Benin-born, New York-based guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke returned to DC in late April to play the White House for International Jazz Day. He seemed to enjoy the challenge of this listening session, even taking notes about unfamiliar artists Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sonny Sharrock for follow-up research. The music world was still reeling from the sudden passing of Prince the week before, so we included a track from The Artist in order to learn about his reputation in Africa. Loueke continues to tour internationally behind his recent live trio recording, GAÏA (Blue Note).
“Junior’s Jam” (from Miles Ahead Soundtrack, Columbia/Legacy). Glasper, Keyboard, Keyon Harrold, trumpet, Marcus Strickland, saxophone; Burniss Earl Travis, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums. Recorded in 2015.
I was recently interviewed about the state of jazz by culture journalist Bjarke Due Gunslev for the Danish newspaper Information. For reasons of space, he only used a few quotes in the final piece. I’ll now post below the entire interview we did in English via email, then at the bottom is the final article in Danish.
– Are there in your opinion criteria that has to be met for it to make sense to define a piece of music as jazz?
For me, there are traditions you can point to, or trends that emerge over time, but there’s no checklist or rulebook that says jazz must conform to one theory, aspect, formula or principle, and I’m glad there isn’t. That would be boring; the sort of thing rigid, humorless people dwell on. You might say such an attitude goes against the sprit or soul of jazz. Or, to borrow a term from the moldy figs of the 1960s, that paint-by-numbers approach is “anti-jazz.”
Journalist Margo Ormotsadze first interviewed me for Forbes last summer with provocative questions about the state of jazz. She recently followed up by asking a new set of questions via email. Here is her published interview in Russian which appeared in YEP.TODAY. The original interview in English is below.
How the XXI century changes jazz? What new time can give to the new music?
We know that music is a language and languages are rarely static. We always have new idioms, new expressions and reinvention of older styles. We’re seeing increasing numbers of students wanting to study and learn how to play jazz or become jazz musicians, but there are limited numbers of jobs and it’s becoming more difficult to make a living as a player. There’s just so much competition, and in the U.S., very little public support. Even in Europe, subsidies are shrinking. Oddly, jazz music, which has always had a finger on the pulse of politics, seems somewhat apolitical these days. We’re not seeing much much original new work focused on what’s happening politically. Musicians will often speak about and share their political opinions, but that is rarely reflected in their music, except maybe in oblique ways. The jazz intelligentsia also seems to have a chip on its shoulder and overreacts to any insult about the music that can be found on the internet.
Apart from that, we may see some developments involving formats (such as high definition vinyl), new modes or models of distribution, new theories, new hybrids, new audiences, etc. But the differences and developments may not necessarily be fundamental. There’s still and always will be the matter of creative people coming out of the jazz tradition expressing themselves in ways that may or may not be compelling to the general or esoteric audience. It’s a safe prediction that there will be greater challenges ahead when art tries to reconcile with commerce and the marketplace, especially when it comes to venues for live music.
What young musicians deserve attention?
There’s a new crop emerging every year. Joey Alexander, for example, is still a very young man, barely a teenager, so I look forward to hearing his journey as he matures. I think Cecile McLorin Salvant and Esperanza Spalding are doing interesting things, although they’ve been out there for a while (Esperanza is 31, Cecile is 26). I could also point to Marquis Hill, Kayon Harrold, Jamison Ross, Linda Oh, Kendrick Scott and many others. And these are just the Americans. This music is played all over the world and it’s always exciting to discover new talent deserving of wider recognition.
How do you choose what music to listen to?
I would rather be moved than impressed, so anything that makes me feel something will catch my ear.
Which page in the history of jazz is most important to you? Why?
I like many different styles, but I suppose what interests me most are the transitions from one era to another. And I like both innovators and stylists.
What importance do you think about Ukrainian jazz?
I think it’s important to Ukrainians. They tell stories with their music that resonate with anyone who is open. But I think that Ukrainians may be able to appreciate these stories and better understand without having to translate or think about it. At the same time, there is a need to get out there into the international marketplace, to travel, to exchange views and experiences with other musicians from around the world.
What you can wish to Ukrainian musicians?
The courage to go deeper and not give up.
What important events of 2016 year in jazz you can denote? What you expect from the jazz year?
I’m always hoping to hear something new that will blow me away. Next month I will interview both Maria Schneider and Abdullah Ibrahim, and I’m working on arranging to give some lectures in Europe this summer, including at the Alfa Jazz Festival in Lviv. So it will be nice to revisit and catch up with my Ukrainian friends.
On June 1, 2015, Machito’s son, Mario Grillo, donated Machito’s handwritten scores and arrangements to the Library of Congress. For this celebration, we discussed Grillo’s family, his work as a studio percussionist and orchestra leader, his Aunt Graciela and his father’s contributions to American music.
I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of curating the new Jazz Singers exhibit at the Library of Congress. I’m grateful to all my colleagues in the Music Division and the Interpretive Programs Office for help and support during the months leading up to our Feb. 11 opening. Special thanks goes to Exhibition Director Betsy Nahum–Miller for keeping us focused and on schedule. Betsy and I are now working on a version of the exhibit we’ll send out to Disney Hall in Los Angeles in the Fall.
I’m pleased to report that we got a nice early boost from the New York Times when they posted a preview, then Milenio, the national newspaper in Mexico, weighed in. I was especially pleased when Will Friedwald, who has written several important books on jazz singers, came to Washington to view the exhibit and and for context spent time delving into more of the jazz treasures in our special collections. Will then returned to New York and wrote this insightful, perceptive review for the Wall Street Journal. Continue reading
I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in Rockville, Maryland this weekend. Panelists included [left to right]: publicist Matt Merewitz (Fully Altered Media), Willard Jenkins (D.C. Jazz Festival), saxophonist, educator and concert producer Tim Warfield, jazz critic Mike West (Washington Post, City Paper, JazzTimes) and yours truly. The topic was “Does the Jazz Media have a positive affect on the jazz audience?” We also explored approaches and strategies for audience development. It was a stimulating, insightful conversation and I’m grateful to Festival Director Paul Carr for making it possible. Thanks also to Judy Korey for snapping this pic.
My exhibit on Jazz Singers opened this week at the Library of Congress:
Here’s a short piece about it from the New York Times. The exhibit stays up until the 3rd week in July, then it moves out to Disney Hall in Los Angeles. If you’re in or around DC any time during the next 5 months, please stop by and let me know what you think.