Where's Waldo?

Looking for Uncle Jazz at the 2002 JVC Something-or-Other Festival

A brief July 9 press release about the flagship event that ran from June 16 to June 29 begins with an announcement from George Wein ("CEO of Festival Productions, Inc."): "The 2002 JVC Jazz Festival-New York was the most successful JVC festival ever held in New York." It was also the least jazz-like. JVC, whether good or ill or, per usual, in between, rarely reflects what is actually going on in the jazz world. This year it did—not musically, but culturally and economically as concerns New York, long considered jazz central. Like Uncle Tom in an episode excised from Duke Ellington's Jump for Joy, Uncle Jazz is lying on his deathbed while producers and CEOs frantically administer adrenaline to keep him alive. It isn't necessarily his music they hope to preserve, but his name, a valuable brand on seven continents.

Never in my experience has JVC presented so little jazz, or so few thematic and genuinely imaginative concerts. Even re-creations, with which we are admittedly surfeited, vanished from the bill. There was nothing novel, original, or newsworthy. A cursory look at programs scheduled for the Hague, Montreal, and other international jazz sites demonstrates the uniqueness of New York's drought. Of eight concerts presented at Carnegie Hall, which according to the press release had a 90 percent ticket sale (that's the source of the "most successful" claim), only half were undeniably jazz. Of the others, João Gilberto and Eddie Palmieri are tangential, though they have become deservedly admired JVC traditions; Michael Feinstein and Lauryn Hill were in on a pass. Of the four Beacon Theater concerts, only one (Roy Haynes and Wynton Marsalis) offered jazz, and it was a box-office disaster—probably in part because it was slated opposite one of the bona fide Carnegie jazz artists, Keith Jarrett. Of the mere three Kaye Playhouse shows, two were largely given over to cabaret.

True, much great jazz was heard nightly at Birdland and the Village Vanguard, but you can always hear great jazz there. Except for shorter stays (mostly one-nighters) and a two-for-one pricing gimmick that incorporated five other clubs and required a main-hall ticket stub, nothing about the JVC connection served to make those performances especially merry. At festivals in towns like Pori, Cork, Perugia, Nice, New Orleans, and San Francisco, as well as Montreal and the Hague and elsewhere, music lurks in many corners, often for the price of a beer or a general admission, and the small venues are essential pleasures. In New York, they suggest a guilt-edged Band-Aid for the cavernous hole into which jazz has disappeared; participating clubs get an official JVC banner and, if possible, more tourists than usual, and JVC can pretend comprehensiveness.

Urgent yet laid-back: Frank Wess
photo: Jack Vartoogian
Urgent yet laid-back: Frank Wess

Since I spent most evenings at Carnegie, forlorn and confused, the thrill of hearing the Bill Charlap Trio with guests Phil Woods and Frank Wess may have been intensified. If you count, as JVC did, isolated events at the Schomburg Center (jazz: a Mickey Bass quintet) and the Apollo (not jazz: the Roots and Living Colour), and a free afternoon of university bands at Bryant Park, this was the eighth day of the festival, and the first opportunity to hear unadulterated, urgent yet laid-back, small-band, bebopping, mainstream jazz. Having just experienced evenings with João and Lauryn and a set of cabaret vaudeville, it was like coming home. Jazz!—ah, a grand old music. Birdland was packed tight with an audience conspicuously more attentive than those in the halls, where thousands of attendees apparently thought eight o'clock curtains would rise at 8:50. Charlap, a shrewd fellow, featured his guests on alternating numbers, demonstrating his own masterly ability to comp with precision, drive, and originality.

With bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, he may have the best piano trio extant, a slot vacated by Tommy Flanagan. It swings so effortlessly and unselfconsciously you get the feeling that any top-flight soloist could have walked on and found himself comforted and inspired. Woods, his sound bright with the sturdy glow that mixes beauty and defiance (still, at 70), brought Benny Carter's "A Summer Serenade" to gleaming life, signing off with a stately cadenza; Wess, his approach to flute kinetic and spry (still, at 80), enlivened an original based on "Exactly Like You." Joy turned to enchantment when the saxophonists (Wess on tenor) joined together for "What's New?" (alternating theme and obbligato every eight bars) and the battle anthem "Blues Up and Down," played super fast, both men roaring as Charlap thrust chords that shadowed and mimicked them, before essaying his own steely solo, building with abundant ideas. Even when indulging his rippling technique, he is never heavy-handed. And this was thought too rarefied for the customers on 57th Street?

For me, the festival got off to an enlightening start, but it had nothing to do with JVC, which is another problem with JVC. At the Knitting Factory, on the night Michael Feinstein was crooning with a 70-piece orchestra, Cecil Taylor led his 27-piece Sound Vision Orchestra in a premiere of "With Blazing Eyes and Open'd Mouth." He was originally scheduled to play solo at Birdland, but apparently decided late in the day that the club would either accommodate his orchestra or nothing—a poor way of doing business, perhaps, but the SVO was primed to go, the massed voicings secure and resolute, pinning you to your seat with hurricane force. Like Ascension, it alternated solos and ensemble crescendos, which were written and varied (unlike Ascension's). It went on too long: Some soloists had little to say; others stood out, including altoist Bobby Zankel; singer Lisa Sokolov (whose volatile scatting and whooping made Taylor laugh aloud), one or two trumpet players I couldn't see, and tenor saxophonist Andrew Lamb, whose mellow, understated attack inspired the pianist to full-throttle comping exuberance. The closing was inspired—a long, even winding down, like a great beast giving its last breath.

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