May 2010 By Lee Mergner
The Jazz Connection
As a 20-year veteran of this magazine, I’ve become a chronic theme hunter. In this issue, which we like to call our Festival Issue because of the comprehensive listings for jazz and blues fests all over the world, there also seems to be an implicit theme of connection—between artists and their audience, between the artists themselves and between the music of various cultures.
Jazz forms the basis for a community that is so diverse no one can ever define it. It’s a notion that runs throughout the issue: from the cover story about two musicians from a tiny country for whom jazz formed a foundation that held through travels across the globe … to a New Orleans trumpeter who believes music should have a message … to a pianist and composer who specializes in cultural amalgams.
Festival presenter Frank Malfitano knows exactly what I’m talking about because he worked for JT in a similar capacity back in 1989-1990—theme issues and a Festival Guide were his ideas—and because he’s a longtime event director who has “themed” many a jazz festival. “Themes work well for us at the Syracuse Jazz Fest,” Malfitano says of the free-admission event where he is currently executive director. “They work well for the musicians, the fans, the media, the sponsors. Themes make what the festival is offering more understandable and accessible. The key word here is ‘inclusive.’”
Malfitano agrees that how we program jazz can help to create connections. “I consider myself a jazz educator and a community organizer,” he says. “It’s all about eliminating the barriers that may exist between the artists and the audience. We’re getting music to the people and people to the music. We have so many barriers as it is. Jazz is not part of the mass media, not on the radio much, not part of the schools’ curriculum. Festivals are taking on an increasing role in education in America.”
He has also come to understand the unique aspects of jazz as a music that celebrates diversity. “Our festival is diverse. Our audience is diverse. We bring people together who would never come together. The music does that. The days of me putting up four groups on a stage that don’t have anything to do with each other are over. We put bands onstage who know each other, have played with each other and respect each other. We’re trying to achieve a sense of community. That’s what it’s all about. Community and themes are what tie it all together.”
Like me, Malfitano is a big-tent guy as far as what is included under the banner of jazz. “I like to think that we put on a festival for people who know nothing about jazz and for people who know everything about jazz,” he explains. “We’ve had to create an event with wide appeal. In jazz, we’re often our own worst enemies. We need to be populist to survive … to be commercially viable.”
Though a term often muddled by demagoguery or politics, populism does sound like the right note to play for jazz festivals and jazz magazines grappling with diversity as well as limited resources. So let’s strike up this uncommon music for the common man.
Originally published in May 2010