her manager over and over again and he criticized my website and said he would schedule her but then ultimately turned me down. I emailed certain names over and over again over a period of 12 months in an attempt to get an interview and was either denied or just plain not answered. So for those members of the jazz police squad reading this, know that if you're scoffing at my choice of musicians, think twice. Consider that I tried to get whomever you think should be in here and know that they weren't always available for an interview.

PJ: Any good -- or less good -- stories from the interview trail?

CJ: I have tons of stories I can tell ... some amazing, some crazy, some embarrassing. If you ever talk to Frank Carlberg you can ask him about my adventure on the NYC subway. He was waiting in a cafe for me on the west side of town -- I am not from New York City! -- and I knew Jeremy Pelt was going to show right after his interview for his time with me. So I was, needless to say, crunched for time with Frank. I took the wrong subway train eight -- yes, eight -- times and finally got so darn frustrated I hailed a cab and had to drive all the way across town to where I should have been an hour before. Frank has the patience of a saint. So does Jeremy. Same thing happened with David Liebman and his interview in one of the courtyards at Manhattan School of Music. I can definitely say that I'm directionally challenged.

I ran into a lot of my subjects in clubs, when I wouldn't have been able to nail them down for an interview otherwise. Russell Malone ... I was denied an interview with him over and over by his manager. I went into Smalls one evening after a few interviews at the [nearby] 55 Bar and there he was sitting on a stool listening to the jam session. We finished his interview that night. Sonny Rollins thanked me at the end of his interview for asking him who he was and not what he did. That touched me forever. I think I cried like a baby after hanging up the phone.

PJ: Now that the book is out, what are the most important things you've learned from doing this?

CJ: I learned that the human condition is a fickle beast. The ups, the downs, the hype, the depression and the want to just shut the machine down was pervasive at all times. This process changed my life. Again to quote from my author's intro, "I learned that some observations of the human experience are best made by taking one's own life and setting it to the soundtrack of others." I truly was lost in my journey before and now I feel I've been welcomed back home into the largest, warmest and weirdest yet tight knit family on the planet.

I also learned that writing a book, for all of you who say, "I COULD HAVE DONE THAT! WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?" is one of the hardest damn things anyone will do. The sheer stamina it takes to get from page one to publication is unnerving. I am now exhausted but going at it again. I'm an addict of writing and the process for sure. I also learned that there are a lot of talkers in this world and hardly any doers. My suggestion? Be a doer. It's harder but definitely more fun and rewarding in the long run.