Where do we go from here?

I hope everyone had a good Labour Day weekend. I know I did - I spent two nights and three days at the Detroit Jazz Festival, taking in all kinds of music and experiencing what is considered to be North America's largest free jazz festival. I had a great time, checking out musicians like Take 6, Mulgrew Miller, Tower of Power, Tia Fuller, Danilo Perez, Terence Blanchard, the Yellowjackets, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Freddy Cole, Kenny Barron, Trio M, and Ledisi. Not all of the music worked for me, but most of it did. I had never seen the Tower of Power live and they did not disappoint; Maria Schneider and Orchestra were incredible (with one unbelievable solo in particular by saxophonist Donny McCaslin); and Trio M was an "outside" treat. I also caught a set by M.A.D.D. Rhythms from Chicago - a very talented group of tap dancers. Talk about rhythm!

It was interesting to be in Detroit to check out the city (which is still recovering from the economic downturn) and the vibe at the festival; and also to think about which artists, all of whom had great audiences, could attract strong crowds if suddenly their shows weren't free. It's a necessary exercise (as an Artistic Director, I feel as though I can't just enjoy a festival anymore...I have to do analysis...), especially as we begin our work on the 2011 TD Toronto Jazz Festival (June 24 to July 3, 2011...our 25th edition, by the way!). Many questions have to be asked: what will work as a ticketed show? What will work as a free show? What jazz legends should we present? What are the exciting new artists we should showcase and where should they appear?

It can be tricky as a festival to find the right balance between presenting artists who have brought jazz to where it is today - and of the Detroit shows (they called these artists "Flame Keepers") that would be Freddy Cole, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron and Terence Blanchard, among others - and those artists who are taking it to where it will go next (and, from the Detroit shows I saw, I would identify Danilo Perez, Maria Schneider and Trio M, among others). What is our responsibility to present where jazz has been as opposed to where it is going?

And, as I spent some time this afternoon listening to Revive Da Live, a New York collective of artists who seamlessly move from playing classic jazz tunes to classic hip-hop tunes (and am now listening to the South Asian-jazz fusion of Rez Abbasi), I found myself wondering where exactly jazz is going.

One of the trends that we've seen over the past number of years is the movement away from the traditional jazz standard and into a realm where musicians are combining jazz with popular music - using the music of the Beatles, or Radiohead, or drum and bass beats, or hip-hop. Rather than jazz being the standard, as it once was sixty or seventy years ago, it seems jazz is today reacting to the standards. And this is fairly problematic for a certain segment of jazz's traditional audience - those fans who might rely a bit more on the recognizable standards. But at the same time, it's vital that jazz develops a new audience base - and nurtures the more adventurous audience base that already exists. Thus the balancing act.

What I do know is that whatever a particular jazz musician's style, it must be performed at the highest level...and the Detroit Jazz Festival was a good reminder of that little nugget of truth. Mulgrew Miller doesn't just play the piano well; he swings hard and shows that he's far from done experimenting with melody and harmony. Maria Schneider doesn't just write big band music; she writes some of the most exciting, most beautiful big band music ever. Tower of Power is not some random jam band; they play the tightest, grooviest funk you'll hear.

And I think that's a good place to start. I strongly believe that as long as we're putting the best of the best on our stages, our audiences - young or old, relatively conservative or relatively adventurous, educated in jazz programs or in record stores - will appreciate what we (and all festivals) do.

There has been some talk recently about making jazz more accessible, or how some people don't feel smart enough for jazz. Jazz doesn't need to be dumbed down - musicians don't need to play different music or play their music any differently. Maybe we need to talk about it differently, and maybe we need to assess ticket prices. But this is some of the most exciting and, especially today, varied music in the world, and as long as we can share that excitement with music fans - jazz or non - I think we'll do okay.

What do you think - is jazz headed down the right path? Should the jazz community collectively be doing anything different to get more people hooked? Comment away!


P.S. - Speaking of jazz variety, I'd need to be in several places at once tomorrow (Friday) night if I wanted to catch everything that sounds interesting to me. I'm going to try to catch some of The Rent playing the music of Steve Lacy, 7:30-9:30 at the Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick Street), then head over to The Rex Hotel (194 Queen Street West) for the 9:45 show of The Boptarts, a group which features a whack of great Canadian musicians including saxophonist Seamus Blake. I might then try to catch some of the Heavyweights Brass Band set at The Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen Street West).

P.P.S. - If you're not doing anything tonight (Thursday), I'd recommend checking out Muskox at the Tranzac Club. They're calling the show "the new newness of Muskox" and, as you might expect, it won't be your average jazz show. I won't be able to make it, but hope you will!

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