You can find karaoke machines in hundreds of bars and restaurants and bowling alleys around Los Angeles, where everyone is a budding star (or at least wants to be.) You can find fewer live piano bars, where a player well-versed in the standards and Broadway show tunes accompanies enthusiasts with cabaret dreams. And even rarer is the genuine open jam session, where a solid trio of jazz cats lays the foundation for visiting guitarists, horn players, and bebopping singers.
For those of us who like to sing jazz, the live jam session is heaven. To commune with expert musicians accomplished in the art of improvisation is nourishment for the soul, a reminder that, when it comes to music, imagination and heart (not just sexy costumes and lurid dance steps) really do matter. Yet the jazz musician’s life is rich only in creative satisfaction. The rewards of the marketplace are meager, and many supremely talented artists struggle to make a pay-the-bills living.
On the other hand, the purveyors of “smooth jazz,” the saccharine fusion of elevator music and cruise ship lounge, do very well for themselves. We don’t begrudge these popular musicians their success. The public knows what it wants – aural wallpaper — and every major city’s “the Wave” radio station gives it to them. What worries me is that the large but mostly ignored congregation of sublime musicians who still play jazz — the real stuff — are widely ignored, reduced to attending free jam sessions, where they can connect with their artistic brethren. The reward for these sublime players isn’t the money and recognition earned by purveyors of “smooth jazz.” It’s getting to play the best tunes with the best colleagues in the best way. The reward is the music.
We once saw Wynton Marsalis on a television interview grappling with a question about the inexplicably celebrated Kenny G., the multi-platinum smooth jazz clarinetist. Struggling for diplomacy, Wynton hesitated for a beat, held his tongue for a second, and said, “The man is very good at what he does.” He tried to stop there. But he couldn’t help himself. “But whatever it is he does, it’s not jazz.”
Because when it is, the heart knows.