Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 2, 2011

Jazzin’ It Up, In Chicago and Beyond

In honor of the Chicago Jazz Festival, in Grant Park:

Coleman Hawkins plays Body and Soul, circa 1967 –>


I’ve always told people I came out of my Radio/TV/Film program at Northwestern with a minor in Jazz History. Because for three years, I did a morning radio show once a week, and had access to stacks and stacks of LP’s by all the greats. Plus new material came into our studios regularly, by established artists as well as new ones, since not many stations in any major city played jazz records of any kind  (still don’t, which is a shame).

Bear in mind, this was the late 1980’s, before “smooth jazz” had entered the picture very clearly. So while I played all kinds of stuff– from jazz-influenced stuff like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to the latest electric or fusion type material– the music I came to appreciate the most was the more accessible small combo bebop and cool jazz, the kind of stuff that Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon and guitarist Wes Montgomery played, along with other personal faves like Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and later Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny. In the late Forties, through probably the mid-to-late Sixties, one didn’t have to be an elitist or a musician to get into jazz. It was just there, one of the main staples of American music.

But I didn’t discover all that great stuff till the Eighties, by which time the music industry and American culture had become more corporate, perhaps more shallow, and people lost interest in the “heady” aspects of good jazz. Meanwhile what passed for jazz, but appealed to pop and rock listeners, was instead less gutsy, more glittery.  So, for example, Kenny G at that point was known only as Kenny Gorelick, an average-at-best player in the Jeff Lorber Fusion band. (Click that link back there for a Pat Metheny interview where Pat gets technical, about how Kenny used a couple tricks, repeatedly, to pander to the crowd and mask his lack of technique or innovation). And with Kenny as the top-selling instrumental artist ever, it’s clear things went downhill from there. Plus, New Age music was also fairly new, and world music was probably also starting to cut into some of the “sophisticated listener” market.

By now, one has to really go out of one’s way to hear a good amount or variety of quality jazz, either on radio or live. College radio still gives us some, and serious music instruction from high school onward certainly offers kids the option to learn the style. But the first truly American art form has fallen on hard times in the country of its birth.

Sure, there are exceptions. But a culture with an attention span as short as ours just can’t stomach a six-minute song with no words. TV and 3-minute pop jingles taught us to be lazy listeners, and we learnt that lesson real good.

Meanwhile, all throughout Europe, the form still has a strong following. In 2009 I recall seeing concert posters for American artists  in several cities. I also had the great fortune of “stumbling upon” alto sax great David Sanborn and then trumpeter Hugh Masekela at a free festival show on the public square in Lugano, Switzerland. I’m not claiming there weren’t casual fans there, too. I just find it instructive to note the number of good jazz festivals one finds in Europe, compared to just a few here in the U.S. 

Chicago’s Jazz Fest is still free, and well-attended. But does that really count? It’s been a few years since I went down there, but my impression is that each year it’s becoming less about the music and more about a party atmosphere.

Maybe I’m starting to sound like a crochety old man. I dunno. But when I watch these great youtube or Daily Motion clips of tv shows from days gone by — many from before I was born — I keep wondering why all that great music, which was formerly being widely broadcast, has now gone underground?

So that makes me feel too young, not too old. I feel like I missed the real party, and now I gotta settle for secondhand accounts. Or worse yet, for bastardized wallpaper music or cheap, easy to play fireworks, made by and for those who should know better, but who don’t want to know.


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