All what jazz? Not at this fest

This week's Paetec Jazz Festival offers little of its namesake musical form

August 08, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN REPORTER

The Paetec Jazz Festival, coming to Baltimore this week, has its bases covered.

Blues? B.B. King.

Rock? Little Richard.

Soul? Al Green.

Funk? Earth, Wind & Fire.

But jazz? Not so much.

"It's a music festival," said Andy Bienstock, host of a nightly jazz show on WYPR-FM. He said he wouldn't describe it as a jazz festival since the majority of the 40 acts fall into some other category. But Bienstock knows the reality of the market: Jazz doesn't sell.

"What's interesting is that jazz as a marketing term seems to mean more than jazz itself," he said. "We'll call it a jazz festival and people will love it. But we won't put any jazz in it because people won't come."

In other words, jazz might be respected, even revered as the essence of cool, but relatively few people listen to it. Sales of jazz CDs are down, and jazz clubs in Baltimore and across the country have closed. But none of that has prevented the proliferation of "jazz festivals," such as the one arriving tomorrow in Baltimore.

True fans, though, say such festivals are jazz in name only.

"No doubt B.B. King, Little Richard and Al Green are well-established, well-loved artists," said Henry Wong, owner of Baltimore's An die Musik, which sells jazz and classical CDs. "But only in an umbrella sense are they jazz. They're not even close to smooth jazz."

To be fair, the three-day Baltimore festival has booked a few jazz acts of local, national and international renown. From the Hungarian fusion jazz group Djabe to Baltimore's Todd Butler, jazz does have a (small) place in the festival. But organizers acknowledge that to sell tickets, they needed to widen their focus.

"Acoustic jazz is not the biggest selling music we have today," said John Nugent, the festival's artistic director. "If I put an event together with only that style of jazz, I wouldn't have any sponsors, and it would sell 3 percent of the tickets" that a more diverse festival would sell.

He's not alone in that assessment, as other jazz festivals also feel compelled to dilute their jazz content. Even in New Orleans, which some consider the birthplace of jazz, the Heritage and Jazz Festival has featured such distinctly non-jazz musicians as Dave Matthews, Rod Stewart, Brad Paisley and Lucinda Williams.

So why call it a jazz festival at all?

Nugent's rationale is almost philosophical. He insists that the artists playing in Baltimore this week were all influenced by jazz, even if the music they are making would not be classified as such. "All forms of music today came from the form that we know as jazz," said Nugent, a saxophone player. "Bands like Earth, Wind & Fire and B.B. King, who's a blues artist, their music did not just come out of nowhere. It came from the traditions of American music, which is jazz."

Jazz originated in the early 20th century and is marked by an improvisational style and group interaction. It has constantly evolved, encompassing swing in the 1930s, bebop in the 1940s and fusion in the '60s and '70s. Jazz's popularity peaked in the middle of the century, but as recently as 30 years ago, many cities boasted a rich jazz scene.

Baltimore was among them, hardly a surprise for a town that spawned three legendary performers, Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway. They and other jazz luminaries, such as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Woody Herman, made regular appearances in venues on West Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue or in concerts hosted by the Left Bank Jazz Society in the old Famous Ballroom on North Charles Street.

But most of Baltimore's jazz clubs have closed, and musicians must travel or teach to get by.

"It's very difficult to make a living just playing jazz," said Todd Butler, a noted trumpet player who teaches in Baltimore. "There's less and less jazz venues. Unfortunately, a lot of it is due to folks not wanting to come out and listen to the music."

He doesn't fault the jazz festival organizers for setting up a festival that is not strictly jazz.

"I understand what they're doing," Butler said. "They're trying to bring in national acts that are maybe more popular but not necessarily jazz acts in order to bring crowds in and expose them to this music."

But another prominent Baltimore jazz musician, pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, was surprised to hear that the headliners for the festival are B.B. King, Little Richard and Al Green.

"I don't understand that," Gilchrist said. "It's not improvisational music of any kind. I mean, it's great music, but, my lord, why are they calling this a jazz festival?

"Why don't they call it the jazz and R&B and rock `n' roll festival?"

Organizers said they're trying to make jazz more popular, and one way to expose people to jazz is to draw them to the festival with mainstream acts. Organizers also said they hope to make the festival an annual event in Baltimore, noting that future fests could feature more jazz once the event is established.

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