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Review: 'Grammy Salute to Jazz' at Club Nokia

PHOTOS: Grammy Salute to Jazz


At this year's "Grammy Salute to Jazz," there was a lot of talk about the future. Inside the crisp, modern Club Nokia at the L.A. Live complex downtown Tuesday night, performers and presenters such as Herbie Hancock, Natalie Cole and Recording Academy President Neil Portnow all gestured at the fresh faces of the high-school-aged Grammy Jazz Ensembles program filling the bandstand and assured an audience of elegantly dressed fans that jazz's future is indeed in good hands.

And though one of the still-anonymous prodigies backing luminaries such as Joe Lovano, Cassandra Wilson and Hancock might rise to carry jazz into its next era of greatness, the unquestioned star of this night was the past.

Honoring the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records, this ramp-up to the Grammys' big show Sunday was split between live performances and musical "memoirists" from the label's history. In rich, mostly off-the-cuff stories, the latter shared what a few called their "Blue Note moments" from the label's unparalleled past including stories about current Blue Note chief Bruce Lundvall, who received the evening's lone standing ovation when he was introduced.

Yet in many ways the event fell prey to the same chronological myopia that plagued the Blue Note 7 tribute concert at UCLA's Royce Hall in January. For all the quality music performed Tuesday alongside engaging anecdotes from the likes of Billy Vera, Garnett Brown and Charlie Haden, it was difficult at times to escape the feeling that the label -- if not jazz itself -- is in danger of being held hostage by its incredible legacy, especially with regards to its post-bop peak.

On a stage framed by the classically hip, Reid Miles-designed album covers from Blue Note's glory days, including those for Bobby Hutcherson, Larry Young and Sam Rivers, it was difficult to shake the feeling that the label always will be shadowed by its own greatness.

Though certainly not a spokesperson for the genre, host Cole offered a telling admission when she admiringly referred to Blue Note's 1960s heyday and said, "Those moments and that era will probably never happen again." It's a sentiment that sadly might prove to be true, but how many other genres or labels on the Grammys' radar would so readily admit their most fertile years were most likely behind them?

Blue Note's modern era was served in performances by velvet-toned saxophonist Lovano as well as trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who fell into a heavy groove with his young backing band on the head-bobbing funk of 2003's "Footprints." But it was easy to wonder why there wasn't more room in the program for the label's current favorites, such as adventurous keyboardist Aaron Parks.

Similarly, it was somewhat of a surprise that past Grammy darling Norah Jones received only a passing mention. Though Jones is undeniably more aligned with the pop world, it was easy to hear hints of her dusky style in Wilson's bluesy vocal performance.

Less surprising was the source of the evening's highlight: last year's Grammy winner for album of the year, Herbie Hancock.

After pushing his young charges through a spirited, shape-shifting interpretation of his 1965 classic "Maiden Voyage," the keyboard virtuoso sounded a little sheepish as he introduced his next song as "another very old thing."

"But we'll see if we can breathe new life into 'Dolphin Dance,' " he added with a Cheshire Cat grin. Hancock then settled back to his piano to lead the ensemble members through what they might later remember as their own "Blue Note moment."

For the rest of us, hope hung in the air that the years ahead will offer many more.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Herbie Hancock breaks into a smile after performing with the Grammy Jazz Ensemble Tuesday night. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (4)

Mr. Barton: may i respectfully offer a correction? perhaps you meant to say something else in reference to Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson? hints of Cassandra's dusky, bluesy style may be evident when one hears Ms. Jones, but not the other way around. Ms. Wilson, who was terrific in her turn at the Grammy Salute to Jazz program, is a native Mississippian who has been turning out excellent jazz recordings since the late 80s. Ms. Jones would have been a grade school girl in the late 80s. its quite possible Norah was exposed to Cassandra's music
early on.

I dislike this writer's agenda intensley. You can't apply a manifesto to music, and while more eloquent than most - and his article is, of itself, shapely - this attitude is typical of the malaise of the critics that has done so much to damage the actual progress of jazz. ("No other art form has suffered so much because of critics").

Ricky: That was my intention, that Cassandra Wilson's sound is similar to Norah Jones from the perspective of the theory that Norah may not have had a place in the evening's 'Salute to Jazz' program because she's not strictly "jazz." I certainly didn't mean to imply that Norah was one of Cassandra's influences -- Sorry if that was unclear.

Red: Thanks for the comments (particularly on my article being shapely, va-va-voom!). I'd argue that my review's central point was that jazz should spend more time celebrating its recent progress, not only its past accomplishments.

From August 3rd to August 15th of this year, we worked with a number of children in Providence, introducing them to our “Jazz is a Rainbow” musical theatre project and bringing an excited gaggle of them to George Wein’s Festival 55 at Newport. For virtually all of them, it was their first exposure to live jazz and, indeed, the first time they had heard the names, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith or, in fact, any name connected with jazz. In fact, our endeavors in Providence and other cities have lead us to the chilling discovery that virtually none of the predominantly African American and Hispanic children knew much of anything about the cultural, political or social history of America.

Are we surprised at this? NO.
Do we think it is a disgrace? YES.

Our “Jazz is a Rainbow” endeavor was made possible by the indefatigable Dr. Robert DeRobbio and his Ocean State Learning organization, the inspired direction of Robb Dimmick and the support of many in your community. Our trip to the jazz festival, the first such festival-sponsored trip in the fifty five year history of that event, was made possible by the gift of free tickets by Mr. Wein, the support of jazz educator, Jamie Aebersold, and many private supporters.

As you might imagine, our hardy busload of children sporting their bright “BIRDS: KIDS TO NEWPORT” jerseys represented virtually the only group of young children at the festival. Virtually no children were to be found at the Newport Jazz Festival for fifty five years while jazz audiences have grayed and diminished. Clearly, “the jazz community” just has not gotten it. Jazz programs at colleges and universities, the few that remain, serve principally as sinecures for “professional jazz educators” and a dedicated few musicians who work the circuit. Many jazz programs emphasize demonstration rather than participation. At this point, it appears self-evident that as jazz is not, by its nature, commercial or disposable music, it can not possibly survive in our culture. The key to survival is continuous cultivation of young (that means middle school and younger) audiences. This is what we have been doing in Providence.

Yes, those kids you heard at the mall singing “Take the A Train,” while on lunch break from our rehearsals, their joy was real! And they now know a lot more about themselves and their cultures and their country than they did before.

So now, after all is said and done, what do we believe?

We believe that our schools really DO have an obligation to tell every single child not only about the Obamas but also about Paul Robeson and Fanny Lou Hamer, not only about Martin Luther King but about Miles Davis and Ossie Davis, about Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, not only about Crispus Attucks but about Ralph Abernathy and Cesar Chavez!

A Latino woman now sits upon the bench of the Supreme Court. An African America President has taken office. Has finally the time come to let our children know who they are, why they are...and to what star they might travel? ©

Mike Palter
Co-Writer, Co-musical director
“Jazz is a Rainbow”
© 2009, Mike Palter


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