Brick Wahl: Keeping It Real 1

When Brick Wahl received a press release from the San Diego music room, Anthology, announcing that “Anthology is no longer about jazz,” he immediately had a few thoughts to share about the what, why and where of the current jazz club scene, the musicians who populate it (from time to time), and the musical decisions they’re making.  As avid Wahl readers know from his long tenure at the L.A. Weekly, Brick’s thoughts are thorough, to the point and passionate.  And this commentary is no exception.  Whether one agrees or disagrees, it’s worth keeping in mind that Brick, as a writer, musician and knowledgeable music world insider, makes his observations as part of his continuing quest to illuminate solutions as well as problems.  And to do so in his own sweet way.

By Brick Wahl

Poor Anthology. Yet another jazz club has to play anything but jazz to survive. This place was doing well a few years ago. And you can’t blame it on the recession. If it were strictly an economic issue, they wouldn’t be booking the other kinds of music either. Jazz draws a distinctly higher income level of fans than probably any other music that ain’t classical, etc. The problem is no one likes jazz unless they play it.

Well, it’s not that people don’t like jazz. It’s just they don’t like the way most of you are playing it.

I spent the last couple years watching this happen. The fan base melted away. It’s virtually non-existent anymore.

I’d recommend taking a look at what you all are doing and seeing why no one likes it but jazz musicians.  That is if you want to keep playing anywhere except house parties and art museums. If you look into a crowd and see nothing but your colleagues and students, you’ve gone from a career to a hobby.

Brick Wahl

I’m not saying you need to go commercial. I’m not saying go simple. Or go stupid. Or stop playing the radical shit. Or play the same ancient lifeless standards or even follow all those old rules about who solos when. I’m just saying maybe it’s time to figure out what it was that drew people to the music in the first place. Drew you to it in the first place.  The fire. The blues. The excitement. The fact that it  made you feel alive to hear it, to hear a soloist rip into something and fly along, or maybe the unbelievable swing of a wailing big band. Whatever the excitement was. That excitement that is almost totally gone anymore. Somewhere along the line this stuff went from being jazz to being academic.

Ya know, it’s funny the way a jazz fan hears, say, some classic be bop recording or a stack of those old Blue Note LPs or some roaring live Trane or Newk recordings. You all seem to hear the technique, the mechanics, you can see the music in your head. It unfurls in your skull like one of the Auto Club road maps, showing you where everything is and how to get there. It might take a little work, with Bird or Trane, but you can still follow the map. But we listeners don’t hear it that way. Not at all. We can’t. We hear just this great, exciting music. We dig the groove, or get kicked up by the swing, or are blown away buy some intense solos. That’s what we hear. I shouldn’t speak for other critics, since they aren’t as musically illiterate as I am, but I can for the fans, since that’s all I am. And that is how us fans hear those records. Illiterately. We don’t know what’s going on like you  all do, but we dig them. Dig them a lot. We don’t have to be music majors to understand them. They had elements that appealed to us…the swing, the groove, the attack, the passion, the feeling…..

Feeling. Yeah, that’s it. That feeling. That feeling that they were part of us. Part off the culture. Part of the street, or at least of the bars we’d go hear it in. Even at it’s most radical, it still had an earthy, street wise feel to it. There was nothing about those sessions that smelled like an antiseptic classroom. Or an art museum.

But that’s gone in this town. Well, almost gone anyway. It’s just all about art anymore. The art of jazz.

But anyone can make art. They teach you how in school. It’s connect-the-dots. It may be complicated connect-the-dots, but it’s connect-the-dots. What’s hard is to go beyond that. The soul of the shit is beyond that.  Is under that. Is all around that. But you won’t find it in the music books. Or in lattices of musical complexity, in variations only jazz musicians can hear. You find it when you hit the moment that moves people, that connects them with what you are doing. Otherwise it’s all gibberish to them. They can’t hear it.

But apparently that’s the point. Making music that we out here sitting at the bar can’t hear.  I mean you should hear yourselves talk. Listening to jazz musicians talk about jazz is like hearing physicists talk about quantum mechanics.

One of my very favorite of the younger guitarists gave an interview in which he described how jazz is like a fine wine anymore, and there are enough sophisticated people out there that can tell what makes a fine wine from a not so fine wine, that have the sensitive palette you need to be wine connoisseur. And jazz now demands listeners who have that same fine palette.  It read well. And you can see his point. And he’s a swell guy and one of my favorite players on the scene and is brilliant. I really dig this dude. But he was so unbelievably fucking wrong.

I mean I can’t tell you shit about fine wine. I can’t tell one from the other. Furthermore, wine snobs irritate the fuck out of me.

Even worse, the tongue is not capable of discerning all the tastes oonophiles claim they can distinguish. That is the cold, hard science of it. Wine critics are making all of that up. It is 90% pretension. It’s fun and fascinating, but it’s not real.

Which makes it one helluva bad analogy for jazz fans.

You see, jazz fans want it real. They crave the real. They aren’t finding it. And they don’t give a flying fuck about music theory or what you learned at USC. They want something that moves them. I could drag in more booze analogies here but I won’t. They’d be bullshit. Just arty writing. Technique. Writers fall back on technique all the time. It’s bullshit. It’s the easiest thing in  the world to do. You want techique I could lay technique on you that’d make your head spin. You want theory and I can go on for hours about linguistic theory till the colorless green sheep come home. But no one wants to read that. Why would they? Writers need to write the real. Otherwise no one wants to read us. Or believe us. Readers want to read it real, readers want to read what they can understand, readers want to read what moves them.

Hint. Hint. Hint fucking hint.

To read Brick Wahl’s Keeping It Real 2 click HERE.

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29 Responses to Brick Wahl: Keeping It Real 1

  1. Devon Wendell says:

    I couldn’t agree more with just about everything you’re saying Brick.
    Part of the problem is the velvet rope that’s been put up around jazz that doesn’t make it accessible to both young and the economically challenged people(That 99% of us). Do we thank Wynton for that?
    That snobbery chases people away and rightly so. Treat it like classical music and that’s what you’re going to get; rich people who pretend they get it to look cool for a few hours or fellow musicians who go and whine about about how the “Good old days” were “Better” when it was “Original.”

    Jazz players out there today, for the most part don’t know any melody. They love the over-indulgence of mid to late 60s non-melodic jazz but don’t truly understand anything before that unless it’s written down on nice little charts for them. They also cannot play blues worth a damn. It’s sounds so forced or cynical when they attempt to play it and I hate to whine but Monk, Duke, Newk, Miles, and Bird, all really played the blues and played their asses of when they did. It was from a sincere place.

    Without being accessible to people of all ages and financial standings, no melody, nerdy self-indulgence, and not knowing how to play blues, who would want to pay to see jazz these days? Especially at the prices they’re asking at the clubs and concert halls.
    Some of us don’t have clean ties either.

    You said it Brick, people want the “Real” and not copies of it or others telling them what that is.

    In the 90s, jazz musicians got very lazy and hid behind the resurgence of “Funk” as it reached the Hip-Hop and rock audiences and laid on that “One” beat and one chord but in many ways it was more authentic than the garbage out there today. You can lose that snottiness of over theorizing in funk but today there’s less and less to hide behind and the velvet rope at Lincoln Center gets bigger and fewer jazz acts are on the jazz festival bills. No wonder.

    It’s much cheaper to see a rock or blues act at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Bowl than it is to see a “Real” jazz player at Catalina’s or a few others like that plus there’s another aspect left out of jazz and that’s fun! Stop taking yourselves so seriously..There’s no more humor in the music.
    Monk’s turning over in his grave and would probably rather be at the Bowl with all kinds of people having fun then seated at Catalina’s for over a hundred bucks for two people.

    Fun…Hint, hint. I’ve got to go wash my one tie too..

    Thanks,

    Devon Wendell

  2. Brick says:

    Musician? I’m a musician now? Where did that come from? I mean, I played drums for years, yeah, but I was one of those drummers for which the term musician was quite a stretch…. I didn’t even know Don knew about that.

    Had fun, though. Girls, drugs, parties. Not to mention tearing down on stage while the next band is trying to set up and my guitarist is backstage somewhere doing something fun or illegal.

    Oh, and the violence, bar room brawls, a night in jail, kicked over drum kits, getting dusted and playing with my hands (a lotta blood), taking on a dozen cops (they won), a lot of funerals (none my own), turning down a chance to be a porn star (I love that story), who knows what else. A helluva lotta fun.

    But it never once occurred to me to call myself a musician.

    Of course, how I became a jazz critic I will never understand either. It wasn’t my idea. Nice perks, tho’. Plus you get all kinds of jazz credibility without having to be a, well, musician.

  3. Hey Brick, I enjoyed reading your article. Much of what you say is right on about the average jazz loving listener in that they want to be excited, moved and have fun! It’s also interesting how you’ve described some musicians being out of touch with their connection to the audiences.

    I’m a jazz promoter/producer and have been laboring to bring jazz to this community for over 10 years. I’ve learned alot about the “inner wheel of jazz” (the wheel being supported with integral spokes made up of dedicated fans,new fans,producers/promoters,venue operators and musicians). This “spoked wheel ” can create tremendous energy and joy if all are in sync with each other!

    I look back on my original motivation and intent of what encouraged me to get into this chosen profession. It was the love of the music,the desire to create opportunties for neighborhood communities to have easy access to it, to offer employment to many incredibly talented musicians that should be heard, and to show the venues ( that trusted my enthusiasm), that they would also benefit by providing this music.

    As the years went on and I established more and more jazz venues, my jazz fans were thrilled, my musicians were thrilled, however, the venue owners found that their expenses against their revenues were challenged. This “spoke of the wheel” was getting worn and strained trying to support the other spokes( which of course they cared about) but – what to do? Alas,the dreaded questions came to mind ” can we have an entertainment charge to mend my spoke? Can we have a food or beverage minimum to nurture my spoke to make it strong again to work easilly with the other spokes?

    Sorry if this is sounding like a children’s story, but I want to make the point that everyone needs to work together to keep this genre alive and well. The basic reality is that in order for this music to survive, it needs to be supported by fans, venues, promoters/producers and musicians alike.
    Everyone has to give something towards it. The musicians who complain that they shouldn’t have to help promote the gig or bring in fans, are, quite frankly, foolish. The fans that complain they have to pay something to hear it, are a bit selfish (why not show support for these talented musicians and appreciatiation for the music they play and the dedication they have given to study and perfect their instrument.) The venues cannot survive without paying customers, but they too need to respect the talent and customers for supporting their club and treat them accordingly…with respect.

    With repect to the gentleman’s comment that 99% of jazz fans are economically challenged, I agree there should be more “free” jazz offered somewhere, somehow. Or at least, have venues acknowledge these groups by offering ticket discounts or seating in a non-prime area. The challenge becomes how do you distinguish these folks when they come to a club? Students have student I.D.’s to show validity for the discounts, do we ask the economically challenged for their most current tax return? (smile) Believe me I have compassion for all of the above and try to be as creative as I can make it all work.

    Being a jazz promoter/producer, doesn’t put me in the 1% bracket believe me. Opening jazz rooms isn’t easy and keeping them open is just as challenging. The one thing that does prevail however, is the love of the music. Jazz patrons are dedicated. It’s the one form of music where fans know the names of every player in the band. They want to be close up and personal with the musicians, they buy their CD’s at the performance.

    Jazz performance should be fun, exhilarating at times, touching at times and also serious at times. I feel strongly, it’s important to pass down the exposure of this music to our youth, friends and family. Like the old expression goes….”Try It, You Might Like It”!

    Those who care about jazz need to keep the “inner jazz wheel” heathly and turning. I’m trying to do my part and enjoying it!

    Jazz Promoter/Producer, Merle Kreibich

  4. Nachum says:

    Is there any relation to the phrase: “The drummer is a musician’s best friend”?

  5. Jon Tomas says:

    Wow—alot going on here. I agree with much that Brick said. You don’t hold any punches—I like that—-but is your name really Brick Wahl?—–clever.
    Now Devon—you really hit on thoughts that I have had for some time. I get real tired of these jazz snobs who have to tell you how to listen and what to listen. Wynton and another know it all Dave Liebman have bugged me for years. I almost dropped my XM subscription over Wynton—I would e-mail XM—-tell them to have a channel for people to just talk about jazz and a separate channel where you could just listen to jazz. I think it was Miles who said—“Wynton has all the answers but nobody asked him the question”.
    I no longer even own a tie to wash.

  6. Devon Wendell says:

    One more thing I wanted to add. In the documentary on Thelonious Monk: “Straight, No Chaser”, there’s footage of Monk having a conversation with Teo Macero in 1967. Teo suggests trying something “Free Form”, Monk replies, “No, I want it to be as easy as possible so the people can dig it.”..That says it all. You can hum or Whistle Monk or Bird’s melodies in the shower, not to mention, in the early days one had to go to dance halls to see Duke, Bird or Monk and Diz. People were stepping out to have fun. Not just the rich either. Accessibility and fun. Those days are gone. Growing up, it was just as easy to hum” Epistrophy” as it was The Beatles “Please Please Me.” I don’t think the jazz artists looking down on the rockers in the 60s helped either..Miles ended up copying Hendrix who conceptually was as great a Bird or ‘Trane, maybe even greater because he sold his music to everyone. There was no dividing line with his music as there was and still is in jazz..

    Oh and I feel the same Brick, I’ve had all of those experiences in clubs, I’m a musician, and don’t know how I became a journalist. We’re high caliber, cool nerds with plenty of fire in our bellies.

  7. Jon Tomas says:

    Well —-We are evolving beings—–in some ways I agree——time will tell—the results of that will be in long after I am gone—-and then well —it gets too involved to start a side thread.
    Accesessabilty and Fun.Yes those days are gone. I can remember sitting at the bar in the Half Note w/ Trane and Elvin right in my face—at the Five Spot w/ Mingus 3 ft away.—etcetcetc—-that is gone —-we cannot bring back the past as hard as we try——–that is a waste of our time right now—the present——it is called nostalgia–
    all I can say—–play your horn —-play anywhere you can —-if you’re doing it to to become rich—-qiut right now —–if something magic happens—–you do not have to explain how it is done —–just do it. Just do from the heart—-the rest will either go this way or that——-life is short ——Que sera sera

    • Brick says:

      I wasn’t talking about nostalgia for 1957. I’m talking about nostalgia for 2004, when I began my stint at the LA Weekly. The jazz audience in this town now is probably one quarter of what it was then. There are virtually no places to play. I really don’t think jazz musicians are aware of just how close to extinction they are right now. Jazz, like Latin in the middle ages, is becoming something that is dead everywhere except in academic circles. I did the jazz listings for the LA Weekly for two years, and then wrote the Brick’s Picks column until last July. I watched this catastrophe happen. And it is a catastrophe. Your music hemorrhaged fans in the last couple years. They just up and left. All that remains are musicians and students.

      You guys fucked up. This music has been around in this town for a century and it’s disappearing now. And that happened on your watch. None of you–and I dearly love you guys–has been able to do anything about it. Not the players, not the bookers, not the publicists, not the radio people, and certainly not the journalists. Nobody has figured out how. I can count on one hand the people I know who have managed to hold on to a crowd (Michael Dolphin, in particular, take your bow.) But the rest of us have blown it. Utterly blown it. I finally said fuck it and retired. The future was just too sad to contemplate week after week.

      You guys have to start virtually from scratch. You’d better get your asses in gear and do something about it. Music does die, you know. Art forms can fade away and disappear into the living death of academia. I’m watching it happen right now. I sit in an empty club and wonder what the hell happened.

  8. Mr. Wahl,

    You underestimate how much enthusiasm there is for forward-looking jazz within today’s younger community (and at large, I imagine). I don’t know what clubs you go to or what kind of jazz you prefer, but take a look at the crowds drawn to shows by the likes of Robert Glasper, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Austin Peralta, Esperanza Spalding, Jason Moran, Brad Mehldau, etc. etc. You will find packed rooms, with a LOT of young people, not all of whom are musicians. People who just love the music. And these are heavy, heavy players. And veterans like John Scofield, Charles Lloyd, Larry Goldings, Herbie Hancock and so, so many others, draw equally enthused crowds of all ages.

    Maybe you’re talking about something different – “club jazz” with less famed and esteemed players. It seems to me like a matter of Darwinism – inevitably, the really interesting bands/players are the ones who survive. Jazz has exponentially more genres to compete with today than it had in the ’20s, ’50s, ’70s. But it also has the Internet on its side.

    This part is just bitter nonsense:

    “Making music that we out here sitting at the bar can’t hear. I mean you should hear yourselves talk. Listening to jazz musicians talk about jazz is like hearing physicists talk about quantum mechanics.”

    And listening to Russians talk provides much the same experience – if you don’t speak a word of their language. How about instead of sitting on your high stool at the bar you actually attempt to listen and understand what is being communicated through the music.

    All due respect.

  9. Ric Harris says:

    For jazz to exist any longer it needs to be FUN. By FUN, it needs to be emotionally exciting, not intellectually. It needs to make the audience drop its jaw in amazement at the emotional power it has, not out of jealousy because someone can play faster or “smarter” than the people in the audience. A great book, a great movie, a great statue makes people lose their contact with this world through their heart, not their head, and jazz no longer does that. Until jazz changes its approach across the board, making it FUN to hear again, jazz will kill itself.

  10. Jon Tomas says:

    So who is your comment directed at—Brick or Ric?

  11. […] recent iRoM commentary about the relationships between jazz musicians and their audiences.  Click HERE to read it.) Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  12. Love it. There ARE jazz musicians who are great musicians who also entertain, but a lot of them are responsible for the audience shrinking. I loved this rant. Right on, Brother.

    • Jon Tomas says:

      Yes —“entertain” is an interesting word—and concept. I have gone along with that concept most of my life—I made a lot of $ with my sax0phone over the years—many times it was my only means of income—and I had to be aware of the need to entertain. Now —-I no longer depend on my horn for survival—I am getting old—-I still play my horn—no longer for the public—can I still have that creative spark—-can I finally not care if the public likes it or can dance—-I guess —-did Bach create to entertain—–did Coltrane play to entertain—-has the conscienceness of the public degraded to the point where they do not want an experience that might require them to sit and listen and witness something unfamiliar?
      I am not necessarily disagreeing with you—I just think it is two different things. My Dad thought Lawence Welk was the greatest—for my dad he was the greatest “entertainer”. He was a wealthy man—-he sold a lot of tickets—-I still think he was a bunch of s—
      Jon Tomas

  13. […] read Brick Wahl’s Keeping It Real 1 click HERE. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  14. […] bone true.  Anyway, this was the last one I got from Mike Melvoin. He was responding to my first Keeping It Real post. As usual, I was incapable of saying something intelligent in return. I get so flustered when […]

  15. here is just a little bit of how i feel about jazz and wine, by the way (two twin passions of mine).

    the further jazz or wine gets from being deeply integrated into the actual lives of actual people, the greater the chance that those things become looked at as “luxury” or “lifestyle” items, susceptible to being corrupted in myriad ways — either in the direction of the snobbery you mention (in the wine world, for example, this can take the form of people who only drink fancy wines that get high point scores from powerful know-it-all critics), or the watering-down that makes the crassness of smooth jazz, or the disneyland that is napa valley, possible.

    traditionally, for example, in both rural and urban europe, wine has been a part of daily life. a winegrower in italy once said to me, “for us, wine is aliment.” in other words, wine is food, wine is essential, wine is basic. turned into a luxury or lifestyle or snob-level item only available or accessible to the few who can afford or “understand” it, or reduced to a list of “flavors” and “tastes” that oenophiles rattle off in the most cavalier way but nobody else cares about is, as you say, what makes most people bristle when they are confronted with it. the whole idea of “fine wine” just makes me laugh. the idea of “fine wine” exists for people who want to feel that they are “fine” or “refined” people.

    and traditionally, in its community (which grew to include people all over the globe), even as it added layer upon layer of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic complexity over the many decades of its history, jazz has had a sense of being alive because it spoke to people in a direct, unmediated way that enriched their *actual* lives — socially, emotionally… in our feet and hips, in our hearts, in our spirits. for so many people who have lived out their friday and saturday nights dancing and hanging on every note that players played, reeling from every snare accent or unexpected cymbal crash with which the great drummers enlivened the beat, jazz also has been like food: nourishing, basic, something that answers a deep, real need.

    i feel that when jazz loses touch with its sense of being able to speak directly to all kinds of people (for whatever reasons–and the reasons, as you point out, are myriad), we have a very dangerous situation indeed.

    much appreciation for your words and your presence in our community,

    anthony wilson

    • Jon Tomas says:

      In so many words—nicely put.
      Just curious—–What kind of wine would you call John Coltrane ( Giant Steps as an example) and what kind of wine would you call Stan Getz ( Girl form Ipanema as an example)

  16. […] it was focused on performers’ obligations to their listeners.  Check out Brick Wahl’s Keeping It Real 1, and Keeping It Real 2  and Norton Wright’s  Keeping It Real: A Minority Opinion, along […]

  17. Glenn White says:

    All kinds of people? I submitted a recording to ten random “critics” via a web service that does such things, and then provides me with the unedited feedback of said critics. The result: three out of the ten people had something either positive or negative to say about the trombone — “I really like the trombone,” “I don’t like the trombone.” I’m a saxophonist. So, by virtue of the fact that these guys can’t tell a saxophone from a trombone, have I failed to reach them? Has my music become so esoteric based upon my choice of instrument?

  18. […] bone true.  Anyway, this was the last one I got from Mike Melvoin. He was responding to my first Keeping It Real post. As usual, I was incapable of saying something intelligent in return. I get so flustered when […]

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