Monday, March 16, 2009

Don't kill the Messenger

Last month marked the 50th year anniversary of Thelonious Monk's classic performance at Town Hall. To celebrate the event, Town Hall presented two nights of music paying homage to the original concert in two very different evenings.

Jason Moran presented a mixed-media concert that included never-before-heard recordings and images of Monk's rehearsals and arranging sessions. The night before, Charles Tolliver gave a note-for-note recreation of the original tentet performance. While there was some criticism regarding Tolliver's decision to attempt an exact replica of the original performance, no one can doubt that Tolliver has a deep respect and understanding for the importance of informing today's listeners of yesterday's repertoire. As modern jazz continues to evolve past 2 & 4 and flat 3s & 7s, the very term "jazz" is becoming broader and to some, more diluted. As a composer of such "fringe" or "little j" jazz, I am very much aware of the importance of remembering and respecting the roots and traditions of "big J" Jazz. This is also why I value concerts such as the Monk Town Hall Anniversary Concert and musicians like Tolliver who excel at, for lack of a better phrase, keeping the tradition alive.

So when I was asked to help prepare the music for an upcoming Art Blakey Tribute concert which was paying homage to not only Blakey and his music, but to Charles Tolliver and his commitment to continuing Blakey's legacy through an ensemble class at the New School (which was temporarily cancelled this semester due to financial cuts but causing a huge outcry from students and alumni) I was thrilled. In addition to being able to see and work with the written transcriptions and arrangements of Blakey's tunes, I was happy to get to be a part of something that emphasizes the importance of figures and repertoires like Blakey, that really inform musicians and listeners of the meaty traditions and practices of jazz, "big J." I must admit, at times here in NYC I crave hearing jazz that above all else just swings and feels good, rather than spouts intellectualism and advanced harmonic and rhythmic sophistication.

DO NOT MISINTERPRET! I am not a jazz snob or purist that feels it has to swing or employ blues notes in order to be considered jazz (which is no doubt an argument in semantics for another day). Many of my favorite bands I would term "little j" or "fringe" jazz. But I do think it becomes easy for modern musicians, in their quest to be different and to evolve, to either forget, or consider unimportant the music that came before. (Just as it is often unfair for those who feel a jazz performance must include swing and a blues to discredit the music that has strayed from the original definition simply because it does not swing, etc.).

Anyway, tangent over. The bottom line is that I am very proud and excited to be a part of this tribute to Art Blakey. In attempt to help promote the tribute, I have invited the organizer, Joseph Perez, to explain what makes this event more than a simple tribute concert and why teachers such as Charles Tolliver are so important to the education of jazz music today:

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak about this project. Being a former student of Mr. Charles Tolliver, I took a great interest in the news of the Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Ensemble class not being offered this semester at the New School. Having taken that class for seven semesters, I can speak with some authority on how classes such as this one and teachers like Mr. Tolliver can have a profound effect on a student. New York City, being the "jazz capital" that it is, holds a distinct geographical advantage in the realm of higher music education in so much that students can come from around the world to study with people that have a direct link to the foundations of the art form. There is no greater example of this kind of unique and special person as Charles Tolliver. While a relatively obscure figure to the masses, Charles Tolliver has a both impressive musical resume and has contributed to both the artistic and business aspects of jazz. He was one of the first jazz musicians to start his own record label (Strata-East) in order to release his own music free of corporate interference. He has been an influential composer both for small and large ensemble in addition to being a singular voice on the trumpet. But to many, including myself, perhaps his most lasting accomplishment will be his work in the field of jazz education and his undying and unapologetic commitment to preserving the great traditions and values of the music. Charles Tolliver, and musicians like him, bring the music to life in a way that records and transcriptions can not.

When I became aware of this semester's cancellation of Mr. Tolliver's Blakey Ensemble and witnessed the ensuing online reaction, I decided to become involved. The Blakey class had a profound effect on me, and many others and Mr. Tolliver was the reason for that. I wanted to do something to highlight and celebrate the importance of Charles Tolliver, the music of Art Blakey, and the value of their legacy to younger generations. Presenting a concert of the very repertoire that Mr. Tolliver taught in his class (in some instances, using the same charts he uses to teach and has graciously loaned to us) seemed like the perfect way to pay tribute. On Monday, March 30 we will present a night of the music of Art Blakey with support from all the aforementioned parties, including the New School, Mr. Tolliver himself, and fellow students of Mr. Tolliver who have volunteered their time and talents to perform on the concert. It is my hope that this event will not only highlight the value of Charles Tolliver and artists like him but demonstrate the necessity of continuing to teach the core traditions of jazz music, especially the music of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

A Tribute To Art Blakey will be presented on Monday, March 30 with sets at 8:00 & 10:00 PM at Sweet Rhythm. Cover is $10 with a $10 minimum/ students get in free with a $5 minimum. Musical guests scheduled to appear include Valery Ponomarev, Marcus Strickland, Keyon Harrold, E. J. Strickland, Jason Marshall, Tatum Greenblatt, Stafford Hunter, and many more.

1 comment:

Gregory Dudzienski said...

DT -
Congrats on the gig. I hope you will post more as the project evolves and share some more experiences.

Also, you make some good points about the aesthetics of modern jazz. I think it is too easy to polarize music into "modern" and "traditional" (I'll be writing more on this at TEOTM soon...). What I try to do in my own writing and playing is to study the primary sources and allow that information to "steep" through my own world-view of music. I am less than satisfied when I am involved in projects that attempt to be modern for modern's sake and when listening to the most satisfying "modern" music, I am always able to trace something to a primary source.

This is not to say that modern music is to be defined by music of the past, not at all. But I hear the most sincerity and more of an organic quality in music that is informed by history, and builds on that history.

All the best...