Keeping It Real: A Minority(?) Opinion From Norton Wright

A few weeks ago we published a commentary from Brick Wahl regarding today’s jazz clubs, the musicians who perform in them, and the audiences who come (or don’t come) to hear them.  Click HERE to read Brick’s entire post.  In many respects, the commentary was directed at the musicians themselves.  We’ve had many responses – all of which are attached to the commentary.  But when we received the following brief essay from Norton Wright — an occasional iRoM contributor, a long time jazz fan and a fine artist who has created a series of abstract paintings inspired by various jazz artists – we decided to publish it on its own.  Norton suggested we title it as a minority opinion, but we think it may be more than that (thus the question mark).  (To read an earlier Q & A with Norton and view more of his paintings, click HERE.)

 By Norton Wright

Contrary to Brick Wahl’s recent “Keeping It Real” advice to jazz musicians, my thought is that jazz is more than a career and certainly more than a hobby — it’s a calling. Jazz musicians and their audiences have always been a proud minority, oft times working to make a living in non-musical jobs by day so that we can all swing at clubs at night. The closing of so many jazz venues here in Los Angeles is indeed gloomy news but no reason to give up on the rich and ever-changing art form of jazz music. Though in L.A. the convenience of Charlie O’s, Donte’s, Shelley’s Manhole, The Troubador, et al is a thing of the past, Ruth Price’s Jazz Bakery/Movable Feast at the Musicians Institute 1655 N. McCadden Place (just off Hollywood Boulevard) is packing in audiences four hundred strong.

Norton Wright

Like her original Jazz Bakery, Price’s Movable Feasts could point the way to a jazz renaissance for venues where the expensive overhead of food and drink (and their accompanying noise!) are jettisoned in favor of making the music the sole focus of the evening. And if you still prefer some carbo-loading with your jazz experience, the International Review of Music and other internet sources list an abundance of jazz venues where – contrary to Brick’s critique – the fan base has not melted away to non-existence, and performing jazz artists are not “looking into a crowd and seeing nothing but colleagues and students.”

Am I mistaken but did I get the vibe from Brick’s article that he has something against musical knowledge when he advises today’s jazz artists that –

“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. 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 by 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…..”

My reaction to the above is that “…the swing, the groove, the attack, the passion, the feeling…..” are valid criteria.  But for many jazz fans, there can be even more. Certainly a college degree is not necessary to enjoy art, but I do believe that the more you know about any human activity, be it the arts, politics, medicine – even wine tasting – the more you’ll enjoy it.

Norton Wright's painting "Four Miles" (Saluting Miles Davis)

Making this point is the Miles Davis quote criticizing his idols for not learning more about other styles of music –

“ I couldn’t believe that all them guys like Bird, Prez, Bean, all them cats wouldn’t go to museums or libraries and borrow those musical scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev.” (from Ashley Kahn’s book “Kind Of Blue: The Making Of The Miles Davis Masterpiece”).

My feeling is that knowledge enhances musical appreciation substantially more than Brick’s reference to an Auto Club road map showing you where everything is and how to get there.

A closing thought. The jazz scene has indeed changed from when I was a young whelp in NYC, and a luminous array of jazz clubs beckoned round the clock – Bop City, Birdland, The Composer, The Embers, The Hickory House, Basin Street, The Vanguard, The Half Note, etc. But those were simpler, easier days. Now Americans have so much audio and visual stimuli available to them 24/7 that jazz is still only the province of a proud and resilient minority.


We’ll find you — from Vitello’s in Studio City and Catalina’s in Hollywood to the Blue Note in NYC, Milan and Japan, from Jazz Alley in Seattle to the Attucks Theater in Norfolk, Virginia, from A-Trane in Berlin to Aketa No Mise in Tokyo – on Kjazz Radio 88.1FM – on’s CD buying service – and in the jazz studies programs and universities and high schools across the country. Bravo and  brava to you guys and gals who keep the jazz torch burning!

P.S. In the late 1950’s, the late jazz critic Whitney Balliett defined jazz as “the sound of surprise”… Ain’t it cool that now, five decades later, we can still find jazz venues presenting something more surprising than Madonna grinding her 54-year-old tush at the recent Super Bowl for a TV audience, so many wincing at the possibility of yet another “wardrobe malfunction”!

Photo by Faith Frenz.

3 thoughts on “Keeping It Real: A Minority(?) Opinion From Norton Wright

  1. I really don’t think jazz has been losing audiences in recent years so much as that the live music pie as a whole has been shrinking. People are just staying home.


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