18 de marzo de 2011

Jazz is dead?...Who said? by Tomas de Utrera

Tomás de Utrera y Hamid


Many folks today ask “What happened to jazz after 1967.” but After thinking it over I believe that nothing has happened to jazz since 1967 but plenty has happened in jazz. Jazz is still jazz. It has continued to evolve, perhaps at a slower pace during its second 50 years but that is normal when you look back and consider its early evolution, which was meteoric as compared to most forms of "oral music" throughout history
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But something certainly has happened to its demographic. The fan base has shrunk and less people are listening today than when I was a youngster. This is especially true with relation to younger people. At that time more high schools had music programs than today and as in the case of my high school since most of the students were, economically, from what was once called the lower middle class, there were instruments to loan the students. More schools, especially inner city schools had a variety of band and orchestra classes. Most had a big band class and the big band then was more pertinent than it is today. School dances and weekend were played by the swing bands as opposed to today when a 3 or 4 piece rock group plays the dances. Everyone soloed and you learned to improvise in all keys. The gap between popular music and jazz wasn't what it is today.  R&B, for example, was much closer to jazz than today's rock music is. It had a lot of "cross-over" players like Jackie Kelso, Gil Bernal or Harold Land. Frankly, it was more complicated and more difficult to play than today’s music for teens and younger folks. Pop singers of the day like Sinatra (then) or Rosemary Clooney had to sing with big orchestras like Nelson Riddle or Billy May. These orchestras were stocked with the top jazz musicians and the arrangements were written in a style that lent itself to jazz. The names of the players were well known to more kids of that era than in subsequent years.


 Gil Bernal
 
Can jazz be taught? I guess it can because we learned the fundamentals of our craft in high school but you had to learn music first not just jazz. Los Angeles had a host of fine teachers in the public education system. Our school, Belmont High, had one of the finest in Mr. Sheldon Mehr, only a few years older than his students, this was his first teaching position and it was the first step in a long and industrious career as a music educator in the Los Angeles area. He was a very hip person with lots of jazz smarts. I’m sure had he wanted to, he would have been a very successful jazz musician. There were schools in the city that were special in music education, on the West Side there was Marshall High and our school then on the East side, there were Jordon High School and Jefferson High that both has a long tradition of musical education and these two schools produced a whole bunch of super musicians that were the basis of Los Angeles jazz not to mention those who entered the classical field. They also had a great tradition of teachers like Lloyd Reese, Sam Browne and William Green who I was fortunate enough to study with for a time. I know Browne and Reese taught high school but I don’t remember if Dr. Green did because I took private lessons from him when I could afford it.
 
Teaching a young player to play jazz is a delicate thing and an art in itself because, as I said, jazz is an “oral music” and there’s a lot that isn’t in books. All in all the academic teaching of jazz can be a double edged sword. We learned a lot in high school and later most of us without great means went to Los Angeles City College to continue our studies. The tuition was six dollars a semester back then. The closest thing to a jazz class was the jazz band and a class in keyboard harmony. Lots of very successful players went through that school at one time or another. We learned to play in a way that was very different from what these jazz majors study today. Most of it was done on your own. We didn’t have the books and methods available today. I don’t like teaching kids to play on the changes right out of the gate. I like the old way….no set patterns just try to be melodic, phrase in a jazz manner, emulate your teachers and favorite players and try to swing. You’d take a standard tune like “I Got Rhythm” and play through the changes rather than play each chord. Sort of a modal approach so that you get into the water and swim. There’s plenty of time later for all that advanced theory and all the different altered scales. There has to be some enjoyment in it for a youngster if not he or she will get bored and drift away from it. Of course you have to practice fundamentals. I got a pretty traditional education, piano first and then the clarinet before the saxophone. I am really glad that I did because it save a lot of work later on.
 
The musicianship of the majority of kids who played then was at a higher level than many, but not all, of young performers of today. Everyone could play all the major and minor scales with ease. Many kids today know only a few scales, giving rise to the adage, "A rock musician knows three chords and plays for an audience of thousands, a jazz musician knows thousands of chords and plays for an audience of three." Jam sessions were a common after school activity for most of us and even then as today, we (teens) were a major part of the record buying public and a large segment of that record buying public was devoted to the sale of jazz records. The record stores on main Street and Central Avenue in Los Angeles were full of teens. In a sense they had replaced the soda fountains of the 30's and the 40's but they were also educational institutions with the owners and clerks of the small stores always ready with good advice for younger musicians and record buyers. 

                                                                     LaMonte Young
 
Lately everyone has been talking about the teen-aged phenom, Grace Kelly who has half a dozen records out and is a guest at many festivals. She certainly is a fine young musician but certainly a "rara avis” in today’s world thus her great popularity. It is also far less expensive to produce a record today than it was 50 years ago. Yet back then the child prodigy in jazz was far more common than today. Just within the Los Angeles inner city schools i can think of players like altoist Terry Jennings, multi-instrumentalist LaMonte Young (these two later would become the founders of modern) minimalism, there was Lin Halliday, a consummate hard bop player who at 16 was playing with the most establish musicians in LA. Then there is Mike Herrera who would later be pivotal with "The Tijuana Brass" and after that become a fine studio musician.
 
There were also a lot more places to play jazz. It was the height of the Beat Generation and the coffee house venue where younger players could go and play. As far as "older than teens fans" are concerned there were more clubs devoted to jazz full time than there are today. I could fill pages with the number of full time jazz clubs in Los Angeles at that time. Today they have all turned to other kinds of music. Just 20 years ago when I came to Chicago there were at least a dozen full time jazz clubs, today there are only two, "The Jazz Showcase" and the "Green Mill'. A few others have jazz on their programs but not nightly. I think these are among the many reasons that jazz was more popular and more in the public eye back then than it is today. But "jazz is dead"? Only to those who aren't listening.

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