The Year '04 in Review: Highs and Lows
A Graceful Exit
Dr. Billy Taylor is nearly fully recovered from a stroke, but not wanting to perform at anything less than his best the pianist decided to retire as a live performer. Always a class act, and one of the music's most prolific performers, Taylor has been overshadowed as a pianist by his work in the media and education. But Taylor was there on 52nd Street when bebop was born, and he never stopped growing as a musician. Kudos to one of jazz's greatest champions for setting the highest standard for himself-and for all of us.
Big League Catalog
Quick: Which record label arguably has the best back catalog in jazz? Blue Note? Verve? Columbia? Er, how about Concord? Already having a great success with Genius Loves Company, the Multi-Platinum final album by Ray Charles., Concord crowned it wildly successful year by acquiring Fantasy Inc., which includes the rights to such legendary labels as Debut, Pablo, Prestige, Riverside, Stax and more. That's one promo closet we wouldn't mind raiding.
DIY or Die!
With major labels dropping jazz artists faster than J-Lo does husbands, many musicians had to record and release their own CDs, often forgoing the normal distribution channels and brick-and-mortar retail for the ways of the Web. Renowned artists such as Dave Holland and Dave Douglas announced the formation of their own labels in late 2004-Dare2 and Greenleaf, respectively-but no jazz musician received more attention for this approach than Maria Schneider. She raised money to record Concert in the Garden through fan donations and released the CD with ArtistShare, a DIY organization that empowers artists to maximize online sales and minimize the middleman. (Jim Hall also hooked up with ArtistShare for Magic Meeting.)
As a big-band leader, Schneider already had the odds stacked up against her. Undaunted, she plodded on with perhaps her finest set of music ever. For more info, go to ArtistShare.com-or better yet, go right to the source: MariaSchneider.com.
Benny Golson's Terminal Year
While the Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks film The Terminal didn't scorch the box office, the jazz-loving director and actor put the music front and center. Hanks' character comes to America to get the autograph of a famous jazz musician, played in a cameo by Benny Golson.
The saxophonist-composer also made a CD, Terminal 1, whose title track was inspired by working with Spielberg & Co. The album also features reworkings of Golson classics like "Killer Joe" and "Park Avenue Petite," and if you wanted to hear the original versions of those tunes you were in luck: Mosaic released a seven-CD box set compiling Golson's early recordings with Art Farmer, The Complete Argo/ Mercury Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet Sessions. No doubt the director of E.T. owns a copy.
It wasn't a great movie, but Ray was a decent one. Director Taylor Hackford had to compress too much time and skip too many facts, but the flick looked great, and Jamie Foxx's performance will be remembered at Oscar time. But what does David "Fathead" Newman think of his celluloid portrayal? It wasn't always pretty.
Tell the truth: Did anyone think Alice Coltrane's comeback album, Translinear Light, would be nearly as good as it turned out? Well, Verve did, obviously, because not only did the label shed its recent play-it-safe image by offering a date to the notoriously avant-garde Coltrane, it revived the Impulse imprint and let her son and coproducer Ravi hire first-call sidemen Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Jeff "Tain" Watts and James Genus. Let's hope it's not another 26 years before Alice sees the inside of a studio.
If Coltrane needs some inspiration she can go to the Huntington, N.Y., home where she and hubby John lived between 1964 and 1967 and where he wrote A Love Supreme. The house was to be demolished until a local jazz fan crusaded to save it; the town council relented, named the pad a historic landmark and will turn it into a museum. Not everybody was crazy about the idea, however. "So he lived there two and a half years while he did his best work," Ron Kahn, treasurer of the civic association, told the New York Times. "Should we landmark every house Billy Joel lived in on Long Island?"
Jeez, Ron, need you even ask? Of course.
Washed Up, Not Away
What was lamer than Queen Latifah's The Dana Owens Album or Linda Ronstadt's Hummin' to Myself? Try Stardust, volume three of Rod Stewart's unctuous Great American Songbook series. Of course, Stewart's crap discs are selling like gangbusters, so this series isn't likely to end anytime soon-and neither is the trend of aging pop stars trying to slip gracefully into musical middle age by doing dim-witted songbook records.
What another remarkable, busy, year it was for Wynton Marsalis, the hardest working man in jazz-and its most polemical.
After spending more than 20 years at Columbia he signed to a new label, Blue Note, and recorded The Magic Hour. Being his label debut, you'd think the album would have been a major statement, but nope-it was a standard run through Marsalis' well-defined and oft-repeated "four basic attitudes of jazz: 4/4 swing, Afro-Hispanic rhythm, blues and the ballad." The reviews were mixed-the CD garnered but one vote in our critics and industry poll for album of the year-but writers and Marsalis have always had an antagonistic relationship, which the trumpeter and his fans have not. Marsalis' overall popularity was reflected in our readers' poll, which not only named The Magic Hour album of the year but chose its author as the best artist. Marsalis' CD was also a commercial hit: The Magic Hour sold about 90,000 copies worldwide, with 40,000 in America alone, making it his best-selling disc in the U.S. since 1998's Midnight Blues.
Ken Burns and Marsalis then reunited for Unforgivable Blackness, with the trumpeter scoring the documentarian's PBS film on Jack Johnson, America's first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. Marsalis also debuted his composition Suite for Human Nature in 2004, but recordings and writings took a backseat to the opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center's incredible new home, Frederick P. Rose Hall. It's an amazing achievement, and one likely not to have happened if Marsalis wasn't at J@LC's artistic helm, using all his power, charisma, focus and passion to promote the music he so loves, giving jazz a stunning home on par with edifices usually reserved for European music. Thank you, Mr. Marsalis, we kiss your ring in awe.
For Relaxing Times, Make It Hiromi Time
Japanese pianist Hiromi may not be well known in the U.S., but her Telarc debut, 2003's Another Mind, shipped 100,000 units in her homeland, and her 2004 CD, Brain, was equally well received. So what does a popular jazz artist do to capitalize on her success? Promote some brew-dogs, natch.
In a commercial that aired on Japanese television, Hiromi sits at a piano and rips out a complex run before pausing to take a gulp of Kirin Malt Squash, a Japanese light beer. She makes the universal sign of refreshment ("aaaahhhh"), then fires up the swing again, her brewski close at hand.
Sadly, Kirin Malt Squash isn't available in the U.S., but thankfully Hiromi's tastes-great, less-filling jazz is ready for consumption.
Festivals are a major lifeblood of the jazz industry, and the man and event that started it all celebrated their golden anniversary in 2004. It was 50 years ago that George Wein had his first Newport Jazz Festival, and it's still the premier event for those musicians lucky enough to be invited to play. Meanwhile, the Montreal Jazz Festival celebrated its silver anniversary, and if there's a more entertaining and eclectic festival in North America we've yet to find it (though we're open to invites).
Words on Music
Jazz books continued to flood the shelves in 2004, but the two that stood out were Soweto Blues by Gwen Ansell and Cuba and Its Music by Ned Sublette-neither of which is about jazz specifically. Discussing the impact of social movements and politics on the growth of music of all sorts in South Africa and Cuba, respectively, Ansell and Sublette show how music is life and life is music. Both books are essential.
What do the three people shown below-Peter Cincotti, Jamie Cullum and Nellie McKay-not to mention Erin Bode, Rebecca Martin and several more artists of their ilk have in common? They are all sailing in the wide wake of Norah Jones, who showed record companies that the marketplace can be awfully lucrative for adult pop and jazz-savvy singer-songwriters.
Cullum's debut, Twentysomething, has sold nearly two million worldwide, and Cincotti is marching in Harry Connick Jr.'s footsteps, juggling music (his sophmore hit CD, On the Moon) and acting (the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea).
But the most fascinating musician out of this group is Nellie McKay, whose debut CD's title, Get Away From Me, pokes fun at Mama Norah's breakthrough disc. Just barely in her 20s, McKay is one of the wittiest songwriters working today, able to conjure Tin Pan Alley, Doris Day and Eminem in one dazzling swoop. The singer-pianist hopes to record her next album live, where her nervous wit and stand-up worthy banter are on full display-but McKay doesn't do things the easy way. Forget the nightclub: Nellie's cutting the CD in a women's prison.
Looks Great for 100
Everywhere you turned in 2004 there was a celebration of Count Basie, who would have turned 100 last year were he superhuman. There were ballroom dances, radio programs, big-time concerts, small-time panel discussions and everything in between. The Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, however, outdid everybody with its Web site "One More Once: A Centennial Celebration of the Life and Music of Count Basie" (newarkwww.rutgers.edu/ijs/cb). Like the institute did for Benny Carter, Mary Lou Williams and Fats Waller, Count Basie is honored through photographic essays, educational text and music snippets. While the centennial concerts honored Basie for a night, the Institute of Jazz Studies' tribute is forever.
Toyota Trumpets Robot
We're not entirely sure what's going on here either, but we hear he can swing his plastic ass off. The robot plays, too.
Officially Sanctioned Jazz
You wouldn't think jazz would get much support during a Republican administration, but the reverse is true. The National Endowment for the Arts, headed by Chairman Dana Gioia, has increased the profile of its Jazz Masters awards through a series of savvy campaigns and partnerships.
The NEA began the year with an award ceremony for the 2004 Jazz Masters-Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Herbie Hancock, Luther Henderson, Nat Hentoff and Nancy Wilson-at January's International Association for Jazz Education's conference. During IAJE all the living Jazz Masters gathered together for a reunion lunch, which culminated in the "Great Day for Jazz" photo you see above.
Around the same time Verve released a NEA Jazz Masters two-CD collection featuring 28 cuts, and then in March the Endowment announced a two-year, 50-state tour featuring several of the awardees. In June President Bush welcomed three Jazz Masters-Billy Taylor, Chico Hamilton and James Moody-and six student musicians to the East Room of the White House for a performance to celebrate Black Music Month. During his remarks, the president showed his way with language by mispronouncing the Marsalis family name as "Mar-say-us."
Who knew W. spoke French?
Late in the year the Endowment reached an agreement with Jazz at Lincoln Center to work on a series of events, and to close out 2004 the NEA named its 2005 Jazz Masters: Kenny Burrell, Paquito D'Rivera, Slide Hampton, Shirley Horn, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Smith and George Wein.
As President Bush might say, "C'est bone, uh, workay pore la jazzay and-eh pore 'Merica, Monsooray Gioia. He he he."
No offense to the streamlined elegance of Mosaic's box sets, which document some of the most important works in jazz, but don't you sorta miss the days when it seemed like once a month some label would issue an enormous compilation in ridicuously elaborate, utterly unfunctional, mind-blowingly cool packaging? It seems like the vaults, and label budgets, are awfully tight these days-at least until the inevitable SACD or DVD-A versions come out. But there were three box sets in 2004 that lived up to days of yore-OK, the mid- to late-'90s-which combined inventive designs with wicked-good music:
Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1963-1964 is the latest metal-spined addition to the Miles Davis oeuvre overseen by Columbia/Legacy. It wasn't voted JazzTimes' reissue of the year for nothing.
The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions, housed in a compact metal frame with LP sleeve reproductions, is a perfect companion to the earlier The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic on Verve, 1944-1949. Both collections honor Granz's vision in style.
But for sheer straight-from-the-heart nuttiness, Revenant's Albert Ayler box set, Holy Ghost: Rare and Unissued Recordings (1962-70), might be the most remarkable collection ever produced-at least since the label's equally over-the-top and love-filled Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton. In addition to nine CDs of rare and unissued recordings-from radio and TV sessions, studio demos, private recordings and concert footage-you get a 208-page hardcover book, essays by Amiri Baraka, Val Wilmer and others as well as full reproductions of a concert handbill, a note from Ayler on hotel stationary and Baraka's 1969 fanzine Cricket. You also get a dried flower. Yes, a dried flower. Everything is tucked away in a plastic reproduction of a handcarved spirit box.
Sometimes you don't know whether to listen to the music in Holy Ghost or just sit and stare in awe at Revenant's achievement. Do both.
Jazz Industry Power Index
This is the fourth year of our Power Index. Some of these folks work behind the curtains, some play in the spotlight-all have significant economic impact upon jazz musicians. At least for now.
1. Wynton Marsalis
Last year: 2
Skinny: Marsalis has always been a big-time multi-hyphenate artist. But now, with the opening of the Lincoln Center's sensational new jazz facility, he's king of the jazz world. Autocracy has never swung so hard.
2. Bruce Lundvall
Last year: 1
Skinny: The second Norah Jones CD has not yet duplicated her debut's sales, but the numbers are still astronomical for a jazz label. And with Al Green, Van Morrison and Anita Baker on the roster, this label has more crossover than Allen Iverson in the open court. But that doesn't mean that jazz Buddha Lundvall will forsake the label's rich legacy and artistic vision. Jason Moran? Greg Osby? Don Byron? Nuf sed.
3. Ted Kurland
Ted Kurland & Associates
Last year: 5
Skinny: His agency books and manages many of the world's greatest jazz musicians, making him the William Morris of the jazz world. Or think '90s-era Ovitz minus the ego and high profile.
4. Bill McFarlin
Last year: 3
Skinny: Jazz record sales may be waning, but jazz education is a growing field, and the International Association for Jazz Education is a growing organization. The gardener-in-chief is McFarlin, who has repositioned the organization to include the jazz industry through Jazz Alliance International.
5. John Phillips
Last year: 7
Skinny: George Wein's organization remains the world's preeminent festival and concert production company. Phillips captains the ship these days, with Wein in the retired admiral role-just don't call him retired, OK?
6. Glen Barros
Last year: 16
Skinny: For jazz labels it's all about catalog and crossover. Adding Fantasy's remarkable library to Concord's already deep catalog takes care of the former. The latter came in boatloads with the commercial success of Ray Charles and Peter Cincotti. Barros is sitting pretty on top of this company.
7. Jessica Sendra
Borders Books & Music
Last year: 8
Skinny: Brick and mortar still works-and no retail chain works harder at jazz sales than Borders. With more than 450 stores, Borders can make or break an artist. The good news is that Sendra, the gatekeeper for jazz sales, is a true jazzbeaux.
8. Ann Marie Wilkins
Last year: 10
Skinny: Her management company pulls the strings for high-powered artists such as Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis. A tough negotiator, Wilkins remains a paradox: she's a low-profile person working in a high-profile biz.
9. Dave Love
Last year: 13
Skinny: Love, Heads Up and Telarc just keep snatching up all of those formerly-major-label artists. The latest snatchees include Geri Allen and Michael Brecker. Who said a small market team couldn't compete with those New York powerhouses? Love has been doing it for 15 years now.
10. Derek Gordon
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Last year: Unrated
Skinny: As the new executive director at J@LC, Gordon moves over from the Kennedy Center, where he developed a remarkable jazz program and learned about politics and diplomacy. Swimming in a slightly bigger pond can only enhance this intelligent man's power and influence.
John R.T. Davies
sound-restoration engineer, 77
Arthur Harper Jr.
Calvin J. Jones
jazz educator, 75
Ellis Marsalis Sr.
Marsalis' grandfather, 96
Dorothy Denny Scardino
Joel E. Siegel
Noble "Thin Man" Watts
Claude "Fiddler" Williams
Originally published in January/February 2005