A Look Back at 2001

A Look Back…
Not really a great year for jazz
recordings, but it wasn’t all bad.

by Sidney Bechet-Mandela

As we settle into a new millennium, a number of trends in jazz seem to be emerging. Yet the new trends in jazz, as it has been for over a hundred years now, are part of the continuing organic living thing that is jazz.

Some folks define the birth of jazz as the day Buddy Bolden bounced notes off Lake Pontchartrain in the waning days of the 19th century. Since then, like some wandering eternal spirit from an Anne Rice novel out looking for kicks, those notes have touched and transfixed millions, only to splinter and regenerate continuously for decades. The being doesn’t touch as big of a percentage of people in the U.S. as it once did, but the number under it’s spell worldwide continues to grow. So much so, that as jazz continues to break itself into pieces and then borrow from other pieces created a generation or two ago, it has now come back from the England in yet another form as acid jazz and drum n’ bass and what ever the Europeans label it this year.

And steadily, young Americans are responding to the whatever versions of jazz that infects them with their own take. That is very obvious in the increasing homogenization of jam bands with alternative rock ties, the suddenly growing recordings of 70’s styled fusion bands, and the hip-hoppers who continuously seek out to deliver props to those who came before them, whether in words, samples or spirit.

Then there’s Diana Krall. Inexplicable, yet self-explanatory.

Is Steve Tyrell, positive fallout from the Diana Krall phenomenon? Or will television, one of Tyrell’s means of promotion, the future of selling jazz records? Meanwhile, many public jazz stations stay away from them both.

Smooth jazz radio added stations last year, including a few not owned by Clear Channel, a trend that must continue for the health of the format. Still, as the format grows, major record label execs still only dream of a million selling act like the decidedly mainstream Krall. Record reps have been saying for years that smooth jazz doesn’t sell. The situation is improving as witnessed by the recent tremendous sales of Urban Knights and Dave Koz’ Christmas record.

Still the top two 2001 contemporary jazz records in terms of sales, according to Billboard Magazine, are St. Germain and Rachelle Ferrell, neither with smooth jazz airplay, but both gold record award winners.Ferrell’s success easily corresponds with what a major record executive just said to me the other day about mainstream jazz, “ain’t nothing selling in jazz right now but women singers.”

St. Germain, on the other hand is, of course, the shape of things to come. Acid jazz jam bands, 70’s driven jazz/funk bands and alternative rock jam bands are what many young kids are calling jazz today, attesting to the high sales growth that Marcus Miller and Medeski, Martin & Wood achieved last year, without the benefit of hardly any airplay. And the airplay that MM&W did get, that wasn’t college radio, came from so-called Triple A alternative rock stations.

Those youngsters who are being influenced by smooth jazz are adopting some of the English and European acid jazz/drum n’ bass flair, but many more are spicing their music with hip-hop. Right now, easily, the record label that has the firmest grip on this trend is Hidden Beach Recordings. With Jill Scott, Brenda Russell and saxophonist Mike Phillips already on the label, the company showed it had the pulse on what young people called jazz when they astounded the jazz market with their “Unwrapped,” album. It shot up to number one within days of its release. Chocked with instrumental covers of rap hits, Hidden Beach has once again help to fragment jazz and have a whole new generation begin to regurgitate the music and spit it out for themselves.

Without question the most positive trend in smooth jazz music is that the musicians are finally, at least seemingly, trying to dictate to the programmers what the music should be, instead of the other way around. With the stagnation of the format, it was only a matter of time before musicians looked for ways to spice up their recordings. . The smooth jazzers are incorporating more of the European stuff too, which to most programmers is something they never heard.

The most horrid trend in smooth jazz is the premature fade of tunes on major labels. Now that the musicians are starting to create music not made for programmers, they should tell their labels to let radio edit themselves. They know how.

Sadly, in mainstream jazz, the paradoxical trend of dead masters outselling new jazz artist continues to widen its berth. If Ken Burns “Mark Twain,” series does for the publishing business what his “Jazz” did for the marketing of jazz records, new young writers don’t stand a chance.

It’s wonderful that Miles Davis and John Coltrane continue to sell at a brisk pace. But it’s frightening that for the past two to three years, artists of their ilk are the only instrumentalists who are selling at the pace of vocalists, (not counting Krall of course.) So why should Columbia or Impulse expand their roster when a new Billie Holiday or Bird compilation could help make budget projections just fine.

Technology, to some extent, evens things out, in that it is easier for a young jazz artist to have product. And because of that, critics and programmers in mainstream jazz circles are open to hearing almost anybody, Much more so than in smooth jazz.

One of the funniest trends in jazz that continues is not just the continuing snobbery of mainstream jazz purists, but the growth of the smooth jazz purists. These are people who think of the new Ramsey Lewis Trio as out. If acoustic jazz is on the right and smooth jazz on the left, these are people are Marxists , who like their counterparts on the right, only sully jazz’ growth as an industry. We are all in this together and are part of a living thing that by its very nature factions off its followers. We may not have the same musical views, but we all come from that same wandering gumbo spirit that was born in New Orleans all those many years ago.