Highs & Lows 2012
The annual supplement to our January/February Year in Review issue, on newsstands now
This roundup is a supplement to our January/February 2013 issue, available now via iTunes and on newsstands today.
It was probably coincidental, but two of the most forward-looking yet commercially viable artists in jazz, Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding, had the “radio” on their minds last year, and toured their latest concepts following impressive initial sales. The Robert Glasper Experiment’s release on Blue Note, Black Radio, debuted in Billboard’s Top 200 album chart at No. 15 and earned a Grammy nomination in the Best R&B Album category. Spalding’s Radio Music Society (Heads Up) also picked up a nomination, for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and peaked at No. 10 in Billboard. Both artists managed to capture mainstream attention without sacrificing their jazz credibility outright.
Jack’s Big Birthday Year
Jack DeJohnette turned 70 in August and had a huge year all around. In January he was awarded an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship and released one of 2012’s best albums, Sound Travels, a wide-ranging yet consistently effective meld of styles and high-profile personnel. His strikingly flexible working band—saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, guitarist David Fiuczynski, keyboardist George Colligan and bassist Jerome Harris—gigged a good deal, including a stand at the Blue Note and a performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where DeJohnette was a fixture throughout the weekend. (A festival set to remember: DeJohnette’s duo set with Bill Frisell. Anyone got a soundboard recording of that one?)
A dozen not-for-profit organizations woke up to good news last Jan. 10 when the National Endowment for the Arts announced that grants totaling $135,000 would be heading their way. The NEA Jazz Masters Live grants are intended “to bring outstanding jazz musicians, writers, producers and scholars to communities across the nation through such activities as performances, master classes, clinics, lectures and short-term residencies.” First-time recipients included the Deer Isle Jazz Festival, Harlem Stage, the Healdsburg Jazz Festival and New York’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center.
Saints Marching On
New Orleans’ venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band celebrated its 50th anniversary on Jan. 7 with a Carnegie Hall concert that included guest spots from the Del McCoury Band, Allen Toussaint and My Morning Jacket, released later in the year as St. Peter & 57th St. (Rounder). The group also released a retrospective four-CD box set, which reached backed to their earliest recordings, and toured extensively, covering ground from the Northeast down to South America.
Sex Meets Sax
In February, a British digital jazz radio station inadvertently aired five minutes of sound from a pornographic film at the same time its regular programming was streaming. According to a news report from the U.K., a broadcast assistant was watching the pornography while a prerecorded show was being broadcast. The employee neglected to turn off a live mic in the room, sending out the grunts and moans to the station’s subscribers.
Berne to Shine
Last year was a momentous one for the stalwart avant-garde saxophonist, composer and bandleader Tim Berne. In February he released his first album as a leader for the ECM label, Snakeoil, featuring a new band of flawlessly suited comrades: Oscar Noriega, Matt Mitchell and Ches Smith. The music, as is Berne’s wont, inspires repeat listens without offering too much in the way of accessibility. With its softly off-kilter harmonies and labyrinthine compositions, Snakeoil demands you peel back its layers—or at least try to.
Especially for an enormous, public-private cultural institution, D.C.’s Kennedy Center made one very hip decision in 2011, naming Jason Moran its new artistic advisor for jazz. The best jazz programming merges the past with the present, so who better to take the helm than an artist who embodies that ideal? In March of last year, the Center announced its 2012-2013 season, and Moran’s influence could be instantly felt. In addition to the usual heavy-hitters were iconoclasts like Anthony Braxton and, less provocative but still daring, Moran’s employer Charles Lloyd. Among Moran's other contributions to the Center is the Supersized Jazz Club, an atrium space where improvised music will get its dance floor back.
Congress Gives Lena Horne Props
On April 17, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill called H.R. 1815, otherwise known as the Lena Horne Recognition Act. Rep. Alcee Hastings [D-FL] sponsored the bill in order to recognize the late singer’s achievements and contributions to American culture and the civil rights movement. By year’s end, however, the bill had yet to pass the Senate or be signed by President Obama.
A Day of Our Own
It was Herbie Hancock’s idea: Every year, April 30 would be designated International Jazz Day. And man, did he ever make good on that concept! In his role as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Hancock, in partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute, led celebrations in New Orleans (where Kermit Ruffins, Terence Blanchard and others performed at sunrise in Congo Square) and, later that same day, at the United Nations headquarters in New York. That gig was über-memorable: an all-star parade including Hancock, Esperanza Spalding, Stevie Wonder, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Bennett and many others spreading the word about the “universal language” that is jazz.
Latin Jazz Lives
One of the big music stories of 2011 was the decision by NARAS to eliminate more than 30 Grammy Awards categories, including the one designated for Latin jazz. Many in the jazz community, particularly Latin jazz artists like Bobby Sanabria and Eddie Palmieri, were outraged, not only airing their grievances but even suing the Recording Academy (the suit was dismissed by a judge). Last July, their perseverance paid off, however, when the category was restored.
Rebirth of the Cool
Ryan Truesdell: There’s a name you didn’t know before 2012 but certainly did after, and one you likely won’t stop hearing about for years to come. Truesdell, a Wisconsin-raised arranger, producer and copyist who holds a master’s in jazz composition from New England Conservatory, unearthed a number of previously unrecorded compositions and arrangements by the late, great Gil Evans, and brought those lost masterworks to life via a crack ensemble containing heavyweights like Joe Locke, Donny McCaslin and Lewis Nash. Truesdell’s album, Centennial (ArtistShare), and live performances, including a high-profile slot at the Newport Jazz Festival, made him jazz’s biggest critical favorite this side of Vijay Iyer.
Blue Note: Alive & Kicking
Blue Note, arguably the greatest brand in jazz history, laid low in 2010 and 2011. But last January, the label’s reins were taken up by pop/rock producer and musician extraordinaire Don Was, and the association has already been a fruitful one (especially for those intrigued by the shared space between jazz and R&B).
The biggest news for diehard jazzers: Was re-signing Wayne Shorter, who turns 80 this summer and releases Without a Net in February, a collection of 2011 tour recordings by his deathless working band of Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Thanks to Was, trumpeter Terence Blanchard is also back on the Blue Note roster. Van Morrison marked his return to the Blue Note fold with Born to Sing: No Plan B on Oct. 2. Was also brought onboard the jazz-soul baritone José James, whose No Beginning No End comes out Jan. 22; and Aaron Neville, whose impeccably under-produced collection of mostly doo-wop-era hits, My True Story, also drops Jan. 22.
More jazz-focused 2012 offerings from the label include Ravi Coltrane’s Blue Note debut, Spirit Fiction, Lionel Loueke’s Heritage and Chano Dominguez’s Flamenco Sketches. Joe Lovano’s latest featuring his double-drummer quintet Us Five, Cross Culture, is out Tuesday. And of course there was the Robert Glasper Experiment’s bestselling Black Radio, a savvy meld of sharp R&B and jazz learning. The Experiment’s bass player, Derrick Hodge, was also picked up by the new label head, and has a Blue Note album forthcoming.
Stamp of Approval
One can only imagine what Miles himself would have made of it: his face on a United States postage stamp. Nevertheless, in July the US Postal Service dedicated its Miles “forever” stamp at a Los Angeles ceremony attended by various family members and musicians such as Marcus Miller and Henry Rollins.
Jazz Radio Blues
Jazz radio suffered a blow in June when WGBH-FM, Boston’s long-running jazz station, announced that it was cutting back its jazz programming on weeknights. Longtime host Eric Jackson was relegated to weekend broadcast only, while Steve Schwartz’s Friday show was eliminated. Both jocks had been with WGBH since the 1980s.
Kickstart My Art
It’s no secret that jazz artists, like artists in virtually every field, are hurting in the present economy. Record labels are being more cautious in their signings, venues are closing or scaling back on bookings—it’s tougher than ever to eke out a living playing music. So some jazz artists are turning to Kickstarter, the enormously popular website that allows creative people to reach out to fans for financial support, usually with promises of something in return (a copy of the DVD, a meet-and-greet with the artist, etc.). Nate Chinen covered the phenomenon in his September “The Gig” column, citing successful efforts by saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, composer/bandleader Darcy James Argue and singer Kat Edmonson.
Jazz for Obama Redux
How would you describe the 2012 U.S. presidential election and its unflagging media coverage? Tortuous, smothering, exhausting, ridiculous—all of those work. At least one evening of truth and beauty came out of those long weeks leading up to election day—Jazz for Obama 2012, pianist Aaron Goldberg’s second all-star benefit concert for our current president. Hosted by Dee Dee Bridgewater at New York City’s Symphony Space on Oct. 9, the show seemingly featured every jazz A-lister who happened to be in Tri-State Area—Mehldau, McCoy, Carter, Haynes, Lovano, McBride, Watts, Heath, Hall and on and on. As for the Commander-in-Chief … no dice.
“Nice” probably wasn’t the first word that came to mind at the Miami Nice Jazz Festival in October, when singer Dee Dee Bridgewater reportedly walked off stage, citing a dispute with the organizers over method of payment. Informing the assembled fans that her “contract was signed months ago, but it has not been respected,” according to published reports, Bridgewater didn’t perform because she was upset that she’d been given a standard check rather than a cashier’s check or cash.
The devastating damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in late October did not, of course, spare jazz venues in New York City. Many clubs were forced to temporarily close due to water damage, while others, which managed to escape the surging floods, lost power in the Lower Manhattan blackout. During and following the catastrophe, organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America assisted musicians who’d lost their homes and instruments.
Pianist of Peace
In November, UNESCO named Panamanian pianist and composer Danilo Pérez an Artist for Peace. The institution cited Pérez “as one of the most preeminent musicians of his generation.” UNESCO Artists for Peace, a press release explained, “use their influence, charisma and prestige to help promote UNESCO’s message and programs … heightening public awareness regarding key development issues.”
Marcus Miller & Band Involved in Bus Accident
Bassist Marcus Miller and members of his touring band and crew escaped serious injury when their bus was involved in a crash in Switzerland in November. Tragically, the bus driver was killed. Miller and the other passengers were admitted to an area hospital and released soon after.
Jazz Heresy of the Year
As if the so-called duet between Kenny G and Louis Armstrong wasn’t enough to antagonize jazz fans, last year singer Rod Stewart released an artificially created “virtual duet” with Ella Fitzgerald. The “collaboration,” on the track “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” was featured on Stewart’s Christmas TV special in late November. Stewart also sang with living artists Chris Botti, Trombone Shorty, Mary J. Blige and Michael Bublé.
Autumn in New York
For one day, Nov. 10, NYC’s Central Park became one giant jazz venue as Jazz & Colors took over the 1.317 square-mile space. The brainchild of local entrepreneur Peter Shapiro, Jazz & Colors placed 30 different bands at 30 strategic locations within the park, and each group (ostensibly) played the same setlist of standards and New York-centric tunes. From the Mingus Big Band to saxophonist JD Allen’s quartet to the Jason Kao Hwang Trio, casual strollers and dedicated jazzhounds could discover something new or dart madly among the trees and pathways trying to take in as much as possible.
Tragedy in Connecticut
The tragic elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn., last month claimed the lives of 20 children, among them Ana Marquez-Greene, the 6-year-old daughter of jazz saxophonist and educator Jimmy Greene. In the days following the horrific massacre, the Greene family released a statement in which they said, “In a musical family, her gift for melody, pitch and rhythm stood out remarkably. And she never walked anywhere—her mode of transportation was dance. She danced from room to room and place to place. She danced to all the music she heard, whether in the air or in her head.”
A Bad Day in Harlem
Lenox Lounge, the Harlem nightspot that hosted such jazz icons during its 70-year run as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, closed its doors at the end of December. Proprietor Alvin Reed shuttered the club when the landlord raised his rent by more than double, according to reports.
Hitler’s Hot Jazz Band
The Nazis’ official term for jazz was entartete musik, or “degenerate music,” but the German people, like so many others of the 1930s, couldn’t help but dig the new swing sounds. So, according to an article published on Smithsonian.com in May, Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, created what the site described as “a Nazi-approved, state-sponsored hot jazz band known as Charlie and His Orchestra.” The musicians had to follow a set of rules though: “Jewishly gloomy lyrics” were verboten, as was scat-singing and plucking of strings. The latter technique, apparently, was “detrimental to Aryan musicality.”
Gregory Porter: Vocal Jazz’s Great Male Hope
He seemed to come out of nowhere in 2010, when his debut album, Water, was widely praised as one of that year’s finds and earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. But 2012 proved that Gregory Porter’s success was no fluke: Be Good, his sophomore release for Motéma Music, received across-the-board raves and scaled to the top of iTunes’ Jazz Albums chart in the U.S., U.K. and Norway, and to No. 6 on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart. “Real Good Hands,” a track from the album, earned Porter his second Grammy nomination, this time for Best Traditional R&B Performance, and became the first song by a jazz artist to be featured as the iTunes Single of the Week.
Rock/Pop Stars Go Jazz … Yet Again
Another year, another round of jazz records by pop and rock stars. Some, like Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts—who released a live set with his A,B,C & D of Boogie Woogie band—and British singer Joe Jackson—whose Ellington tribute The Duke was actually quite impressive—have history with and obvious affinity for jazz. Others, such as Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey (After Hours), and Paul McCartney (Kisses on the Bottom, made with Diana Krall’s band and John Pizzarelli), indulged a love of standards, while Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry (The Jazz Age) took his own back catalog and set it to swing arrangements. Now, watch as Hollywood mainstays get into the act: Eighties teen-actor sensation Molly Ringwald recently announced that she’ll release a jazz vocal album, Except … Sometimes, in April.
Way Out West
The venerable San Francisco institution SFJAZZ geared up for the January 2013 opening of its long-planned, unprecedented brick-and-mortar facility, the SFJAZZ Center, with a typically robust schedule of concerts and a new “online venue.” The latter, Are You Listening?, is intended as a gathering place for jazz enthusiasts everywhere, “an online space for the types of conversations that are going to take place in the SFJAZZ Center itself,” according to Kevin Causey, SFJAZZ Director of Development.
What’s in a Name?
You can’t get through a year in jazz without at least a little controversy. On conference panels and online, Orrin Evans and especially Nicholas Payton made their controversial case for the retirement of the word “jazz” itself, calling it an outdated “racist” term and insisting that “Black American Music” (or BAM) should replace it. In November, JazzTimes itself was ground zero when the ever-outspoken Branford Marsalis, within a Q&A feature, patently dismissed Payton’s BAM concept, causing Payton, on his own blog, to fire back with “An Open Letter to Branford Marsalis.” Payton’s closing words: “Lauded as one of the ‘young lions’ of the ’80s, the new millennium has shown you to bear more resemblance to a paper tiger.” Ouch.
Originally published in January/February 2013