I spent the better part of last week helping out the local high school band leaders chaperone a group of students involved in the competition at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at Moscow, Idaho, a modified repeat of a 2008 session for me. The festival is loaded with talent, both performers and students, and there were a number of wonderful musical experiences involved. Bruce Foreman and Aaron Weinstein did a fabulous clinic on chord melody in which the personal and musical chemistry was blatant, and the contrast in sense of humour between New York and L.A. made for a lot of amusement while these two gentlemen covered a fabulous amount of ground relating to both solo and comping. Weinstein is primarily a violinist, but brought a mandolin to this session and showed versatility and flash, as well as solid technique. Foreman had been part of the ensemble backing Dee Daniels the previous evening, and epitomized all that is good with jazz guitar playing, taste, restraint, fluidity with just a touch of grit, and tremendous musical sense.
There were a multitude of gratifying performances by students from near and far. There are a number of schools in the Northwest US who have killer programs and who graduate legions of accomplished musicians. Our own little backwater punches well above its weight, and has for years due, in large part, to a history of superior teaching by the likes of Barry Miller and, for the last while, Greg and Sarah Falls. Sarah is the current director and has done the Moscow Rag for the last dozen years or so. We only had a dozen or so students this time, most of whom achieved some form of recognition, and worthy candidates they were. My favourite performance by a student was a piano recital, just two songs, by Evan Mayne from Bloomington, Indiana, playing pieces by Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker. Superior chord voicings, great time, able solo and ensemble playing, evocative of early Herbie Hancock.
As the adjudicators spoke to students following the performances, I often heard the questions of who the influences were and whether the student would be thinking of continuing in music. I was struck by a couple of consistent answers:
1) the knowledge of jazz antecedents was spotty at best in most cases. Students would either deny knowing of a particular musician’s work, or would assent in a non-committal fashion that made it clear that the student had little or no knowledge of those who blazed the trail.
2) there were not too many who were willing to commit to a career as a jazz musician, or as a musician of any sort. Even so, when the numbers were added up, we might very well arrive at a figure that would promise disappointment for the majority of even this talented group. The more musicians, the merrier, but that presupposes that most of us won’t be looking to make a living playing music, but rather that we will enjoy playing recreationally as a way to enrich our social, spiritual and intellectual lives in the context of a career in another field.
At the wrap-up concert on Saturday evening, festival director John Clayton trotted out the notion of music as a unifying force. Lovely. However, there seemed to be a persistent current through the competition of weeding out the the losers from the winners and preparing those winners for the notion of a dog-eat-dog world of musical competition. This is partly valid in terms of the reality of the music business, but I find that some of it is misplaced in the overall context of a musical education, particularly where the playing and enjoyment of music is such a personal and subjective phenomenon, and where people mature musically at very different stages of life. Perhaps some of this is inherent in a quiet way to the philosophy of the Festival, but it would be nice to see it made apparent. There is also the trait of much of the music falling within certain parameters, both in the Festival and in the music business in general, where taste is, to a certain extent, dictated by those who sell the charts, those who select what gets airplay, and who is judged to be stageworthy. It could be my lack of inquisitiveness, but I didn’t see a lot of mention of writing or presentation of original work, and most of the performances were of rehearsed pieces, often with rehearsed solos. This works for classical music, but it seems to me that one of the major tenets of jazz is a measure of spontaneity and improvisation: I would like to see more opportunity for this kind of activity in a relaxed and non-judgemental ambience. It would be easy, though, to feature some serious difficulties fitting this into the already dense schedule of the Festival.
My last gripe is a broader sense that commericalism has inserted itself even deeper into the festival, with constant, almost hectoring, reminders of the sponsors, and some of the repeated self-congratulatory rhetoric from the stage. The festival is a blast in itself and doesn’t need to blow its own laudatory horn.