From: Aaron Cohen
First off: thank you, Nate, for inviting me to take part in this roundtable. All of you are writers who I admire a great deal, and I’m humbled to discuss these issues with you.
To tell the truth, I didn’t read Nicholas Payton’s blog postings until you brought it to my attention. I do have trouble keeping up with jazz blogs (except for this one) — editing a jazz magazine all day, you can imagine I’d want to read SOMETHING else by the time I get home. Anyway, his first posting was rather poetic (he clearly thinks about the rhythms of his phrases), but I really don’t get caught up in whether or not jazz is/isn’t dead, whether or not this or that person is/isn’t really a jazz musician. I’ve been hearing all that since I started getting into the music when I was in my teens (back in the 1980s). I just never found that discourse particularly interesting — it never enhanced, nor detracted from, my enjoyment of the music and it never broadened my understanding of the culture surrounding it. I can say that there is a lot of good and great jazz being recorded now — I receive at least 100 CDs a week (of varying quality, to be sure), and with only having room to review around 35 new releases a month, one can imagine all the work that I am unable to adequately cover. Meanwhile, I’m busy catching up with as many live performances as I can. Here in Chicago, I can find something interesting to see and hear at least three nights out of the week. So I didn’t feel that Payton’s postings infuriated or excited me in any way.
Anyway, to get back to the discussion of Esperanza Spalding, she is a great bassist and a talented singer/conceptualist. I wish she would play bass more, as that’s what I feel she is best at, but I’m also aware that had she stuck just to being a bassist, she would not be the crossover star that she is. (Yeah, I would’ve been one of those who would’ve advised Nat “King” Cole to stick the piano, where he was brilliant, rather than sing, since I preferred Billy Eckstine). As far as whether or not her success is because she has transcended jazz, or will bring more attention to jazz, I just hope that whatever attention she does receive will somehow encourage more funding for music education. Glad that she continues working in Joe Lovano’s group. And I also hope that she does collaborate with Janelle Monae (my wife and I love her).
As far as any siege mentality that jazz may be going through, or any sort of issues involving inclusion, exclusion or insularity, I think that may be more of a New York thing. Here in Chicago (where I’ve lived my whole life, except for college in Wisconsin), we tend to feel slighted in general. Really, controversy about [insert name of Manhattan jazz musician or institution here] matters to Chicagoans about as much as New Yorkers care about [insert name of Chicago jazz politics here].
So I’d rather just concentrate on music/musicians who I like, and this year has been filled with great, great stuff. I was fortunate to see Bill McHenry’s quartet at the Village Vanguard a few weeks ago, and they were terrific (though, sadly, that was also when I heard about Paul Motian’s condition, and his death was the worst jazz story of the year). I was also fortunate to see a number of longtime favorites representing different generations throughout 2011: whether it was Sheila Jordan (at Chicago’s Green Mill) or the Jimmy Heath Big Band (at New York’s Blue Note) or Eric Reed (at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase). I also was fortunate to steal away from the DownBeat booth at the Chicago Jazz Festival to catch Trio 3 + Geri Allen. Still and all, best concert I saw this year would’ve been Aretha Franklin’s first full-length post-surgery gig at the Chicago Theater in May. She infused every note with pure joy of being alive.
As I mentioned in the post above, with 100+ records coming in my mailbox each week, there are so many great ones. Let me first mention the current wave of young Chicagoans — Nate’s colleague Ben Ratliff has been giving much deserved attention to vibist Jason Adasiewicz, and his Sun Rooms’ disc, Spacer (Delmark), is inventive and much fun, as is bass clarinetist Jason Stein’s The Story This Time (Delmark), which brings a sense of joy and energy to the otherwise abstract Lee Konitz-Warne Marsh school. Wonderful compositions on Claudia Quintet’s What Is The Beautiful? (Cuneiform). Darius Jones’ Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) and his Cosmic Lieder with Matthew Shipp (both discs on Aum Fidelity) really caught me off guard. And there were a number of solid recordings from so many people I had been unaware of just a few years ago: Walter Smith III’s III (Criss Cross) and Tyshawn Sorey’s Oblique-I (Pi) come immediately to mind. So many musicians I’ve liked for a few years now are still cranking out thoughtful stuff live and on disc: Vijay Iyer, Matana Roberts, Jeff Parker, Russell Malone...
So, it’s all my way of saying, 2011 is ending with jazz in fine shape in terms of its creative end. There are only a few problems that can’t be easily dismissed, and these are economic: the inadequate funding for music education in the public schools is the most difficult. It’s also shameful that cities continue to use public financing to assist politically connected, large-scale, for-profit ventures rather than help make life easier for non-profit arts organizations and smaller scale music venues. This goes on in Chicago, and I’m guessing it’s also true in New York, New Orleans and elsewhere. But I’ll let my co-panelists weigh in here.