By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Editor note: This has been updated to correct a misquote from Mark Plotkin
The third annual Jazz Congress conference took place January 13-14, with more than 1,000 artists, journalists and industry representatives descending upon Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. The event was bookended by Winter Jazz Fest, the 16-year old festival that presents cutting-edge jazz musicians (of all types) throughout the city and beyond. On Friday and Saturday prior to the Congress, two marathon evenings presented artists at 11 venues throughout Manhattan. With a few stand-alone shows popping up throughout the week, the festival added a third marathon evening for the first time, with shows happening at six venues in Brooklyn.
Panel topics ran the gamut from marketing to social issues and history. Monday kicked off with “Women In Jazz Town Hall,” which was described as more of a plenary session than a panel. Lead by Kaisha S. Johnson, founding Director of Women of Color in the Arts, the event engaged the audience in a multi-leveled discussion of what will enable more women to succeed in jazz music. Many audience members offered insight, but when one male speaker stressed that female musicians need “to be comfortable with yourself,” it emphasized another expectation that male musicians — who are often praised for their reticence — don’t need to worry about. Later that evening, the Keynote address saluted one of jazz music’s most charismatic singers, the late Betty Carter. A colleague (Dee Dee Bridgewater), her lawyer (Gail Boyd) and several former bandmates vividly recalled the firecracker’s tough exterior and loving interior. That lively talk followed the presentation of the Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award to pianist and educator Barry Harris.
Janis Burley Wilson, President/CEO of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, participated in the Roundtable Discussion “Building & Nurturing Your Jazz Ecosystem.” Guests broke into groups to talk about projects and successes in their areas, with stories from our city coming together with anecdotes told by organizers in Denver and Los Angeles.
For a music that stresses individual expression and personal voices, arguably moreso than any other music, jazz itself wasn’t always first and foremost in panel discussions. Although there were panels acknowledging the centennial of legends Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck, many more were devoted to marketing and social media, with panelists throwing around terms like “branding” and “reverse engineering.” “The Balance of Art & Commerce in the Business of Jazz Recording” focused more on the latter topic in the title. Panelist Marc Plotkin — a Grammy-nominated composer who also teaches at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU — made an interesting comment while discussing the attempt to track the audience who listened to a project of his. An Instagram account most commonly followed amongst the global audience of one of his projects, he explained, was not some major household name or brand, but rather a “Joe Schmoe” from Pittsburgh who shares music he likes. This wasn’t a slight on us yinzers but — as Plotkin clarified in a later email — more proof that individuals hold more influence than the established brands that we think of as most influential.
Plotkin also stated, “I’ve yet to hear of an artist whose fans read music journalism,” which made my future seem even bleaker. Oh well.
But Jazz Congress had its share of hard-hitting moments. Like last year, Wall Street Journal jazz writer Larry Blumenfeld hosted one of the most thought-provoking panels — “We Insist: Speaking Truth to Power,” which borrowed its title from Max Roach’s civil rights era album We Insist — Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. Speaking with guitarist Marc Ribot, multidisciplinary artist Samora Pinderhughes and violinist Regina Carter, Blumenfeld discussed how social activism has shaped the work of these artists. When the topic turned towards the subject of listening to music online, Blumenfeld recalled speaking with a student who told him about listening to Habana, an album by the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove. While the student knew the music, he had no knowledge about the album’s Cuban origins or the musicians who played it, which were album documented in the CD’s liner notes (which just happened to have been penned by Blumenfeld). “This is a different kind of erasure of history,” Blumenfeld told the audience, referring to the death of physical albums.
That panel had its share of levity as well. Ribot, who can often be a little cantankerous at the mic, admitted feeling funny about the idea that musicians should be obligated to take a political stance. “As a musician, my obligation is to rock the house and pay my union dues,” he said.