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Marshall is jazz (But what kind of jazz?)Posted Monday, May 16, 2011, at 12:29 PM
Since we started planning the first Bob James Jazz Festival, I've been wondering what most people think of these days when they think of jazz.
As we talk to people about the festival, many are excited that great jazz performers are coming to town. But some have said they aren't interested. They say they just don't like jazz. That's fair enough. Everyone has preferences and there is no kind of music on the planet that appeals to everyone.
When I told a good friend about the project early on, for example, he made a sour face. He loves a wide variety of musical styles, so I was a little surprised at the reaction.
"Not a jazz fan?" I said.
He told me how his impression of jazz was formed. He'd gone to sleep one night with the radio playing. Sometime during the wee hours a jazz program came on.
"I woke up to this Godawful squonk. It sounded like somebody was trying to choke a clarinet to death!" he said.
Ah, that kind of jazz.
I know what he was referring to. There's a kind of musician (in all types of music) who takes things out to the edge of what's commonly done, what's popular and acceptable -- then goes on beyond, trying new stuff that leaves the typical (and many listeners) far behind.
The avant garde is interesting for the musician and for the connoisseur, but most of us are not able or interested in keeping up. We like our music to do what music was created to do: Make us dance, make us sing, make us ponder, make tap our feet and wrap ourselves in an experience of sound.
Every field, not just music, has those practitioners who seek the new at the expense of the old and who develop a strange language that seems dissonant and cryptic to the uninitiated.
But it would be a mistake to confuse the avant garde with the whole.
Proof will be found Saturday, May 21, that jazz is still music of and for the people. The first Bob James Jazz Festival will give area music lovers a chance to hear jazz that will make them want to dance and sing and tap. It will give them an opportunity to wrap themselves in a thrilling experience of sound.
Joe Athon's latest recording, "Portrait of a Man," is filled with catchy pop/rock melody infused with jazz sensibilities. His voice has been compared to pop icon Elvis Costello.
D.J. Sweeney sings with obvious love and respect for the greats of jazz history, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Billie Holiday, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter and more. She brings alive songs that people have loved for generations.
Listen to Bobby Watson's latest recording, "The Gates BBQ Suite," a tribute to the relationship between food, family and music.
"I think that the roots of any music around the world is about some kind of function -- a marriage, a birthday, a death, some type of holiday. ... And a lot of these functions, whether it's a rent party, or something, there's always food. Food is one of those things that you don't have to be wealthy to be able to share with people," he said in a 2010 NPR interview.
So, of course, there will be barbecue available at the festival. This jazz festival isn't a puzzle to work out. No clarinets will gasp for breath. No trumpets will squonk. It will be a feast of food and sound -- soaring, soothing, joyful sound.
In a sense, Bob James' career is an answer to those in the avant garde who lose sight of music's purpose in the world. He's long been an experimenter, a boundary pusher in his own right, but he's mostly a musician whose foremost concern is to communicate his feelings and ideas to an audience.
"What I find with the music now is that it's warm, people like it, they like it for all kinds of reasons. They like to dance to it, they like to fall in love with it," he said in a 1979 interview with Musician magazine.
He was talking about the new movement that he helped develop, the fusion of pop, rock and jazz that evolved into what's often called "smooth jazz."
You can sense the welcoming nature of the man and his music in every note. At the first festival in his honor, you'll find that same warm, welcoming approach from musicians who excel at creating music we can easily love.
Note: Listening to samples at the above site is free. If anyone purchases music after following these links, Marshall Cultural Council will receive a small commission. MCC is a nonprofit organization. The author is president of the organization.
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Eric Crump is the editor of The Marshall Democrat-News. He's listening to Bob James right now.
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