“Jazz in the Modern World” — a Roundtable discussion with Joshua Redman, Bruce Lundvall and Ben Ratliff

October 2nd, 2003

 

JR  The bright side of all of this is that jazz musicians have never depended primarily on record sales to survive. For even the lucky few of us who have had success selling records on major labels, that is still a very small portion of our work. The way I make a living as a jazz musician is by working, working, and working. That hasn’t gone away and won’t go away. I went to Europe this year, and even though the European scene has changed a lot over the last ten years, I felt this year that the live audience attendance was as strong as it has ever been, even in the face of markedly declining record sales. So I think there is very little question that the music will survive artistically. I actually believe that right now is one of the most exciting times aesthetically and artistically for jazz music. I think that musicians will find a way to work and discover ways to tap into these different scenes that Ben is talking about, and that is going to be the future of the music.

BR Yes, if you are not a musician and you want to have an impact on the culture of jazz, the way to do it is to open a club right now, and to make it be a place where musicians feel welcome, a place where they like to hang out. That is pretty much all it is, and exercising some good taste and trying to follow up with who likes to play with who and building a little scene. That is where the excitement is now. It is not in starting a record company.

BL   But you know, I will tell you what…When Alfred Lion started Blue Note and all through the years that he had it, he was always one step ahead of the competitors. And when they had Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder ,” which was a major hit, distributors used to tell him to send them five thousand more of those, and Alfred would respond by saying, “Five thousand? I already sent you one hundred. Wait until you sell those!” Even the best jazz marketers didn’t understand how to deal with a hit. They were basically two guys sleeving records in their offices and sending them out. When I was at Columbia Records in the sixties, while we had Brubeck and Miles, we didn’t have a huge roster of jazz artists, maybe only a handful of major names, you know? So, jazz has never been a major part of the record business, and it is not today.

To be successful in the record business today you need someone in charge of your company who believes that the music is important. You have to have the best artists, and you have to experiment with new people. I am lucky because I have worked for people like that. Other people have not. When Michael Cuscuna started doing reissues for Blue Note, I asked him how he could work so hard since he was also running Mosaic at the same time. He told me not to worry, that the work won’t go on forever. After all, it is jazz and since it is part of a big record company, Blue Note will fold in three years. Of course, it is still going on eighteen years later, so we have been very lucky. But you have got to make a profit otherwise these corporate people are going to look at the red ink and tell you to cut back or discontinue the label. That has happened to classical music in recent times too. And it is not much different for jazz, because you are dealing with music that requires a degree of intelligence to listen to, it is an art form requiring real patience, as you said, and it is not something that you are immediately turned on to. People become listeners of jazz in steps and stages and only then become a fan. After that it is easy to become addicted and buy as much of it as you can afford. But it is not an instant gratification sort of entertainment like pop music.

Jazz is always going to be a minority repertoire. The future of it is entirely in the hands of the musicians, and we have some of the best young musicians playing today. I think it is a wildly exciting time, I really do. There is a lot of diversity in the music, a lot of very gifted young people playing the music, with new stars coming up. A record company is going to have to be really responsible in how it supports the music.

JR  I think it is a great time too. The jazz community today seems a lot more fluid and a lot less dogmatic than it did when I first got to New York.

BR  You mean like aesthetically?

JR Yes. I felt that when I got to New York there was a sense that an artist was either “uptown” or “downtown.” There was a “traditional versus revolutionary” attitude. At the time, the “Young Lions” thing was kind of peaking, and even though the musicians never really bought into it, the community and the press bought into it, and there was this sense of division there. It seemed more ideological, and I sense that aspect has disappeared, or at least softened to a great degree. While there were certain aesthetic trends associated with the “Young Lions,” more than anything it was a marketing movement — a way to package and sell a form of this music. In general I believe that it failed. And because it failed, the ideology has softened somewhat. I sense that today there are a lot of very creative musicians just trying to find their way and trying to find their own voices, who are generally very open to working with different types of musicians coming from a variety of vantage points.

BR   I see that too. I think there has been a slight change in teaching in the jazz schools as well to accommodate a greater amount of aesthetic points of view. And maybe time just takes care of everything. For instance, Wynton’s music was a lot more radical than his detractors would give him credit for…

JR  Absolutely.

BR  And ten or fifteen years later, the truth finally comes out and people look at it a little differently, so, things corrected themselves a bit.

JR   I had a question for you, Bruce. We were talking a little earlier about whether there was some sort of trickle-down effect around the sales of Norah Jones. What has she sold, something like twelve million records?

BL  Actually more. Fifteen now.

JR  Does any of this have any impact? Is there any trickle-down effect?

BL  Well, not that I can see.

JR  Yes, not that you can see, and you would be the one to see.

BL  Yes.

JR Regarding her work, sure, the music that she records now is not what a lot of people would call jazz. Personally, I think she is an incredible force, and I think that she is an amazing vocalist. I went to see her perform live at Town Hall a year ago, and I was just blown away. I found her voice to be mesmerizing. She is incredible, and it goes beyond the material. So even though I wouldn’t call the music she is performing now jazz — not that it matters — at the end of the performance she sang a version of Horace Silver’s “Peace.” It was incredible. If she ever wants to do a jazz record, she will do a great record.

BL  Well, she does want to do a jazz record, actually. I had dinner with her one night and she was scatting old bebop tunes and knows virtually every one of them, so, she is very jazz-informed.

JR  So, there may not be a trickle-down effect, but the question is whether she is being perceived as a jazz artist, and if she is, what is really being sold to audiences? If there is a perception that because she is on Blue Note her music is jazz related, is the audience connecting to her partly because of the image of jazz — its hipness, the cache of it, the coolness of it, and if so, what is the relationship of that to the heart and soul of the music? I have a sense that I have seen that happen before. I don’t know if that is happening here with her, but with some of the acid jazz in the early nineties, there was a sense that this music was marketed as being “jazzy” — as having some of the cultural appeal of jazz, although it really had very little to do with jazz music. I find that to be an interesting question for me.

BL  We didn’t try to sell her as a jazz artist, we just tried to sell her as Norah Jones. There is another example of this, and that was Bobby McFerrin. He was signed to Blue Note, and had recorded “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” which turned out to be a huge pop hit. At the very last minute prior to its release, we moved him from Blue Note to our pop label Manhattan because we didn’t want it in the jazz sections of the stores. While it certainly worked, if it had been on Blue Note I think it would have worked just as well.

When I think about Norah Jones, I think also about Nat King Cole, who was a great jazz artist as well as a great pop artist. He was a great artist, period! And in the course of time you think of Rosemary Clooney, who was a great jazz singer, although she was never considered that. Lester Young considered Kay Starr to be a great jazz singer. So, I don’t know why we need to narrow-cast everything. This industry tends to do that. Before Norah Jones we had a great deal of success with Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves performing non-jazz repertoire. I believe it is better to let the borders down a bit, because it will only help the music overall. If Norah has had any effect on other jazz artists, I haven’t felt it, that’s for sure. But from the response we have gotten and the things we read on the Internet, people from all walks of life are buying this record for their mother, their boyfriend, their girlfriend, and so on. People who like jazz are buying it, as well as people who didn’t know anything about jazz. She is just one of those artists who seem to have some kind of a generally universal connection to people’s emotions, and that is why we did well with it.

I signed her on the basis of three or four songs, a demo that had “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” “Walking My Baby Back Home,” “Peace,” and I think there was one pop song. When I heard her, I told her right away that she had to be on Blue Note. I was listening essentially to three standards that were done with just piano and voice, and she played the piano in a complimentary, simple, but very swinging way. When she made her demos, there was all this pop music on it, and I said to her why not be on our Manhattan label, since her producer Arif Mardin runs that label. Couple that with the fact that it really wasn’t that much of a jazz record, it seemed to make more sense. She replied by saying that she signed to Blue Note and that is where she wants to be. What was I going to do, say no? That I was going to drop her? I said you are on Blue Note. We have had too many examples of things that were not purely jazz who are on lots of labels, not just ours.

JJM And you have just signed Van Morrison and Al Green.

BL  Yes, I am telling people that all the borders are down. They insist on being on Blue Note. Van Morrison said to me that he has never been a rock and roll artist, that he has only been a blues and jazz artist, and because of that he wants to be on Blue Note, otherwise he wouldn’t do a deal with us. Well, what am I going to do, pass? And Al Green, who has just made his first secular record in a number of years — with producer Willie Mitchell — told me he had to be on Blue Note. I am not going to say pass on that. I ask why can’t Blue Note be larger than what it was? It is still going to be a jazz roster. We just signed Wynton, and we signed Terence Blanchard last year. I am certainly not going to sign a rock and roll band or a hardcore gangsta rap act, but artists of real quality, I say, fine, the door is open.

JR  I guess what I am trying to say is that there is something about the image of jazz that is very alluring to people in our culture today. There is a coolness, a hipness associated with it. For example, if you watch soul or rap videos these days, you will very often see an image of a soul singer or a rapper in a smoky club, backed by an acoustic bass player, a saxophonist on the side, and maybe a drummer with a pared down drum kit. They are capitalizing on the hipness of jazz, the lure of what jazz means, and its cultural stamp. Yet the music they are playing has absolutely no acoustic instruments on it — it is all samples! As a jazz artist, on one hand I am thinking this is great, that there is something exciting about seeing that, but on the other hand there may be something slightly offensive about it. It is as if they are appropriating the superficial aspects of our culture, but using it for their own purposes, without including any of the music. It leads me to believe that there is something about jazz as an image that is still very appealing to people. Blue Note as a brand is part of that, in a way that Warner Brothers, for example, is not. To the outside world, Blue Note is cool, Blue Note is hip.

BR  Well, except that the average person who buys a Norah Jones album doesn’t even know what label she is on.

BL  That’s right, but as a result of Norah Jones, I have the door being knocked down by every kind of artist you can imagine wanting to be on Blue Note. This is not only because of her but also because of the great history of the label. Long before I ever worked here, Alfred Lion created a an ambience exemplified by those Reid Miles covers done in the Bauhaus designs of the fifties and sixties. They have been copied for years. Do you remember the complete cop Joe Jackson did of the Sonny Rollins Blue Note album cover? It was a mirror image.

BR  You know, there is a rapper named J-Live who just did a copy of the Blue Train cover. I don’t know if you have seen that, Bruce.

BL  No, I haven’t seen that one.

JJM  Something to share along this path is that during a telephone conversation I had this summer with the critic Gary Giddins, he said that jazz audiences tend to be generational, that people seem to come into the music and like the music of a particular period they are introduced to, but don’t necessarily follow it into the next period. So, if you enter it at the bebop era, you may fall in love with Miles and Coltrane, but you may not really care about Lovano and Redman. Is jazz music’s past so mythologized that it stands in the way of the genre’s ability to progress, either from a creative or marketing perspective?

BR  I would say nostalgia always stands in the way.

BL  Yes.

BR  And I do think that for most people there is only a certain time of their lives when they go out and hear music a lot, and when they are involved in some sense with music as its evolving and being created. That is their golden moment and they keep referring everything back to that. When they get into their forties and fifties they slow down and don’t go out so much. They have mortgages and things.

BL  I had a very interesting thing happen to me recently. Prior to my fiftieth high school reunion, I got a letter from a guy I hung out with in high school, but who I hadn’t seen in fifty years. It was a beautiful letter, in which he wrote he has wanted to thank me all these years for introducing him to jazz when we were seventeen years old. He said he has been a major fan, and that jazz has been with him every day of his life. That was a beautiful thing to receive. A man who is sixty-eight years old, as I am, and his passion for jazz goes back to when we were kids, and he is still buying records. I think that is wonderful.

As for young people and what jazz they listen to, an example I can think of is that of my personal trainer, who was heavily into rock and roll. I began spoon-feeding him CD’s and he soon became a devoted jazz fan, but he was only buying Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, etc. I asked him if he was listening to any of the young artists, and he said he liked them but he had to start with the legendary people. He felt he needed a knowledge base before he could enjoy contemporary jazz artists. Javon Jackson once said to me, “I am not only competing with Joshua Redman and the other young tenor players, I am competing with guys who are no longer alive.” I believe he is absolutely right.

JR  Jazz music’s past has become mythologized, however, I don’t think it is standing in the way of the artistic progress of it. I understand there are those who think that it is, but from the standpoint of young jazz musicians working today, history is not an impediment to their artistic growth. History informs and inspires, but in general we are not trapped by it. In a certain way, the past being mythologized is natural, and it happens in many fields. As human beings, we need history — we use it to describe, understand, analyze and organize things. We refer to history and use our cultural memory in order to understand our present. You see that happening in politics, for example. We talk about the current presidential administration in terms of the great successes and failures in relation to the presidents in the past. Phrases like “The glory of the Kennedy years,” or “The disgrace of the Nixon years” are used as historical reminders. I think that is natural, and history is referred to in jazz just as it is in virtually every aspect of our society.

The danger is to what extent is the record industry relying on history, tradition and nostalgia in order to expose and sell the music. I think that over the last twenty years or so, the industry has relied far too much on nostalgia in order to market and sell the music, and this has been detrimental. You can hardly blame the record companies, after all, there is so much back catalog that can be repackaged in hip, exciting, and inexpensive ways, right?

BL  Yes.

JR  The reality, as I understand it, is that record companies don’t have to pay high royalties on a lot of these recordings, and they might even own the publishing on them. Musicians like Coltrane, Miles, Getz, and Ornette deservedly have tremendous cultural cache, but this relative ease to sell their recordings perhaps comes at the expense of new developing artists. For awhile, new artists were being marketed and sold through the past. Here is “so and so” carrying on the tradition of “so and so,” and I think that has been detrimental to the industry because no one will be the next Miles, and no one will be the next Coltrane — at least to the extent that people are looking for. We are bound to come up short.

BL The thing is that the catalog really is the underpinning for the new artist signings.

JR  I understand that.

BL  I also want to mention that in every case where Blue Note artists were signed before 1970, we have brought the royalty rate to ten percent. So, from these reissues a lot of money has accumulated for many of the artists no longer with us. As a result, we have been able to pay out significant royalties — I recall one in particular where a check was written to the family of Hank Mobley for something like three hundred fifty thousand dollars as a result of the revenues these reissues have brought in.

But you are right about extending that imagery of the jazz tradition into the new artists and the rhetoric in their ads. The interesting thing to keep in mind, however, is that while in the fifties and sixties artists didn’t have a lot to say about their album covers, today every artist has a say about cover art, what studio they are going to record in, etc. They have a great deal of artistic control and in how their music and style is marketed. It is very different times as far as that is concerned.

JR  Yes, I don’t want to come off sounding like I am blaming the record companies or the catalog. As a musician, I am thankful for the catalog. I will admit that I probably buy as much catalog as I do new releases.  I want that information. I want that music. And as a recording artist, I am grateful for the catalog. I know that catalog supports a lot of the front line releases.

What I am talking about may have come out as being directed at the labels, but it is much larger than that. This mythology of jazz music’s past colors the way the community perceives what is happening now. Perhaps in jazz, the past is so great and so overwhelming that it may be hurting our ability as a community to appreciate the work of contemporary artists, and clouds our perception of the present. We have these iconic, mythic figures from the past — Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles, Coltrane, Ornette — whose achievements make it that much harder for a new artist to break through and achieve his or her own legacy. The Ken Burns documentary — which I thought was fantastic in terms of telling a great story about jazz from 1900 to 1950 — added to this sense of the greatness of our past. When people see that and then look for analogies in our art today, against mythic figures like that, naturally they are going to come up short.

You can’t tell the story of the development of jazz today the way the story was told from 1900 – 1960. You could tell the story of the first sixty years of this music in a neat, linear way. One style led to another which led to another, and there is a clear sense of what the next new big thing was, and who the leaders of that movement were. New Orleans jazz naturally led to swing, which naturally led to bebop, which became cool and hard bop, which became modal, which became free jazz, and with it you are left with a sense of what the next great “thing” in the music was. I think that the time where you can explain jazz history in a kind of modernist perspective — where one thing leads to the next in a natural sense of progression and evolution — has come to an end . You can’t tell the story of jazz in those neat, simple evolutionary terms now. I don’t know that there will be another great revolution in jazz in the same way that bebop was a great revolution it was, and because of that, there may not be the same kind of mythic figures in jazz the way Bird and Diz and Ornette were. But that doesn’t mean that the music today is stagnant, or that it is not developing or any less creative. It may just mean that we have to view it through a different lens, and use a different paradigm to describe it.

 

 

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Roundtable conversation took place on October 2, 2003

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Joshua Redman products at Amazon.com

Ben Ratliff products at Amazon.com

Blue Note Records at Amazon.com

Joshua Redman web site

Blue Note Records web site

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If you enjoyed this discussion, you may want to read our Roundtable with jazz critics Stanley Crouch, Martha Bayles and Loren Schoenberg, Blues for Clement Greenberg. You may also want to read our interviews with Joshua Redman and Ben Ratliff.

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