There’s no room for pricks in this jam session

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Lili Añel is a New York transplant living and working in Philadelphia. She also happens to be one of the nicest jazz artists around, a state of being that often goes over the heads of most in the industry.

Everyone aspires to be good at what they do. Jazz musicians go overboard, in a game of one-upmanship, showmanship, and playing the numbers. But what about common decency, kindness, respect, the audience? Is all of that lowering standards, selling out, part of the package, or simply the right thing to do?

Serious jazz musicians tend to live entirely in their heads and on the stage with their fellow instrumental cohorts. They neither want nor care about anything else going on down there, where the audience sits waiting to be entertained, some dying to be moved.

More than a few have been overheard backstage with this typical derision: “The audience doesn’t matter. As long as I can play good music with guys who know what they’re doing, and we can go somewhere, that’s all I care about.” Even Hollywood’s acknowledged this tendency. Anyone ever catch Jeff Bridges as Jack, the jazz pianist, holing away in a forgotten dive bar with some great, forgotten players [“The Fabulous Baker Boys”]? Not an audience in sight. No money in that gig either. But they didn’t care, because they had each other and they had good jazz to sustain them for just a brief, blissful moment.

To jazz musicians, it’s all about good music, playing it, recording it, listening to it, and sharing it amongst themselves like “you’re in the private club with a secret handshake,” saxophonist Branford Marsalis acknowledged, in “The Problem With Jazz.” There’s very little room for anyone without the same devotion and the same capacity to either seamlessly sit in with the band, or rap about technique like a Chick Corea.

That’s the problem.

In the September 13, 2011 Seattle Weekly interview, as relayed to Chris Kornelis, Marsalis expressed a need to resist such self-indulgence that leaves much of the audience out. The point is to get one’s music out there, after all, not keep it obscure in some secret club. Jazz is already complicated enough, with everyone so focused on pushing harmonies, that quite often, the melody becomes lost or tossed aside. And, doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

“So much of jazz, it doesn’t even have an audience other than the music students or the jazz musicians themselves, and they’re completely in love with virtuosic aspects of the music, so everything is about how fast a guy plays. It’s not about the musical content and whether the music is emotionally moving or has passion,” Marsalis continued. “At some point, you get into the music and it’s only about, well, this is what I want to convey. I’m into me. I’m into my sh*t. And after a while you look up and say, ‘Well, that was nice and self-indulgent and fun.’ Music clearly has to have more meaning than that.” He’s right.

Jazz already suffers from a bad reputation as this pie-in-the-sky, ethereal, genius level form of music embraced by a certain stereotype of highbrow individual who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So take a few seats with your over-the-hill, amateur hour, Ms. Bye Bye Blackbird.

Many jazz musicians never get over themselves, their obsessive music fetish, their tunnel vision. Others learn through increased audience interaction — it only takes one convert — to appreciate the different aspects of performance art outside themselves. Maybe the audience doesn’t understand the particular chord progression to make a song infinitely impressive, only that it moves them. Is that so bad?

What about the old lady with arthritis, openly weeping because for the seven minutes of that standard, she felt pain-free? Or the single mother of four who somehow found a babysitter so she could do what grown-ups do for the price of a cover? She’s dancing in her seat, remembering a high school crush. Or the ex-military man who hadn’t heard that Cole Porter ballad in ages, taking him back to the days when his own father was still alive and whistling along on the stereo in the backyard?

Most people in the audience may not fully appreciate the technicalities that go into the playing of jazz. They wouldn’t hear a clam in that third half-note if their lives depended on it. Does that make their enjoyment of the music any less?

True story: At a jazz festival after-hours jam session several years ago, some fans clamored to pay tribute to this one particular bandleader of a famous 1970s fusion band. They loved the band’s concert earlier in the evening. Everyone was on the grassy lawn dancing under the stars, feeling young again. Yeah, man, the band was really hot. This bandleader replied, “That’s nice of you to say, but… you didn’t hear the clams. We messed up.” He then proceeded to list point by point exactly what went wrong. Nobody approached him after that.

The very aspect of a jazz musician that makes him profound is the very aspect that can keep him from welcoming positive audience feedback. You see, he knows better. He can’t understand how anybody with any musical sense could enjoy that clam-filled set. Therefore, he doesn’t acknowledge the judgment call of anyone outside his sphere of influence: fellow musicians he respects, trusts, works regularly with, and — for the truly elitist among them — the big name contacts who can take him farther in his career.

The jazz musicians who can overlook the discrepancies in objective versus subjective appreciation tend to fare better with audiences. They’ve discovered the benefits of praise from a colleague (chops! another gig! aural intercourse!) and praise from the audience (emotion! energy! inspiration! word of mouth! album sales!), which translates into broader exposure, more gigs, and more pay. As a result, it’s not just the attitude and perspective of jazz musicians that evolve.

Jazz artists of Branford Marsalis’ caliber have reconciled the need for musical integrity with the equal, but different need to give audiences an emotional connection through the music — to bridge that eternal divide. Jazz is scary enough for the everyday listener raised on the beat, the beat, the beat.

“My job is to write songs that have emotional meaning to me,” Marsalis told Chris Kornelis in that Seattle Weekly piece. “Because I believe that if the songs have emotional meaning, that will translate to a larger audience that has the capacity to appreciate instrumental music, ’cause a lot of people don’t. And I can’t do anything to get them to like my music, and I’m not really trying.”

More and more jazz musicians, especial the fusion artists, are getting it. They live in the real world, where good feedback’s good feedback no matter the source. They also realize that without audience participation, they’re not going anywhere. The good ones — the majority, thank god — outnumber the douchebags, recognizing that music’s music, whether it’s out there or on some familiar territory, preferably somewhere in the middle.

Jace of the Seattle jazz-funk-fusion band BlackStax recognizes the special relationship between an artist and the audience. All of the band members understand all too well from their shows and meeting fans afterward that the emotional and spiritual exchange can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed. They’re known for putting on a hell of a show each and every time, and reaching out to those who get their message and their art. “As an artist who places value on understanding the blessing of the gift, I also understand the value of having genuine people that are supportive and how important it is to respect their take on my craft,” Jace explained. “but, at the same time, knowing my purpose of the message and direction of the piece. Operate off fair exchange, then you never have to question that sacred relationship!”

Grammy-nominated vocalist Lorraine Feather and critically acclaimed saxophonist Anton Schwartz — who are both as kind as can be to both the audience and the press, big or small — both pointed to the Yellowjackets’ pianist and founding member, Russell Ferrante, as one of the nicest, most unassuming guys in the business, to everyone.

“Russell, another musician once told me, is always ‘the most approachable guy in the room’ at a recording session,” Feather explained. “I know he talks to fans at length after Yellowjackets shows. Beyond that, Russ and his wife Gerry Puhara do quite a bit of work for the Union Station Homeless Services. Dick Hyman, still going strong in his 80s, is one of the most modest musicians I’ve ever met, [and] would never think of touting his accomplishments.”

Anton Schwartz couldn’t agree more about Ferrante. “I’ve played only a couple gigs with him over the years, but you really can’t have any interactions with him and not come away with a strong positive feeling. I sometimes describe him as pathologically friendly.”

Vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Lili Añel is one of those extremely friendly, very approachable jazz musicians. Much of the Philadelphia-based musician’s success comes from the songs she puts her heart and soul into. Audiences resonate to her authentic stories about growing up and pushing through struggles, as well as that scorching voice. Añel’s one of those musicians who always makes sure to acknowledge a positive review, whether it comes from All About Jazz or the Jazz Examiner. For her, the audience is everyone and everyone deserves an audience. “I try to treat all people in kind. I treat people like I want to be treated. A reviewer is a reviewer, whether they are Jon Pareles [of the New York Times] or someone way less known. I would treat them the same,” she said. “A reviewer who has yet not made a ‘name’ for himself/herself one day will. It pays to be kind to everyone.” That goes for fans. “Any fan that wants to speak to me after a show I will, given I am provided the space…. They’ve usually paid good money for admission, perhaps parking, dinner, etc. including purchasing my CDs. They are my audience and are being loyal to me, my music. The very least I can do is say hello.”

Andrew Boscardin is a Seattle-based, multi-genre musician who does a lot of creative grassroots campaigning for his next fusion invention. Probably because he kind of has to. Seattle can be a hard nut to crack in the jazz scene. In all his time gigging and recording, he’s never come across the douchebag musician who thinks nothing of taking the audience for granted. “I have much to say about [the] Seattle ‘jazz’ scene (which I couldn’t get arrested in, mind [you]) but not caring about [the] audience isn’t one,” Boscardin tweeted. “I can only speak to the musicians I’ve known, worked with, all of whom (to a one) have treasured any/all audience as [a] gift, especially in today’s climate. … It’s hard enough even trying to make music, especially music labeled as ‘jazz’ (rightly or no) — any audience is a gift.”

Article first appeared in Examiner April 9, 2014.

Jazz Medium©: Feeling the music, one review at a time.

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