Jazz TV in pandemic times

Back in the 90s I enjoyed ten years with the former 24-hour jazz television service known as BET Jazz. After a few years participating in and hosting several video-performance powered jazz shows, including the Jazz Discovery talent show, BET Jazz … Continue reading

Back in the 90s I enjoyed ten years with the former 24-hour jazz television service known as BET Jazz. After a few years participating in and hosting several video-performance powered jazz shows, including the Jazz Discovery talent show, BET Jazz head Paxton Baker asked me to develop a jazz education-based program which became JazzEdTV. The original footage for that show came from the then-annual Thelonious Monk Institute’s partnership with the Jazz Aspen Snowmass festival organization, to produce The JAS Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Colony program.

That program, which produced an impressive number of today’s important jazz contributors, selected gifted young jazz studies students from across the globe to come to Aspen and Snowmass, CO for a 2-week intensive of small and large ensemble rehearsals, master classes with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Ray Barretto, Joe Lovano, Nathan Davis, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton and others, and evening concerts by those masters and the students, sometimes in collaboration. My assignment was to conduct interviews with students and masters, and work with the video crew capturing the performances. Once back in DC I worked with BET Jazz’s editing staff to assemble my weekly, 60-minute JazzEd programs engaging the Jazz Colony footage.

To give you an example of the caliber of students invited to participate in this education camp, in ’99 the class included bassist Vicente Archer, pianist Martin Berjerano, drummers Otis Brown lll and Damion Reid, trombonist Vincent Chandler, trumpeters Avishai Cohen and Charlie Porter, saxophonists Patrick Cornelius and Walter Smith lll, trombonist Andre Hayward, vocalist Lisa Henry, guitarist Randy Napoleon among the student aspirants. Also in that class was a slender, unassuming alto saxophonist from Montreal named Joseph Omicil, who professionally would go by Jowee Omicil.

In 2016 I caught Jowee’s band several times at the jazz festival in Bari, Italy, a port city on the Adriatic Sea. Fast forward to our pandemic world and what for many of us in our first few weeks of shutdown/quarantine were times of peek television binge watching. Netflix was a welcome streaming oasis with it’s variety of series and documentaries. One evening we came upon a new Netflix series called The Eddy whose descriptions suggested that jazz music was a major component and whose director was the notable Damien Chazille. So we checked it out and saw immediately that a Paris jazz club was the setting, the musicians performing there clearly were not miming their playing, and the music was original and compelling. To top it off, I immediately became excited because occupying the frontline on saxophones was the same Jowee Omicil! After binge-watching The Eddy over several evenings, I reached out to Jowee with some questions.

The Eddy DESCRIPTION: The owner of a Paris jazz club gets tangled up with dangerous criminals as he fights to protect his business, his band and his teenage daughter.

Jowee, give us the story of The Eddy in a nutshell.
The Eddy is a story of a club owner – Eliat – and his collaborator, Taha Rahim. They had a dream when they were younger to open up a jazz club in Paris, and they did so. The Eddy is the group that is in residence at the club called The Eddy. The music is written by Glen Ballard and Randy Kerber, and The Eddy is Lada Obradovic on drums [editor’s note: she becomes part of The Eddy storyline – particularly from an interesting musical perspective – when she splits from the band, in a dispute with the clubowner, then returns], Damian Nueva on bass, Ludovic Louis on trumpet, Randy Kerber on piano, Joanna Kulig on vocals, Jowee Omicil on sax.

What would you tell our readers about the basic plot of The Eddy? I read a newspaper article that described The Eddy as a “jazz story.” My sense is that while jazz is a central force, this is not exactly a jazz story.
The plot: I would tell them they need to watch it to see the plot. To me it’s a good plot. I read a newspaper description of the show and described it as a “jazz show.” Exactly, it’s a jazz show because the idiom, the vehicle is jazz music – in different styles, but jazz. The story is not necessarily a jazz story, I don’t want to spoil the suspense… but it’s a story with jazz in it.

How did you come to be one of the band members cast in The Eddy?
I was referred by different people and also I did a casting and when I did a casting I got all the objectives, the qualifications they needed for the character, and that was a blessing.

I understand all of the band members on the show are professional musicians; talk about how you all came together as a band. Had you played with any of these musicians previously?
Yes, the musicians are all professionals. Yes, I had played with some of them previously, I played with Ludevic Louis on a TV show a couple of months before we joined the band, and I jammed with Damian Nueva, but I never played with Randy. But Randy and I did a jam prior to the band rehearsal, and I played a little bit with Lada, but we never played together before the show. Joanna was welcome!

Did you get the sense that the producers of The Eddy were striving for jazz authenticity in the show?
Yes, they strived for jazz authenticity, that’s why they brought in musicians who can play jazz. That’s something I honor because we got to play live, we were not overdubbing or miming, we were actually playing live; only the solos were improvised. But the arrangements we had to learn them by heart and we did so. I commend the directors for doing that, the authenticity of jazz.

What has playing and acting in The Eddy meant to your overall career pursuits?
For me it’s a great honor to have been able to act at this time in my life and career, because it’s an honor, and not only is it an honor, it’s a privilege and I learned so much. I learned to develop different emotions from the inside, not necessarily from the outside, because pretty much we think that acting comes from the outside – ‘the person is acting, the movement of their body…’ – but that’s not what it’s all about. Your emotion can come just from your facial expression, without you even moving. We must not forget I’m a big fan of movies with no sounds – with sounds, but no voice, like Charlie Chapman’s movies, only with music – the characters were only gesticular. That’s a part of acting that I really like, and I learned so much, more than I can describe in one answer.

Has The Eddy been renewed for a second season?
Not that I know of, but there are so many articles being written [asking] if Season Two is coming. So I will use the hashtag #SeasonTwoOfTheEddyComingSoon because the people are really asking. But you know with the Corona pandemic, we got hurt in terms of planning, recording, and so forth. But we’ve been blessed, we recorded the first season, and we are expecting a Season Two, but the people are asking [for a second season]… So what do we say? ‘Give the people what they want’ [laughs]. I’m blessed and grateful to answer your questions!


Regina Carter’s message to the Swing States

f After a bit of an absence from the recording studios, the perennial poll-winning violinist, MacArthur Foundation “genius” award recipient, and one of the finest people in contemporary music, the incandescent violinist Regina Carter has a brand new release. In … Continue reading

After a bit of an absence from the recording studios, the perennial poll-winning violinist, MacArthur Foundation “genius” award recipient, and one of the finest people in contemporary music, the incandescent violinist Regina Carter has a brand new release. In keeping with these roiling times, thematically Regina’s new release “Swing States” takes her social justice message to the election booth. With a unique cast of musicians that includes trumpeter John Daversa, pianist Jon Batiste, Alexis Cuadrado and Kabir Sehgal on bass, and the great Harvey Mason on drums, Regina stresses the extreme importance of what some have termed the most important election in our lifetimes, the 2020 Presidential election.

Fresh off a splendid duo performance with her spouse, drummer Alvester Garnett, as part of DC JazzFest’s recently concluded virtual series Live From Our Living Rooms, comes “Swing States.” Clearly some questions were in order for Regina Carter, a true virtuoso musician and someone whose career arc this writer has had the pleasure of observing since her early days in the Detroit-centric all-woman ensemble known as Straight Ahead.

It’s been about three years since your previous release, your tribute to Ella Fitzgerald “Ella, Accentuate the Positive.” What have you been doing in the interim in terms of planning your next release?
The most difficult part for me in making a record is deciding on the message or subject, as most of my projects are theme based, highlighting matters that are significant to me. I had been
researching music and materials for a couple of ideas but the “Swing States” project was a priority.

Talk about your motivation behind this new release, “Swing States” and the social justice implications of this project, and how you chose the repertoire to perform on this date.
A friend and I were discussing how dark and divided the country has become and the topic came up about voting and those who choose not to vote.

When my brothers and I were children, my parents instilled in us the importance of voting and made sure we comprehended the fact that many people were beaten, killed and hosed while marching for the right for Black people to vote. Before each election, I remember my parents researching and discussing the candidates running and the issues. Voting was not an option in our household.

That conversation sparked the idea for this project, “Swing States”.

How did you go about assembling your Freedom Band to make this new recording?
I had a little help from my friends (smile). I collaborated with a few of the musicians on other projects and also thought it would be interesting to team up with some other swing state artists.

“Swing States” seems like quite the timely project, given all that is going on in this country in the wake of the George Floyd police killing. But clearly this is a record you’ve been planning and working toward well before our current social justice reckoning. What are the implications for this project with all that is going on here in summer 2020?

Voter suppression, especially in African American communities, racism and Black people being disproportionately killed by police are not new injustices in this country and the racist rhetoric spewed by the current occupant of the White House has played a role in encouraging violence. It is extremely important for ALL of us to be vigilant, educate ourselves about issues and exercise our right to vote, especially now; not knowing or caring about our core freedoms is the fastest way to lose them.

Forced to stay home for months during the pandemic and being glued to the news, everyone witnessed a huge dose of the ugliness and inequities of this country in full display.

Ultimately what do you hope your listeners will take away from experiencing this “Swing States” project?
I hope people will enjoy the music but I also hope it will inspire people to vote.

We recorded arrangements of several state songs from places that will ultimately determine the 2020 election; (Georgia) “Georgia On My Mind”, (Florida) “Swanee River” and “Dancing in the Street”, (Michigan) that became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

In light of the pandemic it may be a minute before you’re able to tour this work. However based on your high class duo presentation with Alvester Garnett during the recent DC Jazz Festival/Live From Our Living Rooms series, you seem quite comfortable performing online in the virtual realm. Do you get a sense that we’ll be in this virtual performance mode for some time to come, and if so how do you plan on working in this mode going forward?
Thank you, we had a great time performing at the festival! I’m thankful the online platforms exist so artists, venues, etc. can earn some income during this period. It is an odd experience though, performing in front of a computer, not seeing anyone or feeling the audience’s energy. That exchange that happens between performer and audience is crucial, but for the time being, performing virtually is our reality and I think it’s going to be this way for some time, unfortunately. Because the virtual platform is a world stage, we can’t present the same project every appearance as if on tour, artists have to be creative in what we present each time and that’s an exciting challenge.


For the love of big band

With the release of her latest recording, For the Love of Big Band, vocalist-producer-educator Lenora Zenzalai Helm not only provides a sturdy signpost of her current artistic outlook, she has also successfully incorporated significant elements of her full-time jazz education … Continue reading

With the release of her latest recording, For the Love of Big Band, vocalist-producer-educator Lenora Zenzalai Helm not only provides a sturdy signpost of her current artistic outlook, she has also successfully incorporated significant elements of her full-time jazz education work in the mix. Clearly this recording represents a bit of a milestone in Lenora’s career, so with those elements in mind some questions were obviously in order.

What compelled you to go the big band route for your latest recording?
I was compelled to go the big band route on this recording for a lot of reasons. I am a planner and after reflection about a recording project surmised this was an obvious next step. I’ve been thinking about the field and my obligation as a jazz educator, and I am focusing more on my unexplored areas of training. A nine-year recording hiatus is a long time to be away from the scene. I was thinking quite intently on what was unexpressed and unexplored in my discography. I didn’t want to do much of what I had in the previous six recordings. I felt compelled to go the route of a big band recording because It was the only ensemble configuration for which I had not yet released a project. I have sung with big bands as a guest artist in the past and the experience whet my appetite for being an integral component of a big band. In my current role as a professor in the Jazz Studies program at NCCU, the big band, (NCCU Jazz Ensemble) is a central component of the program. I’m the director of the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and we often tour with the big band. My awareness and love for the big-band sound and repertoire grew from working in that setting since 2005.

I’ve had a lot of time to hear the repertoire, and my burning question was and is, where are the women vocalist big-band leaders? There are many women instrumentalists or women instrumentalists who may sing and who lead or led big bands, (Carla Bley, Toshiko Akioshi, Melba Liston, Bertha Hope, Carline Ray are a few names that come to mind). It is not generally thought of a woman vocalist as a big-band leader. This was troubling for me. The deeper I dug, the more curious I became.

We know of Ella Fitzgerald’s history as the leader of the Chick Webb Orchestra after he passed away. We know of Billy Eckstine’s Orchestra as vocalist/bandleader. The typical scenario is of a women vocalist working as a guest of a big band, but the documentation about women vocalist big-band leaders is scant. It doesn’t mean that none existed, just not well documented.

Working in jazz education has formed many questions of the field. I really am laying a foundation for the work I want my next decade to be about. When I graduated Berklee in ’82, my degree in hand, I looked for women in jazz to model or hold in mind as mentors. I had a conversation with Betty Carter around that time, backstage after her concert at Berklee Performance Center. I told her I wanted to sing Jazz. She looked me up and down and stared at me for what seemed an eternity (lol) and said, “it is hard . . really hard.” I shook my head yes, in understanding.

I held onto her words and vowed to do what it takes. She was the closest example I had at that time of a woman musician and bandleader that I had a chance to meet and ask questions. Though her advice was minimal, It was something to put in my hat. You can’t underestimate how important it is that up-and-coming musicians have examples of what is possible for them. I’ve just learned I earned promotion and tenure in my role at North Carolina Central University. I will start this fall 2020 as an Associate Professor, Jazz Studies. A seven year, all up-hill journey. Man! I expect to defend my dissertation also by this fall semester to complete my DMA. If I am successful, I will finally be “Dr. Hammonds.” It is a demarcation of sorts for me. I’ve been asking myself, “what else do you want to accomplish?” I like challenges.

The Tribe Jazz Orchestra is a new frontier. Twice now I’ve directed the band while another singer, Nina Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone, performed. It was great working with Lisa. She’s a consummate professional. Conducting the band for another singer was also very interesting. I was able to focus on just the conducting role and hear the band without having to concentrate on singing. I loved it!! I certainly welcome another opportunity for another singer to hire my orchestra to perform and I conduct/arrange/compose.

Being new to the sound as a sculptor of the energy and power a big band holds, I’ve a lot to learn and develop in my musical sensibility and expression. I’m ready to do more arranging and composing. That is my intent going forward. Not many people know that my first degree is in film scoring (Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music in film scoring/voice). I have unheard compositions and arrangements for ensembles of all size – including orchestral music. I have not really delved a lot into my background as an arranger and composer. It’s time. I’m “easing my toe in” so to speak with this recording, but it doesn’t include any of my own big-band arrangements, just lyrics. In fact, I sent the record to my musical “little brother” Orrin Evans, who called me after listening and said, “where is your music!” I had to laugh out loud. I love when my folk keep me honest. (shout out to Orrin!). This is very much a project I thought deeply about and journaled about though, and as the clarity came about for the repertoire, the cats to call, I felt more confident that this was my next phase. I actually started putting it together about 2 years ago when I was on a Fulbright in Denmark. Shortly after returning I did a “test” run at a jazz spot in Durham. I fell in love with the sound and energy of big band. So, yeah. Full speed ahead. Solidified the players, the live recording space and engineer (the most important selection for a live recording!), did a successful crowd-funding campaign and here we are. Grateful!

Am I correct in assuming that the personnel on this record is a mix of students and professionals? How did that come together as you planned this date?
Well, there is kind of a little story behind that choice, to have students and professionals together on this project. Dr. Billy Taylor was my out-the-gate example of a jazz musician who is also an educator. When I first began working at NCCU, I remember cornering Dr. Taylor at an IAJE event, sharing with him what I was working on with the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble (VJE). After I exhausted my list of songs and exercises hoping he would say, “well done,” instead he asked, “but are you teaching them the history? With each song, make sure they know the history!” As I thought about the opportunity to teach through the music in this record, I chose to include the students in every aspect of the process. I discussed my song choices, invited my classes to rehearsals, and for the singers from NCCU VJE, had them learn some of my charts to rehearse with the big band.I believe in helping young musicians thrive.

It is really about “walking the talk” and facilitating how they learn the real-world experience for which we propose our classroom work prepares them. For the Love of Big Band provided the perfect opportunity because my vision was to feature a multigenerational, diverse lineup with regard to gender, race and experience. That’s what a tribe is. Not everyone in the village is the same, but the sum makes the whole rich. Because I’m a jazz educator, I am ensconced in the village where student musicians are amidst the professionals. They come to our gigs; we go to theirs. I think it provides a sense of being part of a continuum. So, Tribe Jazz Orchestra, to be true to its name, would need to include the entire strata of folk. Having students working alongside professionals on this record was also part of the intention for the project.

I think all professional musicians should have at least one student on their recordings or tours. Can you imagine the difference in the outcome of the coming generations if they don’t all have to learn everything by trial and error? There is a very valuable experience to be gleaned from being a fly on the wall or sitting alongside a pro or elder on the bandstand and in the recording booth. Invaluable! The student’s level of performance changes, up-leveled far beyond what the classroom or private studio lessons can do for them. It is the basic, “each one, teach one” axiom. Betty Carter is an example of jazz education from the bandstand. I thought this record date could be multi-generational, and that could only be achieved by finding outstanding students who deserved a chance to sit alongside professionals. What better way to learn how to put a record together unless
someone walks you through the process, whether as a fly on the wall, or intentional conversations?

As you planned this record date, what was your sense of combining a jazz orchestra and a modern chamber ensemble?
Well the modern chamber ensemble is for me an arrangers’ ideal “sandbox” of textures and colors. It requires the musicians to listen differently and respond differently because you have fewer bandmates (less than 10). The big band arrangements on For the Love of Big Band have sections that are paired down to just some of the members. This unit-within-a-unit approach provides various landscapes of rhythm and color to play with, so the vocals can weave around, up and down, and the listener has a bit of a break to the wall of sound when the whole band is playing. Two of the selections are recorded as singles, Stella By Starlight and A Conversation with God with the Tribe Jazz Orchestra Septet, the latter also appearing on the record as a big band version.

I learned this idea from Andrew Hill, and also from the writing of Duke Ellington. I was on the JazzPar tour with Andrew Hill and had a chance to listen to him maneuver his compositions with an octet (I was the +1 on the Andrew Hill Jazz Par Octet +1 album). Just fascinated with what he achieved with that ensemble instrumentation. I’m sure I will do a lot more of this kind of writing — modern chamber ensemble with jazz orchestra. In a modern chamber ensemble, it is understood that strings may be included or other non-traditional instrumentation. For instance, I love the sound of bass clarinet, cello and flute. Our cellist on the two septet pieces is Tim Holley who plays with a subtle beauty that in many moments is like a whisper. Yes, very much intrigued by what is in front of me, but again so grateful for what we achieved on For the Love of Big Band.

Considering this large ensemble context, how did you go about selecting the songs?
I selected every song! I guess you could say I cherry-picked the selections from my “I’ve always wanted to sing ________” list. On For the Love of Big Band I wanted the blues to be front and center, no matter what style we were playing. I chose songs that would allow the big band to be as phat in sound, and fun in feel as possible. Love that swagger of the blues with all that power of the horns! I’ve managed to program a Duke Ellington composition on every record, on this one we have two, I Didn’t Know About You, and Everything But You. I included the former even though it appears on my I Love Myself When I’m Laughing recording to see what it would afford itself with a big band arrangement. I spent a weekend with several women musicians from North Carolina to honor Nina Simone in spring of 2018 when I was invited to perform for a fundraiser to save her childhood home in Tryon, NC.

It was a big event with several organizations coming together to make it happen. The occasion caused me to travel deep into her discography and I pulled out Blues for Mama and Mississippi Goddam (arranged by pianist Lydia Salett Dudley who also participated in that event). I’ve been intrigued by Ms. Simone my entire career. I recorded her version of I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl on my Chronicles of a Butterfly release and No Images on my Voice Paintings release, but the thought of Nina Simone songs with big band gave me goosebumps just thinking about it. They are two of my favorite pieces on For the Love of Big Band. I wanted to focus only on singing for this project, and managing the entire production of 40 people, so I hired some of my favorite big band arrangers.

Saxophonist/composer/arranger Brian Horton, our guest conductor, has five arrangements on For the Love of Big Band; Soul Eyes, Blues for Mama, I Didn’t Know About You and No More Blues for the big band, and with the septet, Stella by Starlight. I have always loved the writing of trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater. I think his writing is so intuitive and always swinging. His arrangements on For the Love of Big Band are Bebop by Dizzy Gillespie (with vocalist Deborah Brown’s lyrics), It Could Happen To You and Sandu. He did another arrangement for me of a Betty Carter tune that I’m saving for the next record. Lastly, anyone who knows me knows I am a huge John Coltrane fan and usually include a Coltrane piece on my recordings. I had a former student who is now a colleague, vocalist/arranger Maurice Myers, to arrange a vocalese for the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble, as well as join me to sing the duet on Coltrane’s Dear Lord, which with my lyric is titled A Conversation with God. We were going for the sound of jazz orchestra and jazz choir. The piece was a logistical challenge and I’m most grateful for the tenacity of our engineer Rob Hunter. He is just brilliant – on loan to me for this project from Branford Marsalis. Most grateful (shout out to Bran!). One of my mentors whom I had the privilege of recording with on my release Precipice, is pianist/composer Stanley Cowell. He re-imagined Gershwin’s But Not For Me on For the Love of Big Band, (which he recorded with me on my previous trio release Precipice. When I called and asked him about doing the big band arrangement he didn’t hesitate. Love me some Stanley! Just a beautiful cat and a brilliant musician.

How do you see this record as a departure from your earlier records?
One departure on this record from earlier records is not having any of my own compositions or arrangements. I regret that I had none of my original compositions on the record as in past recordings, though I do have my original lyrics to John Coltrane’s composition Dear Lord. I stayed focused on my singing and bandleader role. It was a new hat and a lot of responsibility. I wanted to enjoy the opportunity to immerse myself in the sound of such a large ensemble to express my love for swing and the blues. I focused on bringing a new experience for my listeners of my voice with a large ensemble. I tried to really dig into the interpretation of songs I love and how my vocal sound engaged with the energy of the horns. Another departure is the way you use and engage with your rhythm section. A rhythm section drives a big band (I’m learning it is the secret sauce) and those players have a particular intention in each arrangement. I was very focused on all of that. In previous records I thought more about each composition from the story, then the sound. With a big band, I thought about the sound AND the story as hand-in-glove. I
am excited to explore that relationship in future recordings. This will be the unit I work with over these next few years and subsequent records. I feel like a kid in a candy store.

What role did your jazz education career play in producing this record?
I am very much the kind of person who will bloom where I’m planted. I’m the kind of educator who enjoys the process and environment. I enjoy the privilege – and it is indeed a privilege to assist someone on a creative journey — of guiding new and
emerging jazz musicians to hear and see themselves in the continuum. The Tribe Jazz Orchestra project could only happen at this time in my career, because of my jazz education experiences. My musical awareness and interest were aroused differently from my previous years in NYC as a working and touring musician. There were no big-band leaders my age, really, especially vocalists. I didn’t think about having or leading a big band – only as a passing fancy to sing with one. Mentors also guided my decision for this project. Some directly, others indirectly. Jazz education and my jazz education career played a huge part in producing this
record, as I’m thinking about the response to this question. Of course, Dr. Ira Wiggins’ invitation to accept a position to build the vocal component at NCCU is pivotal. Wiggins (or Doc as we all affectionately call him), has carved out a sound that is legendary amongst HBCU big bands. (We were proud to be one of the ten inaugural big bands at the 2020 Jack Rudin Collegiate Big Band Championship at Jazz at Lincoln Center this year.)

I watched Andrew Hill, Dr. Billy Taylor, Stanley Cowell and Mr. Jimmy Heath carve a sound through their compositions for big bands, chamber ensembles, smaller groups. They all mesmerized and intrigued me because my question was always, “how can I get some of that?” LOL! Stellar musicianship, great writers, leadership in their roles in academia, musicians’ musicians. I aspire to be like them as a woman big band leader, musician, composer, arranger, academe.

In thinking about this answer Willard, here we are at the same conundrum. Again, where are the women? Jazz education has a terrible track record, lacking representation in women jazz educators. Plenty of women vocal jazz educators. Not many lead big bands, teach theory or arranging for instance, or have leadership roles in the Jazz Studies departments or programs. I know pianist Geri Allen was a director of Jazz Studies, pianist Dee Spencer, and Jeri Brown I think was the only woman vocalist that led a jazz program, now flutist Nicole Mitchell heads a Jazz Studies unit (University of Pittsburgh) as a woman director. And, I have a ton of respect for Roxanne Stevenson, (who directs the big band at Chicago State). We have to do better about clearing the way to equity of women represented in Jazz period.

The musicians on this record are all from your home area in the Raleigh-Durham area. Some folks sleep that part of the country as far as jazz and its jazz musicians, but what would you tell those folks about jazz talent in that area?
I believe that jazz has to have tradition, of swing and the blues. In North Carolina, there is a deep and rich tapestry of musicians who come out of the church tradition, and the blues tradition. A lot of what you hear from musicians in our area, especially younger musicians, is a result of the many universities that teach jazz. Dr. Ira Wiggins, Director of Jazz Studies at NCCU has influenced several generations of musicians in the Durham area for instance, and for a long time UNCC was the only place to earn a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies, and the first to have a Master of Music in Jazz Studies, not only at an HBCU, but in the state. You hear that legacy on my record, as many of the musicians (faculty and alums) are in my band. I came to North Carolina from New York kicking and screaming, but I’m happy I did. I thought I would lose whatever I assumed you get only in NYC to be a “real jazz musician.” Happily, what I did was assimilate into what felt very familiar to my Chicago, (South-Side) roots.

There is a true sound here in North Carolina. Think about the musicians from here: John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Roberta Flack, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach. The sound expressed itself on the record was organic. It wasn’t something we discussed beforehand and declared to any of the musicians to try and achieve. I attribute it to those deep church roots. The jazz musicians who choose to pay homage to the blues in their playing perform with a soulfulness that is palatable.

Dr. Wiggins and Brian Horton are both from Kinston, NC and there is a legacy of music from that region (think of James Brown’s saxophonist Maceo Parker). Reedman Brian Miller has a big, fat beautiful tenor sound, which you can also in his alto playing. Ameen Saleem (longtime bassist with Roy Hargrove) has that consistent phat sound, as does Lynn Grissett on trumpet – searing and soulful, he puts his stamp on his solos, and you instantly know to which tradition he pays homage. I could go through each chair in the band, all having ties to North Carolina, and concurrent threads through playing in church, maybe paying dues in NYC, and having experience in pop, soul and R&B. Lynn Grissett played in the horn section with Prince, trombonist Robert Trowers toured with Randy Weston and in the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Count Basie.

With so much history and experience amidst the personnel, I only had to make the right choices of repertoire, hire supportive staff, great arrangers, and a great conductor so I could focus on doing my thing. The record was crowd-funded and galvanized over 100 people who love Jazz, and recorded in front of a live audience in an historic church near downtown Durham. I felt like I had the wind at my back and a pocket full of all the gold in Africa. The entire process has been a blast! I hope listeners find it enjoyable.

Learn more about this enterprising artist at www.lenorahelm.com.

Performing in a post-pandemic world – Part Two

This dialogue is part two of a series of communications with touring performing artists discussing their sense of what their performing life will look like once the fog and uncertainty of our current pandemic life lifts enough to allow them … Continue reading

This dialogue is part two of a series of communications with touring performing artists discussing their sense of what their performing life will look like once the fog and uncertainty of our current pandemic life lifts enough to allow them to play to live audiences. We’ve posed three questions to each of these artists, questions about their post-pandemic performing life, their sense of what that will mean for the venues they typically perform in across the globe, and their expectations of those venues and themselves when it is safe to resume some modicum of their performing career.

Our participants in Part Two of this series of dialogues include the following bandleaders: Melissa Aldana (saxophone); Monty Alexander (piano); Jamie Baum (flute); Owen Broder (saxophone); Clairdee (voice); Akua Dixon (cello); Gerry Gibbs (drums); Monika Herzig (piano-keyboards); TK Blue (saxophones-flute); Ben Williams (bass); Charles Rahmat Woods (saxophones-flute); Helen Sung (piano).

1. What precautions will you take going forward – at least until we have a clear sense that Covid-19 has been successfully eradicated?
“To be honest, I feel comfortable performing before an audience right now! But that’s a knee-jerk reaction…taking my emotion out of it – for me, a major step towards feeling safer (and more responsible) to resume in-person performances again is having universal testing (and regular testing) be available…maybe even mandatory. A comprehensive system to keep track of everyone’s results would follow, although how we would do this will probably be hotly debated. Societal trust has to be re-built, so that I don’t see others as threats who could infect me. Although some enforcement will likely be needed initially, I hope that each of us will do our part to promote public health/safety, and over time come to trust that others have done their part as well. Some other thoughts: for jazz clubs to adopt the reduced capacity rules that restaurants have likely to adhere to (at least for now) seems a shame, and counter to what live music is all about – rubbing elbows, community, being close together, feeding off of each other’s expressions, exclamations, energy. Will musicians have to wear masks onstage? I wonder how it will impact the live performance experience for artists and audience alike. Performing to an empty club while being live streamed has been offered as another solution, but for me it is an artificial and sadly lacking alternative. But we have to make the best of the situation and I’m game to trying all the possibilities. But I still sincerely hope one day we can return to how live music was “in the past.” I think the international community is further along in the process of re-opening, and we should definitely learn from them.”

“I think there will be a huge change in the way we interact with audience[s], capacity of venues, the way we travel, the way we perceive the world. But if I am just talking about the music I personally feel this is gonna be such huge change for me since there has been so much time to think; the growth, to be on my own, etc…. and all of this has allowed me to get to know myself in a way that I would have never done it before and that is connected to the way I play and express myself.”

“If I try to imagine the more favorable scenario, it would be one where the audiences would be much less [smaller in terms of] attendees, of course seated several feet apart with everyone wearing health masks, including artists – horn players and singers. In my case as a piano player, the piano would need to have been wiped down with anti-bacterial sanitizer before the performance and I myself would be obliged to do so again to make sure there is no virus on the keys. Another thought – perhaps the safer kind of venues are open-air with people sitting several feet apart.”

“I tend to think outdoor performances will be a more realistic way to begin any live performances. From everything they are saying, the worst thing is to be in a small or medium sized venue for any length of time. If I were a bass, piano, guitar player, or drummer, I think I would fare better because they can play while wearing a mask, and I wish I could!. Obviously, when there is either a vaccine and/or therapeutics that work, that would help ease the concern as well.”

“Traveling is an issue. But once we’re in the performance space, I don’t imagine the primary issue will be proximity to bandmates on the stage. Hopefully by the time bands are performing together, the general public will have access to affordable and reliable tests, which would enable bands to safely rehearse and its members to interact with one another. But audiences will likely be limited in capacity, as it will likely still be a high risk for the foreseeable future to be in-doors with large groups of people. In the past, it was fairly common for artists to interact with at least a portion of the audience for awhile following a performance. I think this would have to be extremely controlled, if not avoided altogether.”

“It’s going to be a huge challenge for artists and presenters going forward. It is highly probable that artists and venues will continue to present more live-stream shows perhaps in conjunction with live performances. If the trend of live stream continues, I wonder how the criteria presenters currently use to select artists may change. I am concerned that many seasoned, less[er] known artists like myself will be left out with preferences going to legacy and “known” artists.

“Venues must make money to stay in business – especially since there will be fewer audience members due to social distancing restrictions. I LOVE performing in front of an audience. There’s nothing better than communing together with music. I realize that in order to adhere to sanitization rules and social distancing guidelines, presenters will have to rethink how many shows to present, how many people in the band, etc. I would be up for doing a 90-minute show in the afternoon, with a few hours in between to allow for cleaning, etc., and perform a second 90-minute show in the evening.”

“The public is getting used to being able to see concerts online at home. These are mostly live solo or duo performances. After the pandemic has calmed down, I can see concerts where bands are performing at a venue with either no one there or a limited amount of people in the audience. Tickets would be sold to view the bands’ performance online all over the world. Outdoor festivals/performances might be safer to do live. I would like for a vaccine to be in place before I start doing public performances.”

“I think I have only heard 1 or 2 musicians say they would take a chance and play in front of a crowd no matter how big the crowd was. I don’t see anytime soon for the majority of music performing clubs [or] concert venues opening up and having bands play in front of people sitting, drinking without the new norm called “Social Distancing.” If a club can only fit 100 and now through social distancing can safely only have 40 people or less how they will be able to pay bands or make a profit themselves[?].”

“I’m learning tech skills in abundance right now and I hope to implement some of these strategies for collaborations and for connecting with audiences. Of course I look forward to the days of traveling the world again but maybe the music business has tilted to far to relying on live performance income and it’ll be good for a bit less stressful musician’s life, for the environment, and for audiences to have more connection avenues that don’t require excessive travel at all times.”

“It’s very difficult for me to look far ahead as news coverage changes daily and we have to ascertain truth from fiction. One thing is for sure I will always remain positive and optimistic that live performance opportunities will resurrect. By the same token I do believe the landscape for the performing arts will have a new reality. For now I would not feel very comfortable performing in small indoor clubs/venues, unless [they were] large enough and some sort of social distance could be achieved. I think the safe bet going forward is to cultivate outdoor venues, arenas, theaters, etc. With supervision we could maintain social distance in the audience as well as onstage. In addition, with live streaming happening on a large scale, future concerts could be streamed for a small fee. This can create another avenue of revenue for the promoter.”

“It is very hard to imagine what my post-pandemic performances may look like. I just finished reading a New York Times article about promoters and venues basically looking to 2021 at the earliest for reopening large concert venues. I foresee it being a very slow and cautious process. The uncertainty of how to return and what steps need to be put in place are very important. I am very anxious to get back to a “normal” performance atmosphere and honestly I’d rather wait a year (or however long it takes) to get back to a performance environment that everyone feels comfortable with – fans and artists included. I’m not sure if I can feel good about creating something so sacred as music in front of fans that are forced to sit six feet apart. The question becomes: “what is the quality of the experience if we try to return too early?”

“Planet Earth’s economic and social culture has been brought to a screeching halt. That being said, I would not feel totally comfortable [performing] until a vetted vaccine (preventative) or curative treatment is available.”

2. What precautions will you take going forward – at least until we have a clear sense that Covid-19 has been successfully eradicated.
“Basically what the health authorities have been advocating: I wear a mask whenever moving around outside, using hand sanitizer when not at home (or not having access to sinks where I can wash my hands), avoid touching my face, washing hands thoroughly after coming home, and try to take better care of myself (getting more sleep, regular sleep, exercise, healthy eating habits etc).”

“Just try to be as cautious as possible.”

“Even if the virus has been “successfully” eradicated, folks who are like me (including age-wise: 76) they would likely maintain a higher level of vigilance and caution. Therefore a great deal of that earlier carefree attitude that has always been a part of the ‘jazz’ scene would go out the window.”

“I have not left my apartment in 9 weeks except for an occasional walk on our second floor plaza… we are still in lockdown mode in NYC [as of May 21]. It is hard to know when and how to move forward at this point. I will follow the protocol of wearing a mask when I go out, trying to keep 6 feet distance, etc., but in terms of performing live… I can’t say yet.”

“At the moment, I am still generally operating within the parameters of lockdown. As things begin to open up, my priority will be to get tested, which will inform how I move forward. I will be closely following the CDC’s recommendations for safe practices. I plan to continue to avoid physical contact, such as shaking hands, to maintain a safe distance from other individuals, and to carry sterilizing wipes with me for things like music stands, microphones, and other performance equipment that may have been handled by a number of other people.”

“Until we have a clear sense that the Covid-19 virus has been successfully eradicated, the best precautions I can take are to continue to shelter in place, wash my hands, wear as mask, and social distance. When it is “safe” to return to performing, I will continue to do those things. The hardest thing for me will be to resist hugging. Giving a hug is something I’ve always done and is another way that I connect and say “Thank you” to my bandmates and the people who attend my shows. A good thing that has come from the shelter in place mandate is the flexibility of time allowed to create – working on exciting projects to continue to promote my new album and show. Hopefully, these things will entice audiences to come to the live show whenever it is “safe” to perform live again.”

“Limited contact with the audience… mask and social distancing, no direct contact, no hand shaking. Have previously signed CDs, etc. for sale.”

“The next option is live streaming, and guess what – now thousands of people all over the world are going to be live streaming every day and that will be an overload, and the majority of people watching jazz will have to pay and most likely pay for the more well-known artists, and most stuff will get ignored making all those ignored bands earn less money. Now if the more famous person or band is getting more internet attention, how many times can they attract a crowd?”

“Minimal contact with people outside of my direct circles; safe travel precautions with masks, lots of hand sanitizers, playing only with people in my ‘bubble.'”

“The main precaution I take currently is to use a mask and gloves whenever leaving my home. I always respect social distance rules and rarely do I eat food prepared by others (restaurant take/out or delivery). On local TV they featured a famous restaurant that was re-opening and the camera went inside the kitchen where a cook’s mask was below his nose and his helper had no mask on at all!!”

“I believe when we do return to performing there will be much more attention to cleanliness and sanitary precautions. I imagine this will be a much bigger part of our everyday lives (public spaces, equipment, instruments, etc. being regularly sanitized) for our overall peace of mind. I’m definitely not opposed to that especially living in New York City! Again, it’s hard to say at what point we’ll all feel comfortable but in this case I believe it is in everyone’s best interest to err on the side of caution.”

“Until a curative component (vaccine/treatment) is in place, I can only follow “best practices” protocols (hand washing, face masks, social distancing, avoidance of mass transit, etc.) to protect myself, my family, my band, and my audiences. Currently those best practices preclude the sort of audience interactions and environs that have been my normal source of performance engagement. The Catch 22 dilemma is that I am part of the “gig economy”. My living depends on active live social interaction and should a live performance offer come in I will have to give it serious consideration. While internet performances are still developing as an option. I don’t think they have matured into a reliable revenue stream for “gig workers”.

3. What will be your expectations of those who present your performances, in terms of safeguards, audience considerations, and overall attention to making sure artists’ needs are met in that regard?
“I would like those who present my performances to practice all the precautions listed in my answer to Question No.2. Unless we stay quarantined forever, I don’t know if it’s possible to 100% protect everyone from infection when society re-opens. I think the best we can do is implement the recommended safety guidelines, understand what we are dealing with, exercise common sense, and probably practice some some self-denial here and there (like not attending this or that when we might be infected, taking the time to get tested regularly, etc) in the name of the common good.

“I think I am just expecting for the venue to be aware of what is happening, be cautious and respectful of the situation.”

“Presenters would need to be responsible for making sure that everything is/has been done for maximum safety. The artists obviously would need to lower their financial wishes/expectations.”

“All I can say is to follow the science. As I mentioned, right now I am dying to play with people and perform… However, I have to consider the health of the people around me, and as I see how things begin to unfold, I will try to make the best decisions. I’d like to suggest that all of the tech people and everyone wear a mask, and clean everything, etc. But all of that seems like a huge challenge, and of course I can’t wear a mask while playing. Flying or going on public transportation is a whole other thing.”

“I would hope that, as much as possible, presenters minimize the amount of time artists spend in an enclosed space, limit or entirely avoid direct contact with audience members, particularly indoors and in large groups, and keep the stage, equipment, and greenroom or holding area sterile. I think one of the intermediate steps before audiences are present will be live-streaming performances in venues without audiences. We should all be considering how to safely facilitate this so that venues can continue generating revenue and artists can get back to performing in some capacity as soon as it is safe and possible to do so.”

“My main concern is that even with proper restrictions in place, will people feel safe enough to attend live shows? How far will the front row be from the stage? As far as safeguards, I will continue to use my own microphone. I can’t imagine all the work that venues would have to do to keep backline clean. I imagine that tech crews would have to wear masks and gloves. The dressing rooms – if we are even allowed to use them – would have to be thoroughly cleaned before we arrive at the venue. I would not want any visitors to come to the dressing rooms.”

“Most venues have someone near the dressing rooms so that people can’t get backstage. This will have to be made available in most places. Most venues announce that flash photography is not allowed. You could also add to that statement and say that social distancing is required.”

“Providing separate space for artists behind stage, diligent disinfection of spaces and instruments – possible temperature checking at entrance, providing live streaming options that can generate additional income to make up for smaller audiences and ticket sales.”

“Making sure social distance is adhered to in the audience and on stage. If it’s indoors [performance], please make sure there is ample ventilation/climate control. If food is provided, please make sure it’s from a reputable restaurant and all precations were made in the food preparation (I realize this will be difficult). Lastly, when at all possible I would drive to the venues and bypass public transportation.”

“Moving forward I would definitely be more vigilant about the sanitary precautions taken by the venues to ensure they are doing everything they can to prevent the spread of virus and germs. Again, I would feel better in waiting until we get to a point where social distancing is not mandatory because it would dramatically impact the quality of performance. While the health of the audience is of the utmost importance, we have to ask ourselves as artists, is it worth it if all the life has been sucked out of the environment? The experience of a live performance is such a delicate and sacred thing and the last thing I would want is for fans to not be able to fully engage in the moment. Like everyone else, I’m waiting both patiently and anxiously, hoping and praying we an get back to making music in front of crowds of people.”

“Presenters have additional challenges of safeguarding their contracted performers and their audiences. In addition to standard “best practices” (venue sanitization, safe distancing, safe amenities) the venue may have to consider the adequate safety of its air ventilation and conditioning systems. If “temperature checks” are instituted (as they have been in some instances overseas) to be a screening tool for production workers, the prospects of a band member, stage personnel or ticket holders being suddenly rejected has implications on the quality of a specific engagement.”

Performing in a post-pandemic world – Pt. 1

(Photo: Edwin Hopper) Like many of you I have witnessed valiant efforts from artists to maintain their public performing profile via the various online platforms. On the other side of the coin I’ve seen communications from artists who are clearly … Continue reading

(Photo: Edwin Hopper)

Like many of you I have witnessed valiant efforts from artists to maintain their public performing profile via the various online platforms. On the other side of the coin I’ve seen communications from artists who are clearly in distress, including specific pleas for assistance. Here in DC vocalist Aaron Myers has been spearheading a series of weekly Zoom “check-ins” from the music community, with frequent posts of available assistance to artists as well as speculations of when the live arts performance world will re-open. Likely similar arts community linkage efforts are ongoing in other communities.

Back in mid-March we postponed the annual DCJazzFest for June, speculating that we might conceivably be able to present a smaller scale version this Fall – with the various public health/safety protocols top of mind. Since then the DC Mayor’s office has released an extensive (79-pages) document on life in the city represented by Stages of proposed re-opening. We’ve been scheduled to reach Stage One on Friday, May 29th, which DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has characterized as “stay at home light”. Significantly reaching Stage 3 and Stage 4 will require some time, and those are the stages that include allowable venue operations, with social distancing and limited audiences for sure.

Much of pretty much every city’s plans to re-open have been dominated by the purview of various municipal commissions, business communities, and planning committees. As well-meaning and vital as these ongoing deliberations are transpiring, and though many of them laudably include representatives of the arts community, I’ve been wondering what specifically jazz musicians are thinking as we hopefully face a brave new, post-pandemic world of the unknown. With such questions in mind I’ve begun polling various jazz artists (thanks for planting the seed Suzan Jenkins) by email on their thoughts about performing in this post-pandemic world we’re slowly coming to grips with.

The premise for those communications is outlined in my introductory paragraph in those communications: “As a presenter (DC Jazz Festival) I’m trying to get out in front of the curve for whenever we find ourselves living in a post-pandemic world and what that will mean for those of us in performing arts presenting. In preparation for that brave new world, I’m calling on a select group of artists, those I suspect have given this matter some deep thought, and would like to get your responses to three questions.”

For Part One of this post-pandemic performing arts world dialogue, our participants are the following bandleaders: Jane Bunnett (saxophone & flute); Terri Lyne Carrington (drums); Dave Douglas (trumpet); Ethan Iverson (piano); Jason Moran (piano); Patricia Zarate Perez (saxophone; and director of the Panama Jazz Festival); Walter Smith 111 (saxophone); and Cassandra Wilson (voice). Here are their responses (in random order; attribution not being an overarching issue here) to my four performing in a post-pandemic world questions.

1. What do you imagine your post-pandemic performing life will look like, and what will it take for you to feel comfortable performing before an audience again?
“I may be naive, but I feel it will be quite similar to pre-pandemic time, [with] a little more spacing between audience members and more basic sanitizing (the clubs and halls, not the music). Of course this is based on the optimistic view that the virus will be under control. Certain European countries are getting back to normal and are experimenting with different models for performance. There’s a certain school of thought that says “all performing arts are dead until we get a vaccine,” we sure hope that isn’t the case because the next virus could be right around the corner. Our European agent feels good about the situation in Europe in the Fall but says “it all depends on what the Americans do.”

“I imagine that everyone will have to feel more comfortable gathering in closely seated environments to go to concerts. And also musicians will have to feel comfortable flying and traveling in close environments as well. I’m hoping we don’t have to wait until the vaccine for this to happen and that there are ways to test people and social distance so that people are more comfortable. Some venues are spreading out their seating to help with this. I think there will be quite a while of practicing social distancing, and that it will become part of our daily fabric. I certainly am hoping that we also figure out new and creative ways to get our music to audiences. Streaming may be one way to have live concerts for no audiences, or limited audiences, but I think we are all trying to figure it out.”

“It’s too early to think about what the post-pandemic performing life will look like. We just have no idea as we have no real info on testing and tracing, no real news about therapeutics, and no idea when there will be a vaccine and whether people in this country will agree to take [a vaccine]. There is no clear leadership at the top of our federal government, and this will irreparably affect the arts. So for now, this is too much of an unknown. The leadership we have is not going to change. We must affect the change in our elections in November if we are to begin digging out of the health and economic crisis. I don’t say that as politics. I say that for the health of our families. Without that there will be no performing arts in person.”

“I don’t have anything smart to say about this. I think a vaccine, or at least much-improved treatment, is the only thing that will make a jazz club viable again. Fortunately, the best and brightest are working on these tasks.”

“I was anticipating touring less as my boys enter their teenage years, and the pandemic solved the “how” would I pull back. So I’m already planning that for the next 6 years, because of my children, I’ll be at home more. To feel comfortable performing before an audience won’t be the problem, it will be “how will I get to the audience”: 14-hour plane ride? 4 hour train ride? all of the traveling has always been the issue for musicians on the road. The music saves us physically and mentally. I want my audience to feel safe, that would be what it would take for me [to get back to performing].”

“Performing after the pandemic will be more appreciated than before the pandemic, for sure. Being a mom of 3, homeschooling all of them, teaching at Berklee part-time, and working full-time online to produce the Panama Jazz Festival, every time I performed could have been the last time I performed, so I have developed an unusual relationship with performing. I am not afraid of not performing. The world I imagine after Covid is any world I wish to be in. I am not afraid of change, and can make a home out of anything I have. If I have a home, health, and love, I can make the world I want. Audiences do not make or not make me feel comfortable. Comfort comes from within. My social work with music does not depend on performing or having a building, or even money. Our festival is non-material, our festival is in the minds and hearts of people, and that can not be killed by Covid. Even if one person who loves our festival is alive, our festival will remain.”

“I’m concerned about the economic aspect of this. People will need to get back to work and may accept reduced fees and lesser accommodations than what was happening before this. I’m worried about flying to the concerts, especially internationally where I do most of my work. Somehow the only thing that I’m not worried about is getting up in front of people, regardless of the size of the venue (as long as things are clean and masks are in place)… It’s all the stuff surrounding getting to the concert and getting home safely that concerns me. A real vaccine would be the ideal solution, but in lieu of that, more time until this picks up. In general I imagine that it will be a long time before I’m out traveling 40 weeks out of the year… if ever!”

“I believe the post-pandemic world will be liberating beyond our wildest expectations!”

2. What precautions will you take going forward – at least until we have a clear sense that Covid-19 has been successfully eradicated?
“I will wear a mask, not shake hands, wear gloves when necessary, basically do everything that we are being told by experts to do in order to minimize the chances of contracting [Covid]. I will continue to teach online and we are not sure if the fall semester will be completely online or a hybrid of online and some classes in person. This is all uncharted and unknown territory, and some of our decision-making changes as we are continually updated.”

“I will stay at home and stop the spread. I will read the CDC guidelines, listen to Dr. Fauci, and read the Washington Post and The New York Times. I will observe the safety guidelines and do so with my family. I will contribute to organizations working for health care, voting rights, and equal conditions for all. I see these as essential for ensuring fair elections and easing the burden on communities of front-line workers who are hardest hit. As an artist I will continue composing and expanding my remote collaborative activities as much as possible. As a supporter of the arts, I will commission other artists, especially trumpeters, and continue to platform emerging artists at Greenleaf Music. Festival of New Trumpet Music is already in preparation of our first digital edition in September 2020. For those of us who are relatively safe, helping others is how we make this situation sustainable.”

“Wiping down the piano, bringing my own microphone, eating at home as much as possible, telling everyone “they can wait.”

“We will take precautions to stay healthy – masks, vaccines, and everything and anything that can protect people’s lives and health, innovation will be a must.!”

“Cleansing all backline (mics, piano, drums, bass, etc.) and any greenroom areas in a more diligent manner. Understanding that different people in the group will have different comfort levels with all aspects of returning to performing. Masks for audience members. Shorter set lengths to reduce the time of exposure to crowds – 45-60 minutes max.”

“Covid-19 may never be eradicated. I take the same precautions I’ve always taken: wash my hands, fortify my immune system, and stay in constant communication with my Creator.”

3. What will be your expectations of those who present your performances, in terms of safeguards, audience considerations, and overall attention to making sure artists’ needs are met in that regard?

“I have faith in the presenters and audiences once we get the OK to hit the road.”

“I would hope that all venues really sterilize and clean their venues as often as possible. I think that the correct distancing between audience parties is very important as well. And I think streaming options for payment should be made available from venues. We have to figure out how to keep going during this unprecedented time. We have to find other ways of developing streams of income.”

“Presenters would have to take the lead in providing an acceptable environment for performances. The level of risk would need to be extremely low. I would not ask any of my musicians to risk their safety for a gig. And I would not expect my heroes to go out and perform unless they felt 100% confident in their surroundings.”

“Be aware that it is a two-way street. Artists have always had needs. Now, the artists will have a few more new needs, as will the audience. I’d want a promoter to know that no concert is life or death, just good or bad, or worth it or not worth it.”

“I expect festivals to take the health of artists and audiences very seriously and to always place life and health over earnings. That is what I will do with my festival.”

“My expectations of promoters and presenters is that they be fair, honest, considerate, and just as concerned for the artists and audiences as they are for their bottom line.”

For our benediction, one respondent closed with these lovely sentiments: Sent with much love and, despite some of the challenging viewpoints, the utmost optimism and enthusiasm for all of us as humans.” AMEN


Programming music radio in pandemic times

Several weeks ago, back when this country first took our current Covid-19 global pandemic seriously, with governors issuing stay-at-home orders, one of my jazz radio colleagues wrote a Facebook post asking how we were individually and as stations going about … Continue reading

Several weeks ago, back when this country first took our current Covid-19 global pandemic seriously, with governors issuing stay-at-home orders, one of my jazz radio colleagues wrote a Facebook post asking how we were individually and as stations going about conducting our broadcasts. My comment confirmed that I was one of a number of music programmers at my station who continue to report to the studio to conduct our programs, further detailing why.

In my case, I’m a weekly, late night programmer at WPFW 89.3FM (streaming live: www.wpfwfm.org) serving the Washington, DC metro region, aka the DMV. For those not familiar, WPFW is the Nation’s Capital region’s member of the Pacifica network, the last bastion of left side radio in the broadcasting world, and all programmers are volunteers. WPFW, whose programming principle is “Jazz & Justice Radio”, has always been the most music show-friendly station in the Pacifica realm, broadcasting a potent mix of public affairs, community affairs, and political opinion talk shows, and music shows encompassing a mix of jazz, blues, old school R&B, Latin music, new school (hip hop, house, club music), Caribbean and African music. It should also be noted that WPFW has no playlist(s), and no studio library; we programmers bring our own choices of music. At the hour of my jazz/jazz-informed music program, Ancient/Future Radio – Wednesdays 10pm-midnight – there are no station personnel onsite, so no “strangers” or outsiders scurrying in and out of the studio conducting station business, and the station has established a strict sanitizing protocol for our programmers. At that hour, my only human contact is the programmer who hands off to me, and the following programmer I hand off to.

So I’ve continued to conduct my program from the WPFW studio. There was definitely some initial trepidation, particularly from my family, but for me my program has become a bit of a weekly salvation of sorts. It’s pretty much the only time all week I venture away from my neighborhood, driving to downtown DC peacefully at that hour from my Maryland home amidst vastly reduced traffic. I’ve also noticed that my weekly show planning is a bit more meticulous and perhaps occupies a tad more of my thought process than prior to these pandemic times. I’ve also noted how many of my fellow WPFW programmers continue to dutifully report to the studio to conduct their programs – also tacitly recognizing that our community radio station, though somewhat powerful in our broadcast reach, does not possess the financial largesse to equip every programmer (and the great majority of us are weekly programmers) with remote programming resources. With all that in mind, I reached out to my fellow WPFW music programmers to check their collective temperatures on programming from the WPFW studios in these pandemic times. Each responded to the same two questions. Here’s what they had to say…

Craig Williams
Program/day/time/theme: Morning Brew – Classic Jazz Edition/Thursdays/5:00-8:00 a.m. I play predominately straight-ahead jazz from bebop to recent releases with occasional forays further afield to other sub-genres within the jazz idiom, as appropriate for any given show. Likewise, I might delve into blues, R &B, gospel and other related genres to augment the straight-ahead jazz. Many shows have a specific concept , two or three. Others, I simply play music I feel my listeners will appreciate.

Why do you continue to report to WPFW to conduct your program?
In no particular order, a) I don’t really feel I have the production capabilities to produce a high quality show from home, b) going to the studio provides some semblance for normalcy, otherwise sorely lacking these days, c) I can still take calls from listeners, and d) I feel given the disinfecting protocols in place, it is safe to do so. I trust my fellow programmers to follow those protocols.

What’s your sense of what you’re providing to our community in so doing?
Even in the best of times, people have so many music and entertainment options. One can play LPs, CDs, streams, internet radio, podcasts, downloads, movies, etc., etc. What local, live, broadcast radio provides, which the other options do not, is a sense of community, and WPFW, as a community owned and operated radio station, provides such community better than any other station in our listening area. It is a true honor, privilege and pleasure to be part of that community, even if it now requires gloves, masks, quantities of disinfectant spray, and knowing how far away is six feet. As always, I try to program a well curated show that brings a sense of education and connoisseurship to the music that both my listeners and I truly love. Nowadays, I also try to play music the audience will find comforting, soothing, spiritual, and contemplative; whatever they may need to help get through these isolating times and feel that sense of oneness with the community. Am I succeeding? Is it working? Judging by an increase in the average number of online listeners and the phone calls I receive while on-air, I certainly hope so.

Jim Byers
Latin Flavor Classic Edition, Sunday’s 6:00pm-8:00pm, Palladium Ballroom-era Mambo, Cha Cha Cha & Latin-jazz

The Station staff has gone to great lengths to plan for cleaning the Studio, and as a Sunday night host there is nobody around except the host just before/after you. So, that helps. More personally…, there’s nothing like the sense of connection with the audience via a live studio broadcast. I made the decision 24 years ago that if it was worth doing, I would do the radio program as if I were being paid. Continuing through the COVID-19 crisis is an unexpected extension of that.

Furthermore, as a programmer I find that the ‘pressure’ of giving a ‘live-performance’ enhances my creativity with what I present to the audience. There are moments of inspiration that occur ‘in the moment’ which – while possibly approximated, cannot be fully realized in a pre-recorded show. If while playing a descarga by the Alegre All-Stars, I hear saxophonist Jose “Chombo” Silva sample a few measures of “You Do Something to Me,” and realize I’ve got the tune in my bag on Georgie Auld’s LP “Sax Gone Latin”… BOOM! An inspired transition! I may or may not have made that connection in a pre-recorded set

As a programmer you always hope that you’re having an impact. While tragic, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the immense value of traditional radio. People are leaning on WPFW to help them cope with the reality of quarantine. On a deeper level, I think that during a pandemic (and also a political era) when everything we once thought of as normal and ‘certain’ has been upended, it’s comforting to have ‘that one thing’ that still sounds and feels ‘the same’. For many, that one thing is WPFW.

Coincidentally, earlier this week I was made aware of commentary about my program by students at Boston College. For the last couple of years, their professor Jason McCool (a former DC resident, and still an avid listener) has incorporated listening to an evening or two or the Latin Flavor Classic Edition part of his “History of American Music’ class. For many, this is their first experience with ‘old school’ curated radio. Weaned in the efficient, impersonal randomness of Spotify, they are universally stunned by the ‘curated listening experience’ of a traditional radio show. They are amazed how the LFCE feels ‘personal’… like a conversation. Most have never listened to Latin music, certainly not mambos from 60 years ago, but they find themselves fascinated by the stories behind the tunes and drawn into the music. Some of the Latino students are transported back to childhood dinners at grandpa’s house with Machito or Tito Puente blaring from the console stereo. Proudly, several of the students have become regular listeners long after their assignment has ended.

I think this ‘outside view’ from new, young listeners provides an insightful window on the impact of all WPFW hosts, especially during this time. The genre or era of music is actually quite secondary to the thirst for an authentic experience, which is what WPFW provides. My hope is that this time at home re-introduces more and more listeners to the magic of Live Radio.

Dr. Nick
Southern Soul Rumpin’, Saturdays 12 noon-2pm, Southern soul/R&B
Management has insured us with the supplies that are in studio that safety precautions are being met. The programmer before me does a thorough job wiping down equipment (I’m there to watch) and I in turn do the same for the show following mine. My drive in and from the station is done with a mask on.

Having been designated an essential employee is not new to me. I spent 38 years as an Air Traffic Controller. My entire career, I’ve been an essential employee. Many years ago, as the Supervisor on duty, I stayed behind after evacuating the tower due to a fire in an equipment room a few floors below. In the event of some major breaking news, who’s going to tell the people? If they’re listening to the radio, they hear it from us first.

The fact that management has given us the choice of doing our shows live or staying at home shows their support for the workforce. We have the choice. I choose to go in.

Chris Deproperty
Don’t Forget the Blues, Thursday, 12noon-1:00pm
I don’t go into the station during the day. I prepare it at home.

Even though I don’t go into the station during the day, people want to hear the Blues, fresh every week, as a diversion from what’s going on, although I do have some Containment songs.

Candy Shannon
Friday Morning Brew – 5:00am-8:00am. Theme: Jazz Matters.

I continue to travel to the station because I never thought about not coming in. As long as I’m well. I’ve been in live broadcasting for so many years, I’ve internalized the stricture that “the show must go on.“ For me, working in the studio is part of the show. I don’t have a studio space at home. Occasionally, l’ve recorded voiceovers in a closet to a portable recorder; not conducive for a 3-hour music program. In this case, ‘PFW makes it doable. Management requires of programmers a comprehensive safety routine including masks and plenty of disinfectant. One person in the studio at a time. That’s usual for me. I relieve one person and one person relieves me. And, an important part of my weekly routine remains intact in this time of Covid 19. Truth – I come in to the station because I can. I enjoy it, look forward to it and would miss it if I couldn’t.

I hope the consistency and reliability of WPFW’s hosts and programmers is important to our listeners. Many of our hosts broadcast from home for excellent reasons. Social distancing is an issue for public affairs program hosts and guests. Technology today makes it possible for the home-based radio show to sound professional. But, someone still must be in the studio to make this happen. I’ve taken a few calls from listeners who express appreciation for my program and the station as a whole. We are what radio does best – a consistent, dependable, regular part of daily lives, with its unique programming and we sound good!

Mojugba Radio, Thursdays 2:00am-5:00am
The theme of the program is actually in the name MOJÙGBÁ Radio. MOJÙGBÁ is a Yoruba word meaning, “I Give Homage.” It’s also a sacred Yoruba prayer and ritual giving homage to the ancestral spirits and to the Òrísá (African Deities manifesting in nature). MOJÙGBÁ Radio also in itself is a ritual, and was spawned from a dance party I started February 15, 2013, out of a vegan cafe in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, NY. The music (from very earthy and organic, to deep atmospheric and cosmic Afro Futuristic) has specific elements of the African Indigenous Diaspora (soul, uplifting, telling a story/taking a journey, and danceability). The lines dividing the genres of soul, jazz, funk, fusion, house music, Detroit techno, rare grooves, and beyond are blurred completely out with the intention of expansion.

I continue to report to the WPFW studio (for as long as I am able) out of a sense of keeping a live element factor to the program. Being able to interact with callers, even interacting with those on my social media who are listening in real time.

I see myself providing musical healing, uplifting consciousness, much like in the spirit of one of my all time favorite songs by one of my all time favorite artists Expansions by Lonnie Listen Smith & The Cosmic Echoes. I believe that I am here to expand minds, unplug from the matrix, and my intention is to reflect that through the music, not only as a Disc Jockey but also as a Radio Programer. Most important, bringing music, good music new, old, forgotten, seen and unseen, to the music lovers and enthusiasts not only locally but worldwide.

Miles Willis
Milestones, Tuesday mornings 2:00am to 5:00am; A presentation of jazz which features all styles and eras, with the music of Miles Davis as its motif.
My age and ethnicity make me at least statistically more vulnerable to infection, illness and death from COVID-19. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, I continue to broadcast live in studio for solace and relief, in the midst of the near cataclysmic disruption of normality and routine in all other areas of my life. Broadcasting is my ONLY activity that remains largely unchanged since the onset of the coronavirus.

I feel an even greater sense of responsibility and commitment toward our community of listeners. The largely uninterrupted stability and consistency of WPFW’s programming, is most likely one of the few connections to their pre-coronavirus lives that they can still cling to. This ‘new normal’ has highlighted and strengthened the interdependence between us and the community.

Tom Cole
G-Strings, Sunday 9:00am-12noon, stringed instrument music of one sort or another.
I feel a responsibility to the audience and the musicians. People seem to enjoy the show and I like sharing music with them.

Maybe [listeners are getting] a little enjoyment or enlightenment. I hope I’m introducing them to music they’ve maybe not heard before. I also feel it’s important to support area musicians – there’ve been and continue to be a lot of great guitar players from around here. That’s why I think it’s important to announce concerts or club gigs – to give the players some attention and let listeners know what’s available. I hope [live music performances] return some day.

Rusty Hassan
Late Night Jazz, Thursdays from 10:00pm-midnight. Classic and Contemporary jazz
I continue to program my show in the WPFW studio during the Covid-19 crisis because the protocols established make it a safe environment and I gain solace in sharing the music I love with the audience. I come to the studio because I doubt if I could do it from home. My programming style is very improvisational. Although I select the artists I will feature in advance, I frequently change my mind on which recording I’ll play, even if I had a particular composition in mind for days. I can’t explain it. I’ve been programming this way for over 50 years. I couldn’t do this at home with a laptop.

I think it is very important for WPFW to keep the music on the air during this time of crisis. The passing of Wallace Roney really hit me hard because I knew him since he was a teenager. Having the opportunity to share his music on the air gave me solace. Then It was Ellis Marsalis, Bucky Pizzarelli, Lee Konitz, Henry Grimes… artists that our audience would want to hear. Although it wasn’t from Coronavirus, the passing of Bill Withers certainly had to to be memorialized and his Soul Shadows with the Crusaders became a theme. Beyond remembering those who have left us it is just as important to let the audience know about those artists who are live streaming and to feature their recordings. I am extremely grateful that I have the opportunity to share the music of those Soul Shadows on my mind and the artists who are performing today who need our support to let the audience know they are still on the planet.

Bill Wax
Roots and Fruits, 2:00pm-4:00pm Saturdays, Classic blues
I have been doing radio for 40 years and throughout that time it was the media that was always there no matter what the circumstances were. This is no different. I believe folks appreciate a live host in times like these. I also get a great deal of satisfaction feeling like I was making a difference for in people’s lives no matter how small a difference it maybe. Plus I do love what I do on the show.

Job one: audience development

Open Sky Jazz Commentary #1 By Willard Jenkins A constant refrain from many of us who love jazz music and simply cannot understand why more of our peers (and sometimes even folks living under our same roof!) don’t seem to … Continue reading

Open Sky Jazz Commentary #1
By Willard Jenkins

A constant refrain from many of us who love jazz music and simply cannot understand why more of our peers (and sometimes even folks living under our same roof!) don’t seem to appreciate the music – or at least not with the same level of passion as do we the deeply immersed – is to search for systemic issues as the culprit.

We talk about what some see as the lack of sufficient venues dedicated to jazz (and Lord knows we currently face the challenge of the aftermath of our current pandemic and what that will mean to our cherished venues!). Others of us talk as though “jazz musicians just ain’t what they used to be”, a living-in-the-past mentality that more than a few of us cling to with great tenacity – ignoring the gifts today’s generation of jazz musicians have to offer. Still others of us see the criminal lack of music education in our public school systems as the major culprit for the neglect of jazz by larger audiences.

The late jazz master Max Roach, (in part inspired by the example of his godson, hip hop pioneering media figure and scenester Fab 5 Freddy (Braithwaite), and other learned folks postulated that the birth and subsequent rise of hip-hop coincided with the draconian Reagan-era cuts to pubic school arts education. The prevailing wisdom being that kids are innately blessed with the will to make music, and when those cuts meant that succeeding generations of school kids would not have such easy access to instruments in the schools as did, let’s say the Boomer generation, they found other means of musical expressions in a kind of found vehicles arena – exploring turntable technology and spoken word expressions.

As I see it, the most critical issue facing jazz music continues to be audience development, the need to grow the jazz audience to a level that includes those additional potential jazz audience members who simply have not been sufficiently exposed to the music enough to become regular and appreciators and even avid consumers of the music.

Having taught jazz survey and jazz history courses on the university level (including Cleveland State University, and Kent State University, my alma mater) I never fail to be amazed at the number of people who simply have not been exposed to this music, and certainly not in ways that would encourage them to become jazz audience members.

Let me give you an example. For the most recent jazz courses I’ve taught, each final exam is an essay test that has included a final question for which each student respondent is guaranteed the maximum number of points – in other words it’s a bit of a throwaway question – but certainly one with an ulterior motive. That question simply asks the students what has this course meant to you? It never ceased to amaze me how many – and these are college students I’m talking about – who respond with words to the effect that, I never knew this music existed! Or, this course has opened up a new world of music for me! That’s the power of jazz to open up the ears of those new folks who are simply not exposed to the music.

Then there are those who, without even investigating the music, think jazz is too complicated, or is somehow old folks music. Yes, I admit that listening to jazz does most often requires degrees of deeper listening immersion than most popular music commands. But why place that familiar stricture that I just don’t understand that music jazz music? On the other hand, there are certainly plenty of folks who have the aptitude for deeper levels of listening.

Some folks think you have to know something to enjoy jazz. I remember a great line from the late poet Sekou Sundiata, who once said when he was young that he didn’t truly appreciate John Coltrane because he mistakenly thought you ‘had to belong to something.’ Yes, there is that kind of insider perspective among some jazz fans. And let’s admit it, there’s also a kind of I know something that you don’t… attitude among some jazz enthusiasts. But please don’t let that stop you from checking out jazz.

In an interview I did with him for a forthcoming book, the jazz critic Gene Seymour said, “Jazz is neither a trip to the dentist, or a complex code whose secrets are out of reach to all but either select or mutant beings.”

We have extraordinary jazz education – perhaps the strongest sector of the jazz community is its global education system – we have more than enough proficient to excellent level jazz artists vying to play this music, from around the world – and we do indeed have a decent amount of jazz venues striving to present this music we call jazz. What we need more than anything is to grow the audience for jazz, if only to engage enough people to support the careers of these young musicians emerging on the scene – at least once we get beyond the necessities of our current social distancing era.

We must further develop the audience for jazz through simple exposure; we must grow the audience for jazz so that there is an expansion, an expansion of the number of venues that will employ the legion of jazz musicians playing this music well who are steadily arriving from education programs, thus encouraging musicians to practice and sustain this art form, to grow the number of stages for musicians to perform – a factor further challenged by whatever brave new world we face once we have gotten beyond the current pandemic. That’s the biggest issue facing the growth of jazz music… audience development!

Remembering Geri Allen

Geri Allen interview 5/21/99 In the late ’90s I was engaged by Betty Carter and 651Arts to serve as a consultant to the program Jazz Ahead, which Betty was laser-like focused on developing as a learning environment for young musicians, … Continue reading

Geri Allen interview 5/21/99
In the late ’90s I was engaged by Betty Carter and 651Arts to serve as a consultant to the program Jazz Ahead, which Betty was laser-like focused on developing as a learning environment for young musicians, and which at the time was hosted by 651Arts at the classic former Majestic Theatre (now the Harvey Theatre in honor of Brooklyn Academy of Music founder Harvey Lichtenstein) at 651 Fulton Street in Brooklyn and in its current 21st century iteration is hosted by the Kennedy Center. In ’99, among the teaching professionals for Jazz Ahead were Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, and Geri Allen. This interview with Ms. Allen was conducted with that Jazz Ahead teaching/mentoring/learning environment in mind, relative to how Geri developed her craft.

Willard Jenkins: Where did you begin your study of this music?
Geri Allen: From listening; my dad’s record collection was a source of information for me as a kid, he was a big fan. So I would say hearing that music around me all the time was the organic beginnings of it. I had started playing the piano at around 7, I think from having the music in me that way, although I was playing classical piano and taking lessons in that, I still would always go off on my own and try to figure out things, exercise my ear muscles, without even really knowing what I was doing. I think it was in me.

What kind of records did your parents have?
Charlie Parker was the main staple in the collection. In my classical lessons I was fortunate to have a teacher that wasn’t intimidated by jazz, so when she saw my interest she supported it, she didn’t try to purge it like a lot of [classical] teachers. I’ve heard stories from friends of mine that [teachers] would tell them things like they were gonna lose their technique if they tried to play jazz, they discouraged it and told them it would interfere – I hate this term – with their legitimate technique. My teacher wasn’t like that at all, she was very open, and even though she knew nothing about [jazz] she supported the creative process I was going through.

At what point did you come into direct contact with professional jazz musicians?
In high school; I started as a freshman at Cass Tech in 9th grade. Right away the premier ensemble to be associated with was the jazz ensemble, and there were a lot of really good ensembles. I had already made a decision that I wanted to be a professional musician, and jazz was my vehicle. Even though I was studying a lot of different things I was trying to learn to be a professional, which meant that I would have to cross over genres – at least that was what Marcus Belgrave was telling me. Donald Byrd was another person who was around Cass, his alma mater. He came back and did things with us students; we did “Cristo Redentor” with him live, and he helped us raise money to travel to Australia. And I performed in the madrigal group, in the orchestra, the harp and vocal group (which Dorothy Ashby came out of) and just a really rich environment. But the jazz ensemble was one of the most competitive.

Trumpet & teaching master Marcus Belgrave was a powerful early influence on young Geri Allen

What other professional musicians, besides Marcus Belgrave and Donald Byrd, had an impact on you in those years?
I would say Harold McKinney, Kenny Cox, Roy Brooks… I played in a group called Endangered Species with George Goldsmith and it was a great time for a young person because all of them were available and they were especially supportive of that. If you were there for the music, they were there for you.

Endangered Species was one of your earliest bands outside of school?
I played in Roy Brooks’ band Artistic Truth. Marcus [Belgrave] is the one that I really spent the most time with.

So he had the most impact on your training?

Obviously it was a rich environment for you to learn, in Detroit.
Things like [independent Detroit jazz record label] Strata was going, and the musicians were really self-empowered, and the community was really strong and loved the music. There were places outside of the mainstream circle where music was happening all the time. We used to have a jam session at Northwestern High School, with Ernie Rogers, and we used to be there until 4 and 5 in the morning. All of us aspiring players would be there every Saturday; that was real important to be there. There were a lot of different things that kept you going.

Those organized jam sessions were obviously very important to your development, but those kinds of situations are not available now as much as they were then. Many of the jazz musicians that are arriving now come solely from the conservatory. What do you think is missing from their training if they aren’t able to be involved in that kind of jam session, nurturing environment?
I don’t think it’s unfortunate just for the new generation of players, I think its unfortunate for us as a [jazz] community. I think we all need it, and I think the listeners that are involved in coming out to hear those jams gained a lot from that too. I think the tilt on it generally is that it’s the young players coming out that miss out, and that’s true. Something like Betty [Carter] created [Jazz Ahead] is a [positive alternative, although we really still need those kinds of environments in our community. I think Jazz Ahead is an opportunity for them to rub elbows with the musicians, the great musicians, in the same way we grew up being able to do it. We could do it more often, on a day to day or weekly basis, which is what I think people need to be able to do to perfect their craft, but at least they get a taste of what it is; which will hopefully inspire them to go out and maybe even find ways amongst like minds – even though they’re young too, but we found ways to rehearse at each other’s house and play each other’s music and work things out. Maybe that’ll inspire them to maybe search out the people that are there. In every town there are great musicians and these people really get a lot of energy being able to share that knowledge.

At what point did you come in contact with Betty Carter?
I first met her at Howard University, around ’75-’76, and she had a great band with Kenny Washington, Curtis Lundy, and Khalid Moss. It was really exciting to watch her perform, she inspired a lot of us. We were all there, everybody came away with a real big excitement – she brought that. I remember not really talking to her, but just the impact of that.

Then I met her maybe three or four years later in Pittsburgh. Nathan [Davis] had told her that I was a musician who admired her work. She was sitting on a panel and I don’t think she knew me from Adam, but she invited me to join her on the panel, and I thought that was really generous since I didn’t really feel like she knew my work. But I think she was trying to encourage me. We had an opportunity to talk, we had lunch, and we started developing a rapport. I remember her piano player was late for the sound check for the performance, so she invited me up to sit in, and that was the first time I played with her.

How did your relationship develop and evolve through the years?
She was always really supportive and positive. Once I got to New York it took me some time to get on my feet. I started doing some things as a leader in ’82, which is when I got out of [University of] Pittsburgh; ’83-’84 I started being able to take my own trio out. I would see her at different places and she was always real positive. Her music was always a source of inspiration for me.

It wasn’t until the late 80s that I actually hooked up with her; she managed me for three years under BetCar. So Ora Harris and Betty took care of me and that was a major turning point in my career, in terms of legitimizing me. I did lots of things with her: we did duos, lots of performances just us. We performed in Europe. We did a duo on ”Droppin’ Things” and people started calling she and I to do duo concerts and we did a number of things. I think from that experience, when the idea came up to do the quartet with Jack [DeJohnette] and Dave [Holland] she put me in there. That was a great opportunity for me to be out there with this strong situation, to be on the road with Betty. We did all of the summer festivals [1994].

Even though you were working with Betty with very experienced musicians, there was still a lot of mentoring?
With [Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland] too. They both worked with Betty when they were up and coming players. They both respected her greatly and so they looked up to her in the same way I did. On the bandstand every night there was something unusual that would occur. I came away from that environment with the tools to be a much better player. There were real specific things that she would help me to make it to the next step as a player; that environment was key.

So I guess you were learning from Jack and Dave as well.
Definitely; to play with Jack and Dave, they have that quality that makes you have to rise. I had played with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian in a great trio environment; and I got to play with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, which was a great trio environment. Playing with Jack and Dave prepared me for that environment. I look forward to that opportunity to play with them again because I came away a better player.

Considering those and your earlier experiences what’s your sense of younger musicians learning from older jazz musicians?
There’s no other way [laughs]. It’s like what is your sense of breathing air…. you have to breath, there’s no other choice. I think that’s why [Jazz Ahead] is important. Most of the cultivating is going on in the universities, so I highly recommend that students today go to those places where great players are [teaching], because that’s gonna be their opportunity to kind of get a feeling of what that experience was of learning on the streets, and of coming up that way. I have always hoped that the scene will kind of turn around and there will be more such environments city to city so that the music can be thriving in the communities again. I know that there’s a demand for it because whenever you play for people that come around and they are really energized by the music, and you hear a lot of wishing that there was more available. With these young people coming up, their excitement has to help fuel that. There’s a great love for the music out there, and its missed, I hear it from people all the time.

Are there other mentors out there like Betty Carter that young musicians can learn about?
I think they are out there, and the more that they seek these people out, the more possibilities there will be for them. But there is a certain amount of homework involved in being put in a position like that. I speak from the standpoint of coming up in a place like Detroit, you were afforded the opportunity if you were serious and if you were really out there trying to get better. The discipline aspect of the arts and music is a necessity, it cultivates more than just your ability to play, it cultivates your personality, it helps you get a sense of what life is.

I know for certain that the public schools created that opportunity for me. I took private lessons, my parents made that possible for me so I’m very grateful for it. But I also had the opportunity to experience music daily in a very disciplined, organized, and inspired environment. I think that’s very fundamental, that every young person through their school system have that opportunity. I just hope there is more support of that, because that’ll make a big difference. Through the public schools you should be able to access the great musicians in the city that are just looking for the opportunity to share the music with young people. Somehow it has to be gotten across that this is a viable thing to do. I think that is a big way the music can thrive again, through the public schools, through searching out these musicians whether they have degrees or not, to come in there and share their knowledge and their years of experience.

How will you and Jack work with the Jazz Ahead student musicians for the June program, what kind of environment are you going to develop for them?
Creativity! It’ll be about making the music, it’s a hands on thing. You get in there and… just the process of polishing things and trying to get them to the performance level is the whole approach to how I learned. I’m going to work through this with great respect for Jack, of course. The ideas that he’ll bring in will be such a great opportunity for those kids. The idea is to use this as a workshop with a performance opportunity. Basically jazz is workshop, you’re in workshop for your whole life, honing your craft so you can get better.

What is the greatest legacy that Betty Carter left here for us?
Self-determination is a big one. She was always a person who was connected with her body, there was like a continuous… Betty was able to always be busy, always working, whether she had a major label behind her or not.

Clairdee does Lena

The San Francisco Bay Area-based vocalist who goes by one name, Clairdee, is one of several very underrated jazz singers from that part of the country; two other faves from that fertile corner of the jazz world would include Madeline … Continue reading

The San Francisco Bay Area-based vocalist who goes by one name, Clairdee, is one of several very underrated jazz singers from that part of the country; two other faves from that fertile corner of the jazz world would include Madeline Eastman and Kitty Margolis. For her latest release A Love Letter to Lena Clairdee paints a loving, and at times fierce, biographical portrait of one of the most beloved artists of the 20th century, vocalist-actress-social activist Lena Horne, who certainly wore proudly the label race woman. Seldom considered in the pantheon of jazz singers, nonetheless Lena certainly earned her stripes in that arena, but tribute projects like this one are rare, which certainly prompted some questions for the delightful, exceedingly agreeable Clairdee.

You’ve declared that your “mission is to engage, uplift and build community through music – creating a narrative that inspires beyond the stage.” How specifically are you striving to meet that mission?

Respect, integrity, kindness, and compassion are the principles that guide my life’s journey and these principles are integral to everything I do — performing, my work as an educator, mentor, mother, wife, sister, friend, and as a fellow human being. I believe these principles can build community and bring about positive change. My parents taught me to strive for excellence versus perfection. Quality versus quantity. Purpose versus popularity.

My favorite quote is by Dr. Maya Angelou who said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel,” which is another way to describe my mission. The music I present is a reflection of who I am. It’s the way I carry myself onstage and off, and how I conduct my business. I want to make people feel good.

One of the more striking aspects of your new release, “A Love Letter to Lena,” are the spoken word interludes. Did you write those yourself, or where did you find those? What was your intentions in terms of including those spoken word interludes?

I believed the spoken interludes would help coalesce the music — bring Lena Horne to life, as it were — effectively putting the songs in context with various events from her life. I wrote the script based on anecdotes and quotes culled from my research over a 10-year period. Rather than me doing the narrative, my producer Jon Herbst and I agreed that having a voice different from mine would be an ideal and unique way to set the songs up. I knew immediately that my friend, actress/director/playwright Margo Hall, was the “voice” we were seeking.


So, I sent Margo the script with notes describing the mood I wanted conveyed in each interlude. When she came to the studio, Jon and I had her listen to the music to get the feel for the project, and together the three of us fine-tuned the script. My instincts were spot on. Margo nailed it!

I consider the spoken interludes, or more precisely vignettes, serve as mini-history lessons. Beyond Horne’s exceptional beauty and the song, “Stormy Weather”, I discovered that many people really didn’t know much about her — particularly her civil rights activities and struggles with discrimination or her close friendship with composer Billy Strayhorn.

Given Lena Horne’s long, multi-faceted and productive career, how did you approach coming up with a workable program of songs related to Lena for this record?

Lena sang a broad range of material and recorded 80 albums. So, there was a lot from which to choose. As in any project I present, I chose songs that resonated with me and fit into the concept of the album — songs that help illustrate the story of the woman — not the star — and her personal struggles, as well as her happiest times working at Cafe Society. With the exception of “Stand Up,” all of the songs on the recording were part of Lena’s extensive repertoire.

You’ve clearly taken your time with producing and assembling this release, when did you first come up with this viable idea and what was your process for putting this record together?

I have admired Lena Horne since I was four years old. My parents spoke of her with great reverence and instilled their admiration for her intelligence, dignity, talent and willingness to fight for what’s right in all of their eight children.

I started thinking seriously about putting together a tribute album to honor Horne back in 2009, which was two years after my mother passed and a year before Horne died. Over the next few years I researched songs, read books, watched video, movies, everything I could find about Lena. Among the songs I originally considered were the obvious standards, “Stormy Weather,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and “The Man I love.

Then as a result of the 2016 election, a truly purposed approach to the project became apparent to me. I decided the album would reflect my parents’ hopes for their children through the lens of Lena’s efforts for civil rights and equality. And I decided to include a few songs that people may not be so familiar with. The process was pretty organic. Once I settled on the songs, things fell into place quite easily.

There is a very successful contemporary air about this record, as opposed to your efforts being more along the lines of a period treatment. What was your sense of producing the musical canvas on which to paint your portrait of Lena Horne?

It’s very risky business honoring an iconic artist. People have expectations about what songs should be included or may make comparisons to the original recordings.

I allowed the lyrics and Lena’s story to direct the arrangements and the flow of the project. I never thought about whether the overall feel of the album would be contemporary or a throw back or anything like that. In fact, when we were finished recording, I remember thinking, “Wait! There’s not one swing tune on here!”

Jon and I wanted to create a colorful and varied palette of rhythms, and instrumental and vocal textures throughout the album: rhythm section, tenor saxophone, trumpet, background vocals, and a string trio. I am over the moon to have my dear friend, violinist Regina Carter, featured on Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For”.

Perhaps what helps give the music a contemporary air is the addition of background vocals. The San Francisco Bay Area is a gold mine of great musical talent. And in keeping with the theme of community, Jon and I brought in some of the premier singers and instrumentalists to lend their talents. The background vocals are sung by three members of the a cappella group, SoVoSó, which is an offshoot of Bobby McFerrin’s group Voicestra.


What I know for sure is that the arrangements definitely reflect my musical personality and my love
and respect for Lena.

Overall, what has Lena Horne’s career and her example meant to you and your career development?

Thanks to my parents, Lena Horne’s examples of dignity, excellence, and commitment to fighting injustice are embedded in me.

Lena’s examples show me that it’s okay to follow my own path. That it’s okay to say, “No”. That my ideas are valid and valuable. We’re all in this together. It all comes back to my mission: to engage, uplift and build community through music — creating a narrative that inspires beyond the stage.

“A Love Letter to Lena” is my way of saying thank you to Lena for how she touched the lives of my family and me. It is also a way for me to honor my parents’ legacy and those of the millions of women and men who fought for civil rights. The lessons of their lives are resoundingly relevant right now and it is up to us to continue their work. This is my 21st century call to acknowledgement and action.

Considering the time you took to realize this project, what’s next on your artistic plate?

I envision an expanded evening-length concert designed for performing arts centers that is richly layered with history and multi-media, including vintage footage, photographs, additional original music, and film commissioned especially for the show.


JImmy Katz also has an intrepid ear

One of the more prolific, keen-eyed photographers operating in the music arena is Jimmy Katz. Doubtless future generations will recognize Jimmy Katz in the pantheon of jazz photographers, alongside Herman Leonard, Chuck Stewart, Bill Gottlieb and other greats of the … Continue reading

One of the more prolific, keen-eyed photographers operating in the music arena is Jimmy Katz. Doubtless future generations will recognize Jimmy Katz in the pantheon of jazz photographers, alongside Herman Leonard, Chuck Stewart, Bill Gottlieb and other greats of the medium. Though his photography career continues to evolve, more recently Jimmy has seized opportunities to act on his passion for jazz recordings, through his own new imprint Giant Step Arts. At least one of his initial Giant Step Arts releases, drummer Jonathan Blake‘s 2-disc trio date Trion, garnered significant note in end-of-year 2019 critic’s polls – including significant spins on my own radio program, Ancient/Future Radio (Wednesday nights 10-midnight on WPFW in the DMV market, live streaming worldwide at www.wpfwfm.org). The Giant Step Arts release from tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander is among his most extended form, original work yet recorded, and trumpeter Jason Palmer‘s Rhyme & Reason Giant Step Arts date is likewise among his most engrossing recorded work. With all this in mind, clearly some Independent Ear questions were in order.

With such a successful career as a photographer, what was it about making records that so intrigued you?
As you may know, I have been a photographer in the music business since 1991 and I have shot more than 200 magazine covers and been hired to participate in more than 550 recording projects. I got to work with a lot of my heroes and hear a lot of amazing music, but in this time I also saw the recorded music industry contract. As a lifelong record collector, I always had in the back of my mind, “Would some of these recordings be stronger if the musicians had recorded all in one room in front of fellow human beings?” I discussed this with a number of musicians who said they played better in “Live” situations, rather than in the studio. Musicians said that when playing “Live,” they could be more creative and play with greater freedom and abandon. Right now there are a lot of terrific studio recordings being made but some are quite controlled. It’s wonderful music, but I thought that I wanted to produce projects that would tap into the source of jazz, music that comes out of “Live” venues. Even if they are not the perfect venues to record in, they are often places where inspiration and creativity are at the highest level. Fans know that history remembers the “Great Performances” and many of those are “Live” concert recordings. So as an engineer I try to achieve good sound, but the real goal is to capture “Lightning in a Bottle,” the magic of an inspired “Live” performance. That is the focus of Giant Step Arts.

Almost three years ago I was approached by donors who wanted to have a positive impact on the jazz community. They realized that the record business was in a state of shambles and more importantly that musicians were not being properly compensated. Giant Step Arts, LTD is a unique 501(c)3 (editor’s note: a not-for-profit tax designation) and we don’t sell anything or own any music. We collaborate with each of the artists we choose to work with. For a music project, we pay the leader and everybody in the band for two nights of recording and a rehearsal, but the leader owns the masters, gets digital files to sell and gets 700 CDs to sell, free of charge. I engineer the “Live” dates, I mix and master with the legendary Dave Darlington and the visionary Ann Braithwaite does all our publicity and promotion. Dena (My wife) and I do all the photography and we design the CD packages as well. Within this framework the musicians can create music that is free of commercial constraints and all we ask is that the musicians make a profound artistic statement. In addition, we are not afraid of music that explores themes like social justice, racism, sexism, politics or the environment. Right now we have limited resources, so our projects are by invitation only.

Talk about the recordings you’ve made thus far on your Giant Step Arts label, and why you felt it was important to record those particular artists.
To be clear, Giant Step Arts is not a record label. We do what a record label does but we don’t sell anything. The musicians own the masters and get all the proceeds from the sales of their music. Also, we are trying to promote musicians who have already been validated by their peers, so we are looking for musicians who have a deep connection to other creative musicians of this era. The leader’s mission is to make a bold artistic statement with original material and that has a unifying theme. Jason Palmer, Johnathan Blake, Eric Alexander and Michael Thomas have all been wonderful to collaborate with. They have each put together all-star bands featuring the best and the brightest of this generation and they are presenting profound, original material.

The records you’ve made thus far have been live performance recordings. Will you continue to concentrate on live recordings?
“Live” recordings are the focus of what we do.

What are your recording plans for 2020?
We are releasing another double CD with the trumpeter Jason Palmer that is the music that he wrote for each of the paintings that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston 30 years ago. We are releasing it on March 18th 2020 the 30 anniversary of the theft. Later this spring we are releasing a project with the grammy nominated alto saxophone Michael Thomas that is inspired by new technology and in early summer we will release another project led by the great drummer Johnathan Blake.

We often partner with another New York City not-for-profit, The Jazz Gallery, and on May 21st & 22nd we are recording the powerhouse alto saxophonist Darius Jones who is doing a project called “In August of 1619.” As you know this is when the first African slaves landed in North America and Darius has written an extraordinary suite of music inspired by this event. We are also recording the great trumpet player and composer Marquis Hill in August. His project is called “Free To Be” which will include the fantastic, Jazzmeia Horn, Marcus Gilmore, Joel Ross and Junius Paul. Also in August we will be recording another Jason Palmer project with jazz giants, Mark Turner, Joel Ross, Ben Williams, and Nasheet Waits. With a micro level of support, on February 28th & 29th, we are collaborating on a project with “The Leap Day Trio” which is Matt Wilson, Mimi Jones and Jeff Lederer. It’s going to be the first “Live” record made in the newly opened Cafe Bohemia in 60 years. I am really excited about all of these projects.

What’s your overall sense of the jazz recording industry?
For a number of reasons, over the last 20 years, the income flow to musicians from recorded music has dwindled to a trickle. To make matters worse, if 43 million Pandora streams of “Happy” earned Pharrell Williams $2700, where does that leave jazz musicians who have far fewer streams? Streaming may be great for the streaming businesses and consumers, but with streaming, the individual who has created the music, has often been ELIMINATED from the revenue flow. This makes the act of delivering music through streaming, a profound and seminal event in the history of recorded music. In our small way, Giant Step Arts, is trying to create a model that is different. The income from recorded music may continue to be small, BUT WE WANT ALL OF THIS INCOME TO GO TO THE CREATORS OF THE MUSIC. Also, what we do is easily scaleable, so the more funds I can raise, the more musicians Giant Step Arts can help and the more artistic statements can be completed. I would encourage your readers to check out GiantStepArts.org and to purchase our projects directly from the artists we work with.