Uncovering Jazz Trails

The headline in Allegro, the newspaper of New York’s Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, heralded the presence of the jazz tribe: “over 8,000 educators, musicians, industry executives, media and students from 45 countries,” attending the 34th annual conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators. And when the annual photo of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters in the hotel’s lobby got under way, there were so many paparazzi you’d think jazz is a popular music.

And a long piece by Nate Chinen in the Jan. 7 New York Times was headed: “Jazz is Alive and Well, In the Classrooms Anyway.” The last phrase in that headline brought me back to reality. There have never been so many colleges, universities, free-standing teaching institutions on how to become a jazz musician. But where would all these graduates find gigs, let alone recording contracts?

Toward the end of the Times’ article, Bill Pierce, chairman of the woodwinds department at the Berklee School of Music, said: “What I’m hoping, for the future of the music, is that the students who come to these schools go back to their communities to create their own scenes and develop their own audiences so the music can come back to some level, as it maybe once was.”

It’s an appealing vision, but how could it happen in real time? Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has done more for jazz than all of his predecessors, and the rest of the federal government. So I’ve sent him the beginnings of an idea-which hopefully readers of this column will enlarge-on how to make the communities to which newly minted jazz musicians return welcoming and supportive boosters of the music.

I got this notion while researching a piece that appeared in the Jan. 17 Wall Street Journal: “Jazz History Is Living in Queens.” I’ve covered jazz in New York City since 1953, but almost entirely in the borough of Manhattan. I had no idea of the depth of the jazz roots in the borough of Queens. I knew Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie were neighbors, but not that among its residents had been Bix Beiderbecke, “Fats” Waller and Tony Sparger, a member of the New Orleans combo that made the first jazz recording.

Among those buried there are Scott Joplin, Johnny Hodges and Jimmy Rushing. Nor did I know what the first time Teddy Wilson jammed with Benny Goodman was at a party in the Queens home of Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo. That encounter and Goodman hiring Wilson provided the momentum for black and white jazz musicians to play together in public, not only in after-hours sessions.

Dana Gioia is already sending NEA Jazz Masters to talk and play at colleges, jazz societies and other jazz-based organizations around the country. But if the NEA-or other sources, like perhaps the IAJE-could fund research into localities around the country where jazz, like in Queens, has significant roots, present and future students from all these education classes could help form annual Jazz Pride Days and other continuing linkages to get radio and television coverage of the music (not only on Jazz Days), along with year-round support from civic boosters.

I keep being surprised-and I know others with similar experiences-at how many jazz buffs there are in all kinds of professions and other vocations: lawyers, judges, court bailiffs, taxi drivers, surgeons, et al. A concerted movement in cities and other areas to dig into the jazz history and its personalities in those places could help create a living and growing jazz community with corollary gigs in clubs, concert halls, public schools and African-American churches where gospel music is still resoundingly alive.

I thought I knew all there was to know about the lively Boston jazz scene, of which I was a part from 1945 to 1953. But reading just parts of Richard Vacca’s book-in-progress, Making the Scene: The People and Places of Boston Jazz, showed me how much I didn’t know was happening then-as well as afterwards.

Over the years, I’d done some research on the Detroit jazz scene, but when I interviewed Congressman John Conyers (now chairman of the House Judiciary Committee), I discovered he had gone to high school with some of the later major figures of the music, and is otherwise a scholar of Detroit jazz. (Not surprisingly, he keeps certain jazz recordings in his office to energize him during the squalls and doldrums of Congress.)

What remains to be discovered and celebrated in Memphis, on Central Avenue in Los Angeles, regions of Oklahoma and Texas and, as I’m just finding out, Hawaii?

Survivors of these scenes, and of the regional territory bands, could unpack their instruments and join in the historiography along with getting paying gigs to bring the research to life. And very importantly, they could meet and share with students-including recent graduates with formal jazz education-their experiences, along with what they learned from their elders. As Phil Woods told me, an important part of his early evolution was what he learned-on the band bus-from older players. Just from talking to them.

An impetus for jazz-curious folk living in or visiting Queens is a vivid, illustrated “Queens Jazz Trails” map, given out as part of the regularly scheduled “Queens Jazz Trails” tours-showing where these legends lived and other dimensions of the jazz scene there. In time, perhaps there will be jazz-trails maps and tours in other cities.

I would welcome information from readers in other cities or regions with jazz histories, however little known. You can write me care of JT. Also, if Dana Gioia doesn’t have the resources for, or interest in, this project, I’d appreciate other suggestions for getting jazz trails discovered and then populated by musicians, young and old, from these regenerated jazz scenes.