The Jazz Evangelism of Woody Allen

Clarinet in hand, the director defends one of America's disappearing art forms

In the 1930s, 52nd Street in Midtown was dubbed "Swing Street USA" for all the jazz clubs within its radius, including legendary halls such as Club Carousel and Eddie Condon's, along with the first incarnation of the Blue Note. But today, among the low-double-digit number of jazz clubs remaining, most are concentrated in the West Village and Harlem, with a more scattered scene in Brooklyn. (Larger, uptown institutions, such as Carnegie Hall and the Wynton Marsalis–led Jazz at Lincoln Center, are often criticized for institutionalizing jazz, but remain active in educational programs.) Trad-leaning clubs have fared especially poorly; Eddy Davis has wanted to open a club for years, but finds the finances too daunting. And while contemporary and brass-band jazz have enjoyed a modest resurgence lately, thanks to mass-media outlets such as the HBO show Treme, this hasn't affected traditional New Orleans jazz at all.

"Overall, the traditional jazz outcropping in New York is down well over 95 percent from my high school years," says Schaap, recalling his '60s upbringing. "However, jazz is down 95 percent from my high school years, so it's a lock-step diminishment."

Lorraine Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard, the most venerated jazz hall in the world, recently feted her club's 75th anniversary; for more than a decade, she booked Dr. Michael White's traditional New Orleans band for New Year's Eve, but has since stopped. "There is no audience, quite honestly, to sustain traditional jazz constantly," she explains. "You have to fill your room to pay the musicians—you can't do it because 24 people are here because they like traditional jazz. I want to be part of that audience—I am, in my heart and mind—but I cannot use it in the club because it does not exist here. . . . Jazz is alive, but you have to move with it or you're a dead duck."

And if jazz isn't as inviting as it might be for the young, some blame the music and its practitioners. "One of the things with jazz now is that it's just not fun—people hear it, and it's either aggressive or very in-your-face, or very obscure harmonically or melodically," says Wilner. "It's so splintered, the factions. Extremely avant-garde improvising musicians play in a style that has nothing to do with traditional jazz, and they're basically hostile to anyone who plays traditional. And subsequently, you have traditionalists becoming more and more wrapped up in the bubble of what they wanted to play and not allowing any modern influences to come in. It's lent itself to a very divided art."

So why is Woody Allen the one man everyone can agree on?

There's a moment in Sweet and Lowdown when Sean Penn's virulent Emmet Ray says, "My feelings come out in my music."

This is not autobiographical, says Allen.

"I wish I could say that," he insists. "The problem is, not enough feeling comes out of my music. I mean, I play my heart out and I close my eyes and hunch my shoulders and do all the external motions that great players do to pump the feeling through their horn, but I can't get a lot of feeling through it. That's been one of the sad things in my life, that I hear a real great clarinet player and they'll just play two or three notes, and those notes are so beautiful and full of feeling. And I'm killing myself and trying so hard to squeeze that note out and get the feeling into it, but it's just not there. It has to be somewhere in your chromosomes or something."

As for the Carlyle: "The brunt of the audience doesn't know anything about jazz. They say, 'I've liked his pictures, and I'd like to see him,' or 'I've hated his pictures, and I'd like to see him.' "

But, hey, the heart wants what it wants. And here lies the unique privilege of Woody Allen: He introduces unlikely and disparate new audiences to his particular, esoteric brand of jazz, and into the jazz community at large. He's an accomplished musician but not a peerless one, though that hardly matters: Fame is today's currency, and he has it to burn. Allen is not jazz's savior—to say so would certainly mortify many people, most of all him—but his jazz-scene compatriots appreciate his unprecedented ability to interest people who never even knew they could be interested in it. To them, Allen is demonstrating the best chance jazz has for renewal—and survival.

"He's doing this the right way, which is major outcropping," says Schaap. "He's going in the right direction, in that he is not overly concerned with training someone to play clarinet like him. He's interested in having an opportunity to hear New Orleans polyphony."

"Woody Allen is a great artist, a profound artist," says Wilner. "He's a force on the music scene. He doesn't get the recognition that he deserves because of his fame as a filmmaker, an actor, and a comedian. He's propagated the music further worldwide than anyone else could have done."

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