I'm still slowly descending from the cloud nine that was my trip to New Orleans for the Satchmo Summerfest, but I can promise that I have a few new blogs in the can that will see the light of day this month. But until getting back to Pops full-time, a quick word for my New York friends about an exciting event taking place next week and involving what can be dubbed Louis's grandchildren.
Hot jazz hasn't exactly been in the mainstream of modern pop music, but it's never gone away. Anyone who has spent just a few minutes at my brother Michael Steinman's Jazz Lives blog, already knows that this swinging style of music is alive and well both in New York and California, while friends of mine have told me about scenes in Boston, Portland, Austin and elsewhere (not to mention New Orleans, where I don't think it has ever slowed down).
Of course, don't tell this to the jazz mainstream press. Anytime a writer from the New York Times or Down Beat or whatever decides to go slumming into a city's traditional jazz scene, it's always to write a "nostalgia" based piece. None of the musicians who play this music get the cover of Jazz Times (hell, can anyone name the last time Louis was on the cover of a jazz magazine? 2001?). Bop came in in the 1940s, everything before it got relegated to the museum and that's pretty much been the story for the last 65 years, with every magazine and column covering the modern-bop-free stars of today and yesteryear, but turning a blind eye to anyone who just wants to swing and play hot music, preferably for dancers.
Well, even though the above cities I listed all have popular, if underground, traditional scenes, the reality is for any kind movement to really gain traction, it has to blow up in New York City at some point. And that's what is happening now.
While in New Orleans, I noticed my Facebook news feed blowing up as friend after friend and musician after musicians shared the same Vanity Fair article from August 1: How a Swath of 20-Somethings Have Tuned In to 1920s Pop. Written by Will Friedwald, who really understands this music, it has shined a spotlight on the youth movement in traditional jazz that is currently exploding in New York.
Actually, the fuse has been lit for some time now but the full explosion seems to be taking place next Sunday, August 25, when the first annual New York Hot Jazz Festival takes place at Mehanata on the Lower East Side. The festival is the brainchild of producer Michael Katsobashvili, someone I only met for the first time in June, but I've grown to love as he is a passionate lover the music (and a worshiper of Pops). The music starts at 2 p.m. tomorrow and technically ends at 10 p.m. with a set by the great Bria Skonberg, but there's planned after parties and jam sessions so who knows who long it will run. Or if it will ever end.
I've noticed it for years now: more and more young musicians popping up all over NY interested in Louis Armstrong and the pre-bop style, musicians who find more of a challenge in ensemble interplay than running Coltrane substitutions. (Disclaimer: no disrespect to Coltrane or any of the other modern jazz stylists. I love all kinds of jazz, though my heart is with the traditional/swing stuff. The point is, it's a big world and there's plenty of room for anyone to play any style they like. There might not be plenty of gigs for that, but I see no need in reviving the jazz wars of the 1940s and to start calling out moderninsts and for them to start mocking the traditional players. No one's getting rich, so can't we all just play the music we want? End of rant.)
David Ostwald is one of my closest friends in the world. For the last 13 years, he leads the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band each Wednesday at 5:30 at Birdland. Personnel always changes so David has used just about anybody you can think of in New York. In recent years, though, he's noticed that he's started using younger and younger musicians, not as a gimmick, but because they're good. It's in his band that I first heard Bria Skonberg, Peter and Will Anderson, Dion Tucker, Kevin Dorn, Ehud Asherie, Adrian Cunningham, Marion Felder, Vinny Raniolo and others play live.
More and more of these players keep popping up in different venues around the five boroughs. In Queens, the Louis Armstrong House Museum has done its part by presenting three "Hot Jazz/Cool Garden" concerts in the Armstrong's spacious Japanese garden. I don't quite know how long the series has been going on--it was already going when I started working there in 2009--but I do know in the beginning, the House had trouble finding young, up-and-coming traditional bands, and most of the concerts were in front of small audiences, maybe 50, 60 people.
Yesterday, we had our final Hot Jazz/Cool Garden concert of this season. It sold out. All three sold out. We had to start advance ticket sales because last summer, we had lines around the block. Each time out, the advance sales were gone before the day of the concert. And in the audience, of course, were the older jazz fans, those who saw Louis live and still collect records. And my goodness, do I love those people! But also, this summer brought more and more people in their 20s and 30s, people who might not know much about Louis Armstrong or traditional jazz....but they do now after an afternoon in Corona, Queens. And they'll be back.
I've said it for years (to no one in particular) but the whole pre-bop aesthetic, to me, has always seemed like the only type of jazz that really gets people going, makes them want them to dance, makes them want to scream. I've been in those types of audiences, where the surge of emotion and noise is coming from both directions, on and off the bandstand. I've been in plenty of concert halls and respected plenty of quiet policies, but at some point, it's fun to let loose. I listen to broadcasts and concerts from the 1950s all the time--Louis, the George Lewis band, "Dr. Jazz" broadcasts from Central Plaza, etc.--and it's always blown me away, hearing the sounds of obviously younger people screaming and clapping for this style of music. That generation wanted to have fun and this music encouraged it. When the other styles of jazz said, "Shh, pipe down and listen," those fans got up, went to rock and roll, went to Ray Charles, went to Motown, and went right on down the line of American pop music, leaving jazz in the dust. But I've seen it for myself too many times now that when this style gets cooking, it elicits the same reaction in young people in 2013 as it did in 1953, 1943, 1933 and 1923. And it's not about nostalgia, it's about music that makes you feel good and want to move.
Because already, after the Vanity Fair article exploded, I've seen some dumb people of my generation invoke the dreaded "Swing" boom of the 1990s. I was in high school at the time and was initially thrilled to see my kind of music explode--oh, to be in high school and hear the Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Hell" come on the radio with that trumpet solo by Duke Heitger! But almost immediately, the movement became about bands with goofy names, wearing zoot suits and singing stupid songs about drinking or partying. The whole thing became a parody of itself before it even started and then crashed and burned, relegated to VH1 nostalgia specials about how dumb the 90s were. (And brother, they sure were.)
But this is different. These are actual musicians with a respect for the past, studying the masters and coming up with something fresh to say, never directly imitating their heroes (a problem with the first wave of white New Orleans revival bands, who mimicked King Oliver records right down to the woodblock--which, of course, is not how the Oliver band sounded live!).
Enough from me. Damn, I did not expect to go on a rant like this but I guess I've had it building inside for quite some time, haha. How about some music? For many, the first explosion before next week's bigger bang, came at a June concert thrown by the Sidney Bechet Societ and featuring what was billed as "Dan Levinson's Jam Session of the Millennium." It was almost a recurring joke in the audience beforehand--"Haha, Jam session of the millennium? That's an awful lot to live up to!"--which was followed by a recurring conversation afterwards more or less consisting of, "Holy shit, it lived up to the hype!"
The great Dan Levinson was the ringleader of it all but also, I believe, the only musician on stage over the age of 40. If you don't believe that these kids are the real deal, sit back for the next 130 minutes and watch the whole thing right here:
I think I'll quit while I'm ahead (that might have been 500 words ago) but I'll say it again, if you're remotely near New York City, come out to the New York Hot Jazz Festival, even if you can only catch a set or two. You and I can sit around and listen to Louis records all day but don't forget to support the actual living, breathing, swinging musicians keeping Louis's legacy alive.
I'll leave Louis with the last words, taken from a letter he wrote to young trumpeter Chris Clifton
on February 6, 1954 (you can read the whole thing here), after Clifton wrote him and told him he was a young trumpeter playing "Dixieland." Take it, Satch:
"‘Man, – you haven’t the least idea – how thrilled, I am, to
be able to sit down and write to a ‘Cat, who feels the same way that ‘I
do about the greatest music on this man’s earth,—DIXIELAND…
‘Lawd-today…’Gate—you’re a man after my own heart… I’ve always
said—Dixieland is Universal… From one end of the earth to the other–the
music’s the same, so help me….."
"Which again, makes my word come true, especially when I said –
music is, er, wa, – Universal….. You yourself – could have done the
same…Because, from the way that I dugged your very fine letter, – you
take your horn serious the same as ‘I do…. God Bless Ya Son [...] And
every country that we travel into, our music was the same… So you see in
case you’d decide to make a tour to anywhere in the world, have no fear
because our music (I’d say) is more of a Secret Order [...] real honest
to goodness dixieland music will live for ever – without a doubt…"
was a certain big time musician, who made a nasty crack, as to,
Dixieland Music, is ‘first grade music… Now – maybe you dont pick up on
this Cat…But, I, being in the game for over forty years, etc, can easily
see, that this young man who said it, the reason why he said it because
he hasn’t the soul enough to express himself in dixie land music like
he really would like to… So, he’ll say those slurring words knowing that
the country’s full of idiots (also) who will believe him for a while,
thinking that there really is such things as to different grades of
music for the world to abide by [...] Where I came from, there weren’t
but two kinds of music, – good or bad [...] Anyway my friend…Don’t let
no one change your mind…Play the music that your heart tells you to
play…There will always be somebody to gladly live it with you…"