Sunday, January 21, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jazz sheds outlaw status, but not its heart and soul

Seattle Times jazz critic

NEW YORK CITY — A pair of tall, striking paintings at the Grand Ballroom stage of the Hilton Hotel suggested two distinct visions of jazz at the recent conference of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE), America's most important annual jazz gathering.

Both were painted by New Yorker E. J. Gold. One was a nostalgic rendering of a famous photo of Manhattan's bygone 52nd Street nightclub strip, known as "swing street" in its '40s heyday; the other, a more vivid rendering of a fantasy street with all of New York's current jazz clubs. In the days of 52nd Street, jazz played a dramatic role in the American consciousness, personifying the struggle for black freedom as well as projecting a rebellious, outsider sensibility.

What does jazz mean in today's America?

Gold's fantasy street seemed to suggest that, while the scene may be vivid and exciting, it's an artificial construct, sadly untethered to any specific time and place or anything actually going on in American society.

Over the three days that preceded the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend — and just a block away from "swing street" in two huge, midtown Manhattan hotels — participants at IAJE offered some sharp insights on this subject.

The gathering of 7,000-plus educators, students, stars and industry types provided an opportunity for Northwestern jazzers to strut their stuff. The confab ended on notes both celebratory and sad, as the new Ella Fitzgerald postage stamp was unveiled and news of the deaths of saxophonist Michael Brecker and pianist/composer Alice Coltrane filtered through the crowd.

If measured by Northwest talent, the future of jazz looked bright, indeed.

Saturday morning, the sparkling vocal choir, Celebration, from King's Junior High in Shoreline, flooded the room with joy. The Shorewood High School Jazz Band gave a knockout performance, featuring a chewy sax section and some outstanding soloists; Roosevelt High School grad Sara Gazarek, on the verge of releasing her second album, created a sweet, prayerful mood with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Portland vocalist Nancy King iced the cake of the Mt. Hood Community College choir, Genesis, and this year's Stan Getz-Clifford Brown All-Stars, one of several honorary groups selected by IAJE each year, featured bassist Jeff Picker, from Beaverton's Arts and Communication Magnet Academy.

Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, originally from Vancouver Island, mentored another IAJE all-star group, the sizzling all-women band, Sisters in Jazz, whose vitality and warmth made it impossible to doubt jazz would eventually find its place again.

"We have to mentor these young people in order for them to find their own voice," reflected Clarence Acox, director of Seattle's Garfield High School Jazz Band (which did not perform). "Right now, it's a little unclear. But the young people are going to tell us what it means."

One of those youngsters, Sisters in Jazz tenor saxophonist Chelsea Baratz, had some firm ideas.

"It's not one niche now," she said, citing places in New York where, on the same night, you could hear "unbelievably groovin' hip-hop, played by jazz musicians," more cerebral music and "straight-up bebop."

"It's about bringing people together," said up-and-coming Chicago trumpet player and producer Maurice Brown. "People want to feel you here," he said, pointing to his solar plexus.

For eminent jazz historian Dan Morgenstern, who emigrated from Europe in the 1940s to the U.S., jazz was a "beacon of freedom" in a repressive political climate. Morgenstern was one of seven recipients at a conference concert of the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowships.

The other fellows were trombonist Curtis Fuller, saxophonists Frank Wess and Phil Woods, pianists Toshiko Akiyoshi and Ramsey Lewis and vocalist Jimmy Scott.

Freedom, community, spirituality, finding your own voice — jazz means many things to many people.

All the more sad, then, to hear a genius like Ornette Coleman, who pioneered "free jazz" in the late '50s, sound so stuck in the racial paradigms of the past.

Seemingly annoyed that IAJE was largely patronized by white academics — "If we were white people, would this conversation be the same?" he asked his hapless interviewer, saxophonist Greg Osby — Coleman answered questions about his music with obtuse, impenetrable riddles.

Coleman wasn't the only one concerned about jazz becoming "too white." "I'm afraid I'm going to wake up one morning and hear that jazz was invented by [white trumpeter] Bix Beiderbecke," said Suzan Jenkins, president of Jazz Alliance International, a subsidiary advocacy group of IAJE.

"Unfortunately, I think jazz has fallen into the hands of a lot of white males," said flutist Anne Drummond, a Garfield grad, who is white and has made a successful career in New York. "It's like a museum."

In some ways, Drummond was right. With the legitimacy of NEA fellowships, IAJE infrastructure, jazz postage stamps and the Jazz at Lincoln Center colossus, jazz has shed its outlaw skin.

One critic, Jazziz magazine editor-at-large Larry Blumenfeld went so far as to accuse IAJE of losing touch with its roots, because not enough attention was paid to jazz's wounded "sacred city," New Orleans. (To be fair, IAJE gave an award to the Jazz Foundation of America for its service to the Crescent City.)

But all this hand-wringing sounded like so much alarmism after the monumentally moving final concert by veteran bassist Charlie Haden and his Liberation Music Orchestra. After a tearful dedication of the concert to Brecker, Coltrane and "world peace," Haden offered an overtly political set filled with passion, commitment and humor.

As the band closed with "We Shall Overcome," it was clear that at least some jazz musicians were very much in touch with the roots of the music, as well as the contemporary American scene.

What the face of that music will look like in years to come, and just how, if at all, it will reflect what's happening on the actual American "street," will, as Acox said, be decided by the young people who played at IAJE.

Note: IAJE will be held in Seattle in 2009.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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