Jazz Congress 2019 offered a look at the state of the genre in general, as well as some perspectives on the Pittsburgh scene

By January 23, 2019 January 24th, 2019 One Comment

“It was about building community, convening and pulling people together.”

Ralph Alessi (Current Photos by Mike Shanley)

By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer

Sometimes the further you get away from Pittsburgh, the closer it seems. I felt that way while attending Jazz Congress, a two-day conference held January 7 and 8 in the vast enclave of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Before I even entered the front door of the building, I crossed paths with Mensah Wali and Gail Austin of Kente Arts Alliance. Scott Hanley, general manager of WZUM, the Pittsburgh Jazz Channel, could be found networking on the floor of the event. Representatives from the August Wilson Center, Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and a few Pittsburgh-based musicians were also on hand at several panel discussions.

The Jazz Congress drew 1,100 attendees from 19 countries, a 25% increase from the previous year. In addition to opportunities for networking, both days included a total of 45 panel discussions. Musicians and industry professionals discussed topics ranging from marketing to “Jazz in Troubled Times.” One panel celebrated the centennial of drummer Art Blakey by inviting 28 members of his Jazz Messengers band to reminisce about their apprenticeship with the tough but encouraging drummer. Blakey, it should be remembered, grew up in Pittsburgh.

Hanley — whose station broadcasts online as well as terrestrially on 101.1 FM and 1550 AM in Pittsburgh and 88.1 in Bethany, W. VA — says being at an event can have a big impact. “It was about building community, convening and pulling people together,” he says. “One of the especially good things, since I’ve been at this for a long time, was to get people together who didn’t know each other who should know each other.” WZUM got a strong plug when pianist Deanna Witkowski spoke about her recent visit to Pittsburgh during a panel that also included native son Benny Benack III.

A number of panels covered topics that have been a staple of such conventions, such as marketing tips and jazz radio (hint: don’t start your song with a bass solo). Shaunna Machosky, of the Pittsburgh-based JazzzDog Promotions, liked the panel “Jazz Radio in 2019 and Beyond: Staying Relevant.” “Jazz is very relevant. Even though there aren’t as many full time jazz stations anymore there are a lot of stations that have really significant amounts of jazz programming,” says Machosky, who, like Hanley, worked at WDUQ-FM. “I have clients that have stopped doing print publicity because [they’ve said], ‘People are actually hearing me on the radio and people are hearing me on the radio online.’ There’s value there.”

Some of the more engaging panels included “Jazz, Swing, Race and Culture” where JALC figurehead Wynton Marsalis spoke philosophically about the topic. One of the lighter moments came when bassist Christian McBride looked at pianist Myra Melford, whose music toys with structure and rhythm more than any of her fellow panelists. “Myra, you’re funky,” McBride said. “There’s weight in your music.” The next day, a panel covering Miles Davis’ electric 1970s music featured a gallery of former sideman, who discussed the trumpeter’s heady period, complete with several imitations of his raspy voice.

But Jazz Congress also went out on a limb with two panels toward the end of the second day. Pianist Vijay Iyer, vocalist René Marie and pianist Arturo O’Farrill took part in “Jazz In Troubled Times,” discussing the importance of speaking up for important issues in their music, and how that has riled up audiences, not always in the best way.

That panel was immediately followed by “Making Spaces in Jazz for Transgender Voices,” a topic that proved to be very relevant but rarely discussed in jazz circles. Jennifer Leitham, a bassist for 45 years who played with Doc Severinsen and Mel Tormé, and Chloe Rowlands, a member of the brass quartet The Westerlies, both spoke candidly about their lives. Rowlands’ bandmate Riley Mulherkar, was also on the panel.

As often happens at events like this, there were times when two intriguing panels took place at the same time. Machosky said she ran between a few of them to catch a little of each. But, perhaps because of increased attendance, some rooms at JALC were filled to capacity, and people were turned away. While it was disappointing, she takes a more optimistic stance. “It’s kind of nice when you go to a conference and there’s an embarrassment of riches,” Machosky says.

Before Jazz Congress convened, and several days following its adjournment, the Winter Jazz Fest began its fifteenth year of presenting adventurous music through the city and a bit beyond. What began as a one-night event on three stages at the Knitting Factory in 2004 has grown into a nine-night event at 12 performance spaces. The event kicked off on January 4 with artist-in-residence Meshell Ndegeocello hosting a tribute to Prince. Several stand-alone shows occurred during the following week, but the marathon aspect of WJF kicked into high-gear on January 11 and 12, when multiple acts performed at several spaces throughout Manhattan.

Behind the scenes, Pittsburgh was represented here as well. Matt Merewitz — founder of Fully Altered Media, which represents numerous cutting edge players — handles publicity for the event. While attending Carnegie Mellon University and graduating in 2006, he discovered this music as a WRCT-FM DJ and through instructor Dave Pellow.

Jazz Congress was not the only place to deal with issues of gender. Winter Jazz Fest agreed to take part in an initiative called Key Change, which was introduced by the British performance rights organization PRS. “They are trying to have festivals sign a pledge to achieve a gender parity on their stages by 2022. The current goal is to have at least 51% of bands include one woman in them, or the woman being the leader,” Merewitz says. ”We certainly had enough names in the mix to have a 50/50 split. We achieved the 50% of having one female in bands.”

Winter Jazz Fest covers a wide range of styles from free jazz to traditional to electronic. As such, it attracts a diverse audience. “There are a ton of people who buy Winter Jazz Fest tickets and just go to the Hot Jazz Festival stage,” he says, referring to the locale for traditional jazz. “Some people park themselves in one venue and have a seat, and other people try to be intrepid and go all over the place.”

Your intrepid reporter falls into the latter category, opting for the Shoe Leather Express rather than Lyft. What follows are some highlights of the week.


Jazz, Swing, Race and Culture panel. Left to right: pianist Myra Melford, bassist Christian McBride, moderator Andre Guess, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, trumpeter Nicholas Payton


Jazz In Troubled Times panel. Moderator Larry Blumenfeld, vocalist René Marie,


pianist Vijay Iyer, pianist Arturo O’Farrill

Trumpeter Charles Tolliver and tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders joined saxophonist Gary Bartz at (Le) Poisson Rouge to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bartz’s Another Earth album.

Michael Formanek’s Very Practical Trio opened the ECM Records Stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge. Formanek on bass with Tim Berne (saxophone)

Ralph Alessi and This Against That also played the ECM show. Left to right: Ravi Coltrane, Drew Gress, Alessi, Mark Ferber

Miles Okazaki plays a solo set of Thelonious Monk tunes, segueing themes together in a seamless fashion.

Jon Irabagon tore it up at the Soho Playhouse in a band that includes Latrobe native Chris Lightcap on bass.

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