Jazz Competitions, In and Out of the Marketplace

One of the 20th Century’s greatest artists, a cat named Thelonious Monk, the pianist and composer of countless jazz standards, including “Round Midnight” and “Well, You Needn’t,” left behind, among other things, a brilliant son (the drummer, T.S. Monk), a lucrative publishing catalogue, and a legacy of musical encouragement. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz is one of America’s most powerful forces in propagating and teaching an art form that keeps reaching for the stars, even as the culture at large does everything it can to marginalize jazz music and repeatedly declare it deceased.

The Monk Institute conducts an annual competition, a talent search, dedicated each year to a different musical discipline. (This year it’s the saxophone.) The winners get big scholarships and recording contracts, and perhaps even more important, an effective marketing campaign that instantly brands them as musicians worth listening to. It’s the “American Idol” of jazz, except that with the Monk Competition the judges actually know what they’re talking about and the speed-dialing and text-messaging skills of teenaged girls have little impact on the results. 

Still, as we’ve noted previously in this space, if you had to pick someone who never would have won the Monk Competition in his lifetime, it would be Thelonius Monk. Iconoclasm doesn’t play well in the mainstream.

Sadly, jazz music here in Los Angeles, is slowly drifting toward the margins of the culture. Aside from the gala extravaganzas like the Monk Competition, which concludes at the Kodak Theater — site of the Academy Awards and the “American Idol” finals — with brand name guests like Joni Mitchell, Sting, and Bono lending their illustrious names to the event, most jazz concerts in Los Angeles are poorly attended. On a recent Saturday night in Hollywood, one of the greatest quartets in America, the Tierney Sutton Band, played to fewer than 100 people. The TSB isn’t an obscure outfit; they’ve been the beneficiaries of another splendid marketing tool, the Grammy Awards. But even two consecutive nominations in the Vocal Jazz category don’t guarantee an audience for music that is profound, transcendent, and mildly challenging, not to mention astonishingly beautiful.

Our leading arbiter of cultural worthiness, the Los Angeles Times, recently axed jazz coverage from its Calendar pages. No reviews, no previews, no feature stories, no listings, nothing. The longtime jazz critic there, Don Heckman, who has more than 5,500 signed articles at the paper, has been ushered to the sidelines, where theTimes (and the culture at large) believes he belongs, leaving more editorial space for vital coverage of indispensable reality TV shows and celebrity fashions. Mr. Heckman’s ideas can be found now at his new Website: http://irom.wordpress.com/. But if you want a comprehensive listing of who’s playing where — or even an incomprehensive listing — you’ll have to look elsewhere than our local newspaper, which behaves as though jazz music doesn’t exist, except as a peculiar subculture unworthy of serious consideration.

If you find this state of affairs an affront to your aesthetic sensibilities, the man in charge of the Times is Russ Stanton.  Perhaps letting him know that people who care about jazz aren’t an entirely silent minority would help.

Those involved with the Monk Institute and all the other fine organizations that teach and present and celebrate America’s grandest contribution to the global arts, must feel like Sisyphus with a Saxophone. The majority of the semi-finalists at the Monk Competition, the majority of graduate students at Berklee College of Music, the majority of wildly talented and passionate musicians struggling to find their voice and vision — most of them will, at best, find work teaching other initiates, who will in turn teach others, who, like the thousands of others before them, will make music that very few people care about.

There is no competition in art. But competition in the cultural marketplace is brutal and unkind. This thing we call jazz is losing, badly. And though many of us are oblivious to the collective loss, we as a nation are losing, too.

The Monk Competition finalists will blow their hearts out. The Tierney Sutton Band will continue to create works of astonishing sublimity. And folks like Don Heckman will try to make sense of it all. Concurrently, our culture will slide further into the smelly muck. “What we play is life,” said Louis Armstrong. How chilling that we collectively seem to prefer an embrace of death.

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