Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Jazz, Tourism, Tradition, and Market in New Orleans

An excellent interview with musician and director for Dillard University’s Institute of Jazz Culture Edward Anderson. Anderson is part of a duo called Bleu Orleans. Large excerpts below; read the entire article here:

BackTalk with Edward Anderson

By Alex Rawls

Between semesters, there are few places as relaxing as building on a university campus. No students, no drama and easy parking—it’s a good environment for thinking. With no students, you can keep it casual, and Edward Anderson is doing just that, sitting behind his desk in a dark blue golf shirt and olive cargo shorts. Anderson is the director for Dillard University’s Institute of Jazz Culture, and it’s a program in transition. Irvin Mayfield started the Institute of Jazz Culture in 2003, when he made Dillard the home for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. In January 2006, Mayfield and the NOJO moved to Tulane and the nature of the program changed. “Irvin’s focus was more external to try to create the NOJO and things like that,” Anderson says. “That’s part of my plan too, to create a smaller combo to do some touring. For the main part, as far as the curriculum, we want to create a program here that will be nationally recognized and marketed as such.” Anderson plans on having the Institute of Jazz Culture fully operational by 2008.


What’s happening with Bleu Orleans?
Actually, we’re pretty happy where we are now as sort of an experimental group. When we started the group, one of our influences was Steely Dan because the two gentlemen started this group and they bring in these high-level musicians to work with them, but compositionally the concept is theirs. That is how I am with Darrell Lavigne who, to me, is one of the most underrated musicians in New Orleans. The jazz community knows of his immense talents, but I don’t think he has received what he should have based on those talents. As a composer or as a player. As a composer, it blows my mind what he comes up with.

One of the things about Bleu Orleans that I’m proud of is the fact that we try to really stay in touch with what is artistically emotional. Right now, everyone is trying to tap into the emotional ride of Katrina. We’re no different. I was in Los Angeles; he is now living in Houston, just the challenges of that. It’s just so much to tap into, and we’re trying to build upon that right now.

One thing I find fascinating about Bleu Orleans is that you are trying to make genuinely contemporary jazz.
I don’t really know where to begin with that. You get so much doublespeak with that. People say, “We really want the jazz to be contemporary,” but when you really hit them with something that you feel is representative of today sometimes, the people aren’t ready for it or the critics aren’t ready for it. The people we call the jazz police, the club owners and what not, they are, like, “This isn’t really what we cater to.”

The problem we run into in New Orleans is that so much of the jazz is defined by tourism. That’s the reality that no one wants to deal with. People want to keep it safe and regulation so that it is something that will easily market to tourism. When you come up with something that is confrontational or something that is controversial in a sense, then you have to deal with that. We understand that at this point. We’re not so naive to understand that we’re not going to run up against that. At this point in time, it’s a beautiful thing that happens when you reach close to middle age, you stop caring. You understand that you can’t let some body else’s ignorance justify your direction. You have to do what is true to you artistically.

The irony is that contemporary jazz...’s already 40 years old. That’s the point. There’s no way I’m going to out-Coltrane John Coltrane. There’s no way I’m going to out-Miles Davis Miles Davis. That is something Max Roach said when I was 20 years old taking a jazz camp. He said there’s no way you’re going to out-Dizzy Gillespie Dizzy Gillespie. At the time I thought it was kind of cute, but 15 or 20 years later it makes a lot more sense to me.

The whole circumstance of what inspired him is totally different than what inspires us as artists today. He didn’t have to deal with Katrina. He dealt with racism and the issues of his day. He dealt segregation and stuff, and those sorts of issues are what inspired his music to sound the way it sounded. That’s what inspired bebop—the musicians were trying to prove that they had the same intellectual prowess as classical musicians.

They started checking out Stravinsky and all that stuff, and started to incorporating theory and playing breakneck tempos just to show that they could do it.

When Rahsaan Roland Kirk spoke of jazz as Black classical music it was a progressive thought; today, when musicians like Wynton Marsalis treat jazz as Black classical music, it seems conservative.
We all owe Wynton a heck of a lot. You can’t question, you listen to those records, and he is playing his trumpet at a phenomenal level. It’s a mastery of that instrument, but music is immense and there are a lot of different angles to approach it.

There are a lot for different perspectives that take on art. It’s huge. It runs the gamut from classical to popular music. It goes on and on. For us to sit here and recreate what Wynton did in 1985, once again that’s 20 years ago, really isn’t creative. You have to go through that to get to something because that is part of the study process. You have to check all that stuff out and try to emulate it and try to understand what was going on so you can build on it. You have to understand some of the rules, in a sense.

People think that certain musicians’ personalities only come through in the way they sound or the way they play, but it is the whole perspective. It’s why Thelonious Monk sounds different from Bud Powell, but they were from the same generation. Although they are connected in a sense, from a sound standpoint they have such independent personalities.

In New Orleans, that monkey of tourism is like a monkey on the back of musicians. The musicians are being used to fill up hotel rooms and the convention center. In order to eat, they have to shape their music a certain way. Entertainment becomes such a crucial part of that formula. If you go to New York or the east coast and even parts of the west coast, the entertainment is the art value. Not the fact that the artist is smiling and cajoling with the audience. There is a whole other level of involvement that the audience can tap into. I’m not saying our music is sub par, what I’m suggesting is that there are other things we can do to strengthen the artistic content of our music.

Is it possible for jazz to reach a broad audience again?
The problem becomes how much are you willing to become a martyr. That really became the reality for us. How much are we willing to lie down and just take the sword for this? I’m not saying we’ve totally washed our hands of that because we haven’t. We’re just checking out different things. That was a rough period because I don’t know how deep you want to get, but we can go as far as the Jazz Fest frowning upon the music and saying, “This is not really what we like to promote.” Clarence Johnson III, Darrell Lavigne, Donald Ramsey, and myself, we can play and the audience is digging it. What’s the problem?

There is a whole sector that really wants to see that music in a nice safe jar. Let’s sing, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” Shit, I’ve been there and done that and got the T-shirt. Believe me every time I hear Nicholas Payton play, I’m inspired. Some of those musicians are really searching, and you can tell.

There’s a phenomenon I see in most popular music and certainly in jazz; it’s the tendency for fans to isolate a certain sound or style and declare that it is the real thing, and everything else is second rate. Really, what they want is music and artists they can claim some measure of ownership of.
It is elitist. That is what is so unfortunate. That’s why jazz only gravitates certain people, and those who have a certain level of education. New Orleans is unique because we have the whole tradition of second line thing; it’s the music of everyday people, celebratory music.

When you talk about modern jazz, it’s become so elitist. I cannot even listen to it all the time; half the time, I’ve heard it, I hear a new recording, and I’m like, “Okay, that’s what Coltrane did.” It’s a different melody, but he is playing a Coltrane solo. It can’t inspire me because I just don’t hear any vision. Once again, there are musicians who want to deal with it, but they’re being crucified. Nick is a perfect example, I’m not here to speak for Nick, but I witnessed it. He came out with Sonic Trance, and Nicholas was the one who was, to me, being groomed to be the ambassador of New Orleans. When he came out with Sonic Trance and he started doing Bitches Brew type stuff, people just shut down on him. He has been kind of outcast ever since, and all the focus turned to Irvin. Then with Katrina, he just headed up and got the hell out of time, so we lost one of our finest musicians that we should have been embracing and begging to come back and help get this music started. I think he is in Arizona; what the hell is he going to do in Arizona? Watch the cactuses grow or some shit?


To change subjects, what do you know about the bill to put music education back in high schools? Do you what that will mean?
Specifically, no, but I’ve been asked to be on a board with a group of people. There was a study put together by an outside consulting group that Mitch Landrieu’s organization hired. There are about 20 of us on the board talking about ideas to bring back the cultural economy. Education was a part of the discussion, although I would have liked it top be a larger component of that discussion. My understanding is that there is an initiative to bring back music education in all the schools. I think that is a great idea and it would bring so much positivity to our young folks today. I just hope if that initiative does take place, that they remove some of the politics from it. I know that is wishful thinking, but I hope they let the experts do what the experts do. I hope that they find the money to do it and they hire some director that is qualified and open-minded and let him set it up so that is it is really what it’s supposed to be. If so, I think it will have an amazing impact on the city culturally.

Studying music is something that creates independent thinkers. Which is usually why kids get caught up in stuff, because they are submitting to peer pressures in the wrong way. The movement today at least in jazz is anti-drugs. You don’t see jazz musicians walking around with their pants hanging off. They don’t carry guns and don’t do drugs for the most part. So it can only be positive.

It seems to me that jazz is a music that benefits from an audience with a musical background.
I don’t know if everybody had a musical background when they were listening to Coltrane. My father’s generation was really locking into that sound when they were dealing with the Civil Rights movement. It was a special era in time, but those artists were inspired by what was going on. Just like they connected to Coltrane, they connected to Marvin Gaye, and just like they connected to Marvin Gaye, they connected to Stevie Wonder.

The problem today is that the musicians are so busy trying to validate themselves by showing that they can do what Trane did or what Miles did that they’re not connecting to the current stream of the world today. That is kind of where we started. We really wanted to identify with culture today. You can’t get mad at kids who are listening to Beyoncé and whoever they are listening to on the top 40 radio station when they get confused when you play some Coltrane. They aren’t going to get it. It’s not connecting with them. When they listen to Norah Jones, even though she’s not singing swing tunes, she is taking some of the influence from those earlier artists and she is injecting it into that alternative-pop sound today that is so popular. She is bringing some of that to the table, and kids can hear that. She sounds good, but it is deeper than what they are listening to on pop and top 40 radio. That is the approach that is missing now. You study your horn, but at the same time you have to be tuned into what is happening now. That is why Miles was so hip. People criticized him, what was he going to do—keep playing Kind of Blue for 40 years?

So the real challenge for a musician is to find a context for his or her art?
Think about this. Today we have a war going, we’re in the most turbulent time since Vietnam. What is coming out of it in jazz? Nothing. What kind of statement is that for art? Today in art in general, you just don’t see it. Life may imitate art, but as far as these musicians today. I’ve not seen a record today that is really protesting a political statement, or making a socio-political statement of any sort, or speaking up for the common man so to speak.


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