On National Jazz Day, reflections on our local jazz scene

Jazz DayApril is Jazz Appreciation Month and April 13 is Jazz Day, designated in 2009 by the U.S. Council of Mayors. So today’s Artscape is all about jazz, specifically jazz in the Twin Cities. MinnPost invited jazz artists, programmers, radio personalities and fans to comment on the jazz scene here and now. This article will become part of a national “jazz blogathon” sponsored by the Jazz Journalists Association. You’re welcome to add your comments to the conversation.

Matthew Zimmerman, owner, Wild Sound Recording Studio:

I think of jazz as the most dangerous and exciting legal art form there is. Jazz is our music, uniquely American, and however you define it, we have some of the best proponents and creators in the world.

Michele Jansen, station manager, KBEM/Jazz88:

On Tuesday night this week, I saw a performance of the McNally Smith jazz students, with New York baritone sax player Gary Smulyan fronting a few tunes. The music was complex and exciting. The fact that Smulyan would come here without a band says a lot; I’ve seen it often. There are enough talented cats in this town to back up any major jazz artist at the drop of a hat.

Bryan Nichols, pianist, composer, educator and McKnight fellow:

Jazz in the Twin Cities is as strong as it has ever been. It’d be nice if there were more venues, especially for adventurous music, but that’s the same in any place. The biggest issue with jazz in the Twin Cities is the lack of apprenticeship opportunities for early-career musicians. The lack of gigs (again, not unique) means that older, more experienced musicians rarely end up hiring or working with the young professionals, which drives a lot of young musicians looking to improve their art elsewhere.

Ben Johson
Courtesy of the University of MinnesotaBen Johson

Ben Johnson, director, Northrop Concerts and Lectures:

The Northrop Jazz Series was once a sold-out event each season. When I inherited the program, there were no more than 300-400 people coming to events that were selling 2,000-3,000 tickets in other markets like Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. This scenario, coupled with the issues surrounding the closing of Northrop, forced Northrop to postpone the jazz series until the reopening of Northrop scheduled for spring 2014.

Jazz audiences and behaviors have changed. The jazz and deep listening audience wants different kinds of amenities when they attend concerts. Most traditional jazz venues are hosting more popular and independent artists in order to make sense financially. Many of the top jazz artists are priced out of the market in Minneapolis.

It is an interesting time for the jazz audience and the jazz presenter and the jazz venue. Until there is a committed focus on engaging young audiences, consistent and dynamic programming, and new financial models for its presentation, the form will continue to sputter and move along. It would be great to see a program in Minneapolis like Search and Restore, based in New York City, that looks at all kinds of alternative space in booking sold-out concerts in smaller and nontraditional venues in the city. This guerrilla-style programming lends itself to innovative and experimental young artists, and it creates a new vibrancy for the general public. There is plenty of room for this kind of energy on the Twin Cities jazz scene.

Jeremy Walker, composer, pianist, jazz columnist at mnartists.org:

Jeremy Walker
Courtesy of Jeremy WalkerJeremy Walker: “There are great musicians here doing creative music with a distinct sound and view.”

It is easy to say negative things about your own scene — the segregation, the lack of paying gigs, not enough informal sessions. But there are great musicians here, and important musicians living here and from here, doing creative music with a distinct sound and view, so there must be something. With the return of JT and Dave at Icehouse* and the scene happening at Jazz Central, you can hear great music every night. And I think given the competition for attention in an arts-rich town and the climate, musicians and listeners here are particularly committed to the music.

* Icehouse MPLS restaurant and café opens at 2528 Nicollet in May. It was recently announced that drummer JT Bates and music programmer Dave Wiegardt will reinstate there the Monday-night program heard at the Clown Lounge in St. Paul for many years.

Zacc Harris, guitarist, composer, educator, curator of the Jazz at Studio Z series:

The Twin Cities has a strong jazz scene, especially for its size. It tends to lean toward a less commercial notion of jazz than you would find in other Midwest cities like Milwaukee, Chicago or Cleveland. What this scene lacks is enough clubs to support the players. Some would argue that clubs have moved away from jazz because it doesn’t bring enough people out, but I think jazz fans are perhaps the most loyal base there is. Consistency in the quality of music will bring people out.

James Buckley, bassist, composer, curator of the Nomad Jazz Series:

The Minneapolis jazz scene is abundant with influences, from electronic music to old-time swing. It has been resourceful in finding new places to perform and present jazz, and is accented with great songwriters and innovators who like to blur the lines of specific genres and who aren’t afraid to play their original music. In a town that mostly supports hip-hop and indie-rock music, a great jazz scene is essential. A songwriter is inspired by a ripping jazz trio at a local wine bar, or a hip-hop producer takes a night off and is inspired by the jazz group at a dive bar. Jazz has and always will have the ability to snake around in one’s ears. 

Todd Clouser, guitarist, composer, educator:

The Twin Cities jazz scene boasts players as bad as anywhere in the world. It would be nice to see everyone get out to each other’s shows more often, do away with some of the segmenting and cynicism that can occur, and continue to freak out as individuals unabashedly. If we’re all able to adhere to the spirit of creative integrity that binds us, then we have a vibrant scene that promotes imagination, and the clubs and press will turn their backs at their peril. 

Mike Olander, bass drummer, founder of the Jack Brass Band:

For the musician, there are a lot of talented musicians and bands to surround yourself with; for the supporter, there are many groups to see and hear at unbelievable prices, often free. Depending on your point of view, this is good or bad news. “Jazz,” which often is too narrowly defined, is overlooked by many media outlets, club owners, promoters, and live music supporters. Musicians eke out a living by running and gunning for as many gigs and opportunities as they can muster. Speaking for my band, we’re always trying to turn on new ears, and it’s amazing how people appreciate the music. They might not label it strictly jazz, but just good music that’s fun.

Chris Bates, bassist and composer:

We have a long and proud tradition in the Twin Cities of innovative and free-thinking musicians in many different styles of music, but the creative improvised music scene seems to be blossoming. The quality of life here has allowed a culture of full-time musicians to develop that is truly remarkable. Most of my peers play, teach, write and record music in some capacity as their full-time jobs. Many of them have families and partners who support their creative endeavors. This is not the case in many other places in the USA. We are lucky and we work hard at our craft. We don’t take any of it for granted. The Midwestern work ethic applied to a career as a creative artist yields results!

Andrea Canter, jazz journalist, photographer, and blogger:

Nationally the Twin Cities has a strong reputation for its jazz scene, and although at times we think, “That can’t be true,” really, it is. Despite the comings and goings of venues presenting jazz, despite the declining proportion of real jazz at some longtime favorites, jazz manages to survive here because of the high level of talent and passion for the music. Even the most “out there” jazz experiments manage to find a home and an audience, from the underground grassroots of Jazz Central to the intimate concert vibe of Studio Z.

Larry Englund, host of the radio show “Rhythm and Grooves,” blogger:

Two things come to mind when thinking of the Twin Cities jazz scene. 1) Many ensembles operate as groups, such as the Fantastic Merlins, the Illicit Sextet, How Birds Work, and the Atlantis Quartet. The musicians in these groups come together to perform their own music or that of a particular style or set of composers. 2) A number of younger jazz musicians regularly play and tour with nationally popular non-jazz bands, including hip-hop, roots, and folk artists. Both factors lead to a jazz scene that is very open, supportive, and highly creative.

Arne Fogel, vocalist, host of the radio show “The Bing Shift”:

Is this a good place for jazz? Yes and no. Yes, because there are so many talented people here — lots of expert colleagues with whom to make music and exchange ideas and information. No, because there aren’t enough places for those people to work, and because the local media is so jazz-unfriendly. In a way, it says something very positive that the scene can survive despite the lack of performing opportunities and publicity. The music itself here is wonderful, and such variety. Singers especially proliferate, and critics and presenters in other parts of the country look to the Twin Cities for the best in vocal jazz and swing. That’s very gratifying.

Jerry Swanberg, host of the radio show “Big Band Scene”:

Big-band jazz is quite popular in the Twin Cities, where it has its own niche. We’re probably the fifth most active place in the U.S. for big-band jazz, behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. There are about 35 big bands in the Twin Cities, and 25 have recorded CDs. Many are semi-pro and some are nonprofit, but most are rehearsal/kicks big bands. This summer, there will be 84 concerts by 32 big bands in 38 city parks. You can catch big bands for dancing every week. Of the 700 high schools in the state, about 300 have jazz ensembles. All our universities and colleges have jazz ensembles. Regrettably, the young jazz musicians do not appear to continue as jazz fans, because very few attend the big-band events in town — except those at the Wabasha Caves, which attract the young swing dancers. 

Rhonda Laurie, jazz vocalist and coach:

Jazz in the Twin Cities boasts many talented artists at the top of their game and bodies of work worthy of national attention, in subgenres ranging from trad jazz to big-band swing, modern to free jazz, different shades of the blues and some successful hybrids. From an artist’s perspective, it is a great place to hone your craft. There is not a wealth of jazz clubs right now, but jazz is being performed at alternative venues including arts centers, concert halls, private clubs, theaters, patrons’ homes, libraries, churches and synagogues, restaurants and coffee houses.

My two cents:

Jazz in the Twin Cities is alive and well, if under most people’s radar and largely ignored by the media. Next week alone — and it’s a typical week — more than 50 jazz performances of many kinds will take place in dozens of venues, only one of which (the Artists’ Quarter) is a traditional jazz club. Some will draw decent crowds and others will be lucky if people show up at all. Most jazz in the Twin Cities is performed by white musicians for white audiences. That wasn’t always the case, but it is today. Barriers between genres are becoming more porous. Jazz is getting harder to define. Definitions matter less. But if you’re looking for good music and you want to call it jazz, you’re in the right place.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/13/2012 - 09:25 am.

    my two cents

    I’m glad I grew up in the 60s when jazz was still a creative, evolving art form. I know there are a lot of creative players around now and I don’t mean to dis them but to my ears there hasn’t been a new unique individual soloist since the 70s when AACM and the Chicago free scene and the New York loft scene were still producing new voices. I remember seeing Milo Fine at the Guthrie on a bill with a local rock band. Wouldn’t see that now.

    Just a few years ago I saw David Murray and other important jazz musicians at the Dakota. Since that venue moved to Minneapolis most of the acts don’t even qualify as jazz and most of the jazzers are singers singing in that pseudo hipster jazz style popular with the likes of Diana Krall and cohorts. Nachito Herrara (probably messed up that spelling) does play there regularly and he is a titan but most of the acts there should be at the Fine Line or somewhere, hip and enjoyable but not serious jazz.

    The jazz scene seems dominated by smooth jazz (not really jazz at all), vocalists (many of whom noodle the keys) and Wynton and his buddies who refuse to acknowledge any jazz newer than Miles’ second great quintet. They treat jazz as a primarily dead art form like classical music where most of the innovations are in the past and most composers and players are working within an existing set of rules. There are still interesting creative guys: David Murray, Ivo Perlman, Anthony Braxton and many others in the nonWynton approved “free” scene. Rollins, Cecil and Ornette are still around. But those guys get pushed to the side while Diana Krall sells sex and style and too many vocalists have a polite, breathy hipster style. Most jazz is background music now. Ivo is too damn impolite for most so-called jazz fans.

    I know these comments are overly broad and I apologize to any musicians that read this and think I’m a fool (only too true I suppose). The last really important jazz soloist was probably Wynton and he’s only important for the lack of true originality, in my overly broad opinion. Seems like the day of a Trane or Monk or Newk or Bird or Ornette, the day when a new, original voice could come along and reshape how people approach improvisation, is gone and won’t return. Rock seems to have settled into a predictable style of playing as well and most blues musicians now sound like they went to the same guitar tech school, but if I had to bet I’d say that if we ever get a new, original improvizing voice again it will probably come from the rock or nonjazz creative music field and he won’t be finding new ways to negotiate rhythm changes.

    Sorry for the rant. I know all the commenters in the article are sincere and care about the music and are working hard to preserve it but certain types of music seem to quit evolving and then become relics: swing, trad, even outside playing, acoustic blues, electric blues. They all had their hayday 40 to 80 years ago and now the people playing those styles are just recreating what the innovators did. Jazz can’t survive without innovation, especially an innovation that can gain some widespread acceptance among the musicians. The fans will follow.

    • Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 04/13/2012 - 05:03 pm.

      Response

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Bill. Jazz brings out the rant in a lot of people who care about it. I’m going to do my best at an equally thoughtful response over the weekend.

  2. Submitted by Don Berryman on 04/13/2012 - 05:08 pm.

    If you ignore it, it will go underground

    There are amazing musicians in this town making extraordinary music, and they will continue to do so because, that’s what who they are. But in order for the jazz scene to survive, the people who love this art-form need to get out to the clubs and support it religiously.

    Folks should get outside their comfort-zones and stretch their ears.

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/13/2012 - 09:58 pm.

    one comment?

    So could anything say how unimportant jazz is to most people than the fact that there is one comment to this story? And I’m a music fanatic so if you knew me you would expect me to comment. But my comment would have stirred up some controversy if there had been anyone there to hear it. TIMBER! There goes a tree in the jazz woods and there is no one there to hear it. I’m sad, tritone sad.

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/14/2012 - 06:59 am.

    Another place; Another time for National Jazz Day…

    Time warp here but…

    It was a a long time ago, Hopkinsville Kentucky. Our friends from Fort Campbell were out to celebrate fellow jumper Peters twenty first birthday; baby in the group. And I who had never been to a pub or shared a glass of wine was to be initiated to what they called”jazz joint” few locals knew about.

    Call it Hopkinsville sound as opposed to Nashville sound forty miles away. Friend Al, our guide, seemed to know where he was going.

    Hopkinsville rolled up its sidewalks early so we parked in an empty lot off main street and then proceeded; a dark journey sans street lights down a couple; maybe three back alleys defined by rusty garbage cans…rickety fire escapes and the howl of free wheeling tom cats.

    We arrived. One bulb hanging above a door. Dirty brick and an industrial strength door led us down a few steps into a room with tables hung over with a heavy smokers mist…tables spread out around a small stage. Yup, my first intro to the pub scene.

    Found a table in the back and waitress took our order. We were carded in the process and poor Peters still had his old card…”Gotta leave, sorry” she said, so Peters was out in the cold with Hank the elder in our crowd leaving with Peters. We celebrated one birthday without the birthday boy.

    Stayed quite awhile; long enough to know the blind woman vocalist in the silky blue dress was just not anybody’s little vocalist. Slim and old to our young eyes then – must have been all of 30 plus at least?

    She swayed when she sang and it was a first for me rocking; moving like a stilted metronome to the sounds.

    Jazz they called it but some blues mixed laced in at times and the smoke and the room and the dim lights and whatever was the wine? I don’t recall.

    Basement walls smoky brick. Old wooden chairs; crooked tables all disappeared.

    Two guitars, one violin; drummer’s heartbeat in the background. Mixed audience

    White singer. Black instrumentalists cut from another day. A rare gem in time warp’s country. Strange indeed where beyond the alley, separate drinking fountains, back-of-the-bus signs; No Colored Allowed”. Whites Only?

    Was it Jazz? Blues some too? Wish I knew the name of the blind singer in the blue dress singing her heart out of darkness.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/16/2012 - 01:28 pm.

    nice story. In today’s version…

    There would be a group of nicely dressed college students playing a recital in a nice clean room near a campus somewhere. They would all be excellent musicians but colorless. Their teachers would have drummed out all their indiviuality. They’d be excellent readers, facile improvisers, sober, the ensemble would be tight. But it would also be so polite, so homogenized that it wouldn’t make a story you’d remember for 40 years.

    I can’t think of one important jazz innovator who came out of a college experience, but I bet you’d have a hard time naming one current jazz instrumental “star” who didn’t come out of a college background. The innovators of the past may have had teachers, but they studied on their own, they shaped their sound and their ideas on the bandstand and at home (or “on the bridge” as Sonny would say). The only tests they passed were could they get a gig. Had Bird or Ornette been in Berkeley or somewhere like that they would have been made to conform or get out. Their stories show it is hard enough to get something new by the other musicians, but music school seems to make it impossible. A school cirriculum is guaranteed to be based on what is already accepted. To graduate you must excell at what is already in place. Then they spend the rest of their careers trying to unlearn their lessons and develop their own sound.

  6. Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 04/17/2012 - 12:33 pm.

    To Beryl and Bill

    Beryl, thanks for sharing your jazz memory, and for doing it so colorfully and well. I, too, have a headful of times and places and performers–moments of real magic in the Twin Cities and New York, Chicago and Monterey, Montreal and New Orleans. It’s delicious to think back on them. I hope you’re getting out and making new memories from music you can hear today. 

    Bill, it’s clear that you have strong feelings and opinions about jazz. Most people who love the music have that in common, if little else. My own tastes tend to be broad, accepting, and occasionally forgiving. I go to see a lot of things out of curiosity. I don’t love everything I hear, but I’m often pleasantly surprised and occasionally transported. For an art form that was once wildly popular but is now pretty much a niche, jazz raises a lot of hackles. Like you, I’m disappointed in the Dakota and mourn that there’s noplace in the Twin Cities anymore for the David Murrays to play (or the Tom Harrells, or the Miguel Zenons, or the Abdullah Ibrahims, and I could fill the rest of this comment with a long list of names of people who used to come through but no longer do because nobody books them). I won’t have the Wynton argument, except to say that I hold him in high regard for his music and his accomplishments, but I don’t look to him as the arbiter of jazz. I won’t engage in the let’s-call-jazz-something-else conversation because it just circles around and around.  But I will keep going to see musicians I know and musicians I don’t know, because people who bother to make jazz are usually passionate, committed, serious and knowledgeable about the music, and I like that. You didn’t say whether you still go out to hear live jazz, or how often, but it’s possible that someone in town is playing something you would enjoy. 

    You mentioned Milo Fine. He’s still performing, he’s still (and always) Milo. He’s playing tonight at the Black Dog in St. Paul with woodwind player/composer Joe Smith and drummer Davu Seru, starting at 7. On Sunday he’ll be at Homewood Studios in north Minneapolis with a horn chorale. That begins at 7, promptly. You can learn about more performances at his website: http://fetik3.com/milofine/

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/17/2012 - 04:48 pm.

      Thanks, Pamela

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’ve been revisiting this article hoping to see your response.

      I have kids to young to leave alone in the evening and truthfully I’ve always been more of a fan of recorded music than live, at least in the sense that I have 3000 cds but seldom get out for live music. I mentioned David Murray and Milo Fine just to give examples of music I find exciting and concerts I’ve attended.

      I have known very few true jazz fans in my life: mainstream, outside or otherwise. My comments about Wynton don’t mean that I don’t like and listen to mainstream. Probably the center of my collection is in the late 50s. I love Lester and Bird, Sonny Rollins from that period up through the mid 60s, all periods of Trane. For contemporary guys I tend to lean outside but not totally.

      I mourn that most nonjazz fans have a pretty narrow view of what jazz is: polite background music they don’t really get. Once in a while I have played something particularly intense by David Murray or someone just to show someone how jazz can have the same intensity of good, hard rock but with the added thrill of intellectual involvement. My complaints about Wynton and Krall are mostly to bemoan the general impression people have of jazz. But then also truthfully I strongly disagree with Wynton’s definition of jazz which doesn’t include later Trane or anything after (probably not electric Miles either). He has a bully pulpit which he has earned with his accomplishments. I just wish he were more open minded. I have an old video of him playing with Art Blakey and I’ve read about him. He’s an incredibly accomplished musician, apparently without flaw in his technique. I tend to like guys with flaws I guess: Howlin’ Wolf singing, Johnny Winter’s sloppy first take recordings, favorite keys player: Monk.

      Glad we seem to agree about the Dakota. I doubt they were making much money booking the acts that would get me out of the house. So since I’m more of a cd listener I tend to stay in the past, playing my old heroes. Not being out in the scene or having friends who share this interest I keep up poorly with the present and the local scene. Once in a while I find a new guy but I’m just as likely to dive into some guy who’s name is familiar from 50 years ago but who’s music I’m not familiar with.

      So thanks for listening (reading). Hardly anyone I know would give a rip for this conversation.

  7. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/18/2012 - 07:32 am.

    Appreciate the article and comments

    …and brief closure:

    Heard Carl Sandburg a long time ago who loved jazz but never wrote a poem that quite animated jazz style like

    Maya Angelo who is one of a handful of truly jazz poets…and Maya reads with a voice that needs no backup. Why couldn’t more poets have her vocal chords…deep, rich; no instrumental necessary like “And still I rise”.

    Don Shirley, Stefane Grappelli …nothing better than a jazz violinist or a jazz alto sax; solo and thanks again. Always enjoy Espeland, yes… over and out.

  8. Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 04/18/2012 - 11:42 pm.

    Jazz poets

    Not quite closure, Beryl. I’ve always enjoyed the connection between poetry and jazz. Rhino gathered a bunch of Beats in a 1990s box set called ‘The Beat Generation.” Fun if you can find it. Prudence Johnson last year released a CD called “A Girl Named Vincent,” with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems set to original music by local artists including Laura Caviani and Joan Griffith. Laurence Hobgood (perhaps best known as Kurt Elling’s pianist/arranger/collaborator, but an exceptional pianist in his own right) just put out a CD with former poet laureate Robert Pinsky called “POEMJAZZ”–Pinsky reads his poems, Hobgood improvises within and around them. There’s the new “Poetry of Earth” by bassist Anne Mette Iverson. Free jazz saxophonist George Cartwright has done a lot of work with poets. And (you’re the first to hear this) poet Marilyn Nelson will read on May 21 at Plymouth Church with pianist Bryan Nichols. Now, Maya Angelou is in a class all by herself, but there are lots of people (poets and musicians) working in collaboration. And there’s a small book called “Jazz Poems” you might enjoy reading. And “The Jazz Poetry Anthology” edited by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa. I’ll stop now. 🙂

  9. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/19/2012 - 07:35 am.

    …and so much more…

    Thanks for all the list of jazz poets .

    I have only heard the name of Marilyn Nelson. Again thanks..

    But Prudence Johnson; listened to her songs back in the late 70’s, early 80’s? She was at Grandma’s saloon; eating establishment singing with a two instrumentalists…doing twenties style songs. Think she later took a break to Nashville to expand her range? Then she disappeared from my limited radar. Good to know she is still out there….had inherited my mother-in-law’s great party dresses from the twenties in my collection at the time. Planned on giving them to her but Prudence had left the scene.

    Do recall that one of her two back-ups was a guitarist – an interesting fellow – who spoke fondly of his mother going back even further…his mother was a regular; sang in the night spots on Hennepin in the 30’s.. So much for recalling past history.

    I have some Beats literature and Kerouac in our extensive library but no boxed editions.would be neat to find always honored Kerouac’s lack of punctuation he just kept on talking walking and you always knew where he was going

    Have wondered too if one could write without periods and the rhythm of words would take over in the mind of the writer or reader so punctuation itself became a barrier with words so classically gated-in could be ‘the ‘new sentence’ and that would be jazz then too I suppose

    Now I have a new jazz poets to explore…by best to you for taking the time…

  10. Submitted by S h on 05/08/2012 - 12:43 pm.

    You forgot to mention:

    Chris Thomson – sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, composer, instructor. Provided the score for TU dance season 2010 after receiving a grant. Helped arrange the iQuit series at the Rogue Buddha.
    Enormous Jazz Quartet, Thomson Quartet,
    http://chrismikethom.com/music/

    Park Evans- Guitar, composer, instructor. Park Evans Quartet, Parker Paisley, Fire Bell, to name a few.
    http://www.myspace.com/parkevans

    The other musicians are well worth noting, but it seems like a crime to forget either Park or Chris in your lineup!!

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