Conversations with Gary Giddins: on Jazz Festivals

October 30th, 2006


Gary Giddins


In a wide-ranging conversation, Gary Giddins — for many years the country’s most eminent jazz critic whose most recent collection of cultural criticism is titled Natural Selection — talks about his recent trip to Brazil’s Ouro Preto International Jazz Festival, the business of jazz festivals and touring, jazz education, and the debate concerning where today’s cutting-edge of jazz resides.

Conversation hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.


Gary Giddins, among the journalists and executives attending the Ouro Preto Jazz Festival, September, 2006

From left: Carlos Calado; Ivan Monteiro, music director and advisor to the Ouro Preto Jazz Festival; Giddins; Luis Orlando Carneiro, Brazilian jazz critic; Carlos Conde, legendary record collector; Zusa Homem de Mello, record producer and biographer of Antonio Carlos Jobim


JJM  In September of last year, you went to Brazil for the Ouro Preto International Jazz Festival. What was that experience like?

GG  Brazil is a place that you visit with all kinds of anticipation, and you leave a changed person. Everyone I know has had that kind of response, and a number of people alerted me to it before I went. It is so laid back and relaxed and the people are so wonderful and the food is so terrific and the cachaca — the local spirit, made from sugar cane — is like an anesthetic, both mentally and physically. It’s a place where only politicians wear a tie. The Tudo e Jazz festival, now in its fifth year, is in Ouro Preto, a town that has basically been preserved since the 1700’s. It is inland, south of Belo Horizonte and north of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, a small, labyrinthian jewel-box of a city on a terrain as hilly as San Francisco.

JJM  How far north of Sao Paulo is Ouro Preto?

GG  You have to fly to get there, so it’s a good distance. You fly to Belo Horizonte, the nearest airport, and then drive south for an hour or so, depending on traffic. Ouro Preto is a university town now, and it’s really a tourist magnet — people go there to buy the topaz unique to the area. With the help of Ivan Monteiro, an advisor to the festival and, incidentally a follower of Jerry Jazz Musician, and his beautiful wife Patricia, I got a good deal on a pair of earrings that my wife wears almost daily.

JJM How did the festival begin?

GG  Several years ago, the city built an entertainment complex for conferences and university activities, and it was felt that the facility could also be used in ways to attract tourists. A local producer, Maria Alice Martins, suggested jazz as a draw and began working with Ivan. They programmed it rather quietly at first, and generated some attention with their website, and soon attracted top names from Brazil, the United States and Europe. Yet they didn’t really invite the press in the early years. Last year they began inviting a few people — there were two or three journalists from Rio and Sao Paulo, as well as myself. I believe I was the only journalist from outside Brazil.

JJM  Who were some of the performers?

GG  Among the Americans were Dave Holland, Jason Moran, and Kurt Elling, and the great Brazilian singer Leny Andrade was there as well. I knew a little about her from the time she spent in New York but had never really seen her in her element. Charlie Hunter had a band and do did Kurt Rosenwinkel. Richard Galiano was there from Europe, and so was a phenomenal 17-year-old alto saxophonist named Francesco Cafiso, who has worked once or twice at Birdland in New York, but whom I had yet to hear. He just recorded a Charlie Parker with strings…

JJM  And he’s all of 17?

GG  He started recording when he was 14.

JJM Is he recording on a U.S. label?

GG  The recording I heard was on Philology. I went to see him twice, because the first time I was feeling no pain and I thought that maybe I was in a particularly good mood. I’ve seen so many prodigious young musicians over the years, many of them all technique and no feeling, and when they outgrow the novelty of prodigality, they have little else to fall back on — several of them disappeared in their 20s. But Cafiso can really play. He was doing Bird, Ornette Coleman, Coltrane, and he matched tremendous facility with an emotional exuberance that seemed more genuine than practiced. His piano player is a much older man and a bit of a show-off — he may have been competing with him. I went back the second day for a 20-minute sound check and had the same response. He’s the real thing at 17, and he seemed like a nice kid, humble about his skill, happy to be playing jazz in the big time.

JJM So, these promoters look at jazz as a way to attract tourists into the city….

GG  They originally thought that jazz would bring in people from the surrounding areas within Brazil — maybe as far away as Sao Paulo, which I think is about the same distance away as New York is from Chicago. I’m guessing, but it’s a fair distance, not an everyday trip. Some Brazilians will drive there because it’s well known for its cuisine and because it is a 17th century mining town, a living museum, worth seeing. Yet most of the Brazilians I became friendly with were from Rio and Sao Paulo and had never been there before — the festival gave them an excuse to make their first visit — so many of us were discovering the city for the first time.

I found it enchanting. Most of the residents in the surrounding area work all week and have trouble making it to the Thursday concert, and some try to be there on Friday. But on Saturday, when everyone is off work, the place is transformed and it’s suddenly like being in Manhattan, with thousands of people there to hear the music. When Ivan suggested to Maria Alice that they bring the top stars on Thursday nights, they were hoping to lure local jazz enthusiasts familiar with those names. And, while the auditorium was mostly filled, it’s still a quiet evening in the sense that the city is not yet jammed. There was a full house to hear Dave Holland and Jason Moran, but nothing like the kinds of crowds that materialized on Saturday.

JJM Would you say that their shows were significantly different than if they were performed at a New York-based festival?

GG   Jason did a lot of things from his new album and, as is almost always the case with him, he records pieces after he figures them out but before he has completely nailed them, so they become even better in concert. It was a very effective, swinging, entertaining, and diverse set, and the audience liked it a lot. Holland walked away with the concert, though, if not the entire festival. The audience loved that band, which brings out the best in all of its members — Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, Robin Eubanks, Nate Smith. It’s a band where all the parts are written and everyone knows their part, yet they give the idea of total freedom, the illusion of spontaneity in the heads as well as the solos. A lot of the rhythms are vamp-based, which contributes to this sense of freedom. You can’t help but feel that these five wonderful musicians really love to play. The audience was knocked out by it.

JJM Who sponsored this festival?

GG  No sponsor’s name is attached to Tudo e Jazz, although there are contributors. Mostly it is paid for by the state of Minas Gerais, the huge inland area that encompasses Ouro Preto. On the last night I was there, I met the chief minister for the state at a party — I guess he’s the equivalent of a governor — and he was the only one wearing a tie. As you can tell, I was much taken with the informality of the dress code. After I shook his hand and told him how charmed I was with the festival and how delighted I was to attend it, Maria Alice kissed me on the cheek and told me that my comments will help guarantee that the festival will take place again next year. Never underestimate the power of political good will.

JJM  Alright! Time to make plans…

GG  What really impressed me was that Ivan and Maria Alice and all the people that I met who worked with them — mostly young people with upbeat attitudes — were having a good time talking about the creative aspects of the festival and who they could get to perform next year. They act like fans rather than business people, although they are shrewd, and Maria Alice has her finger on everything that goes down. Everything was well organized, the concerts generally began on time, and the sets were well matched. Their attitude of doing this for fun was contagious, and is one that bleeds over to the audience. It allows you to relax from the time you arrive until you leave, although I have to say that getting there is hell. I didn’t enjoy that part at all.

JJM  It’s 10 hours just between New York and Sao Paulo, right? .

GG  Yes, 9 ½ hours, which is a lot of plane time. I thought it would be easier going back because at least I would know what to expect, but it’s not an easy trip. There is also a plane ride between Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte, and then toss in a bus ride on top of that. But once you get there it is a delightful place to be, and when you get home and consider what you’ve heard, the travel time doesn’t feel like such a heavy price to pay.

JJM The physical beauty of Newport was often cited as one of the things that made that festival a success…

GG  That’s true, but there is a difference with Ouro Preto. Newport is a huge amphitheater that really isn’t an amphitheater because there are no seats and no bleachers — it’s a park, basically. There are chairs in the front and an open field and all the way in the back are the kiosks. So the minute you walk in you are very aware of a class division. There are the people who can afford to buy the seats, and then there are thousands of us milling around, looking for a place to possibly sit, many of us forced to stand. (Of course, I’m describing Newport as I remember it in the early ’70s — I haven’t been back.) The good thing about the cheap seats is that when it rains you are close to the kiosks, which have awnings you can stand under.

But Ouro Prieto is much more of a democratic thing. The festival is in a nice auditorium that seats about 800 people, and there are no assigned seats — and any place you sit is going to be good. You can casually walk in and walk out. The three sets each night average an hour apiece. Lots of European festivals, like the North Sea and Umbria, are organized along similar lines. Before the sets begin there are two or three hours of free music at various locations, on the streets near the hotels — the Preservation Hall Band and some Brazilian groups played. So the whole town has a festive quality, which is another aspect you see in Europe — Pori, in Finland, and the Copenhagen Jazz Festival take over the city. You don’t see that much in the US.

JJM   Is the festival profitable?

GG  I don’t see how it could be profitable yet, but I don’t know. It seems obvious that the only way they can book the Americans is if the musicians have tours that include performances in other South American cities. Once that is done, the festival can charge reasonable prices. To be honest, I didn’t go there as a journalist, so I didn’t get into the numbers with them. The only work I had to do there was to be part of a panel discussion with three producers and journalists from Brazil, including a remarkable gentleman in his 70’s named Zuza Homem De Mello, a writer — he wrote Jobim’s biography — and producer who spent a lot of time in the United States and was actually part of the famous jazz gatherings at the Music Inn in Lenox during the 1950s. Another panelist was a legendary record collector who also does a radio show. This panel went on for well over two hours, and I’d never seen anything like it — it was well attended and no one walked out! It was one of the liveliest panels I’ve been on. A translator was there to put my comments in Portuguese, but after a while she gave up — most of the audience understood some English, and when panelists picked up on or challenged something I said, they would provide the translation.

JJM What did you talk about?

GG  I talked a little bit about Brazilian jazz and the way we know it in the United States. Afterwards, a woman who was involved in the festival told me she was grateful that I talked about Brazilian jazz because I was the only one on the panel who did, and I thought about it later and realized what she said was true. I don’t think there’s much to be read into that — most people were more interested in talking about Americans and Europeans, and the balance of musical power between them.

Much discussion concerned the issue of whether jazz’s cutting edge is still in the United States or whether it has crossed the Atlantic. Their view was that it may have moved to Europe, and the country they were most conscious of was Italy. They rattled off names of musicians who were mostly unknown to me because their recordings get distributed into record stores in Brazil, apparently, but not here. Well, we don’t even have record stores here anymore. But I often encounter musicians abroad who have international reputations everywhere but here. A couple of years ago, I heard Rosa Passos, the sublime Brazilian singer and guitarist in Copenhagen, where her performances are events, sold out well in advance. A few of her records have been issued here, including a collaboration with Ron Carter on Chesky; Amarosa on Sony, which no one has heard because it was put out under the classical wing; and the stunning Rosa, released last year on Telarc. In Brazil, she is widely regarded as the greatest of bossa nova vocalists and as a guitarist to compare with Joao Gilberto. She had an early career, retired for 20 years to raise her family, and is now enjoying an international comeback. Only in the United States is she less well known than Astrud Gilberto, who isn’t taken very seriously in Brazil.

JJM  Did the record stores have a reasonable selection of jazz recordings?

GG   No, not at all. In fact, I walked into one local store hoping to find some early Rosa. Forget it. I was with a Brazilian critic and I asked if there was anything I should hear, and he looked at the meager racks and said there wasn’t. I don’t think it’s a better climate for the record industry — it’s probably a lot worse — and yet the line of distribution between Europe and Brazil seems stronger in some respects than the one between Europe and New York.

JJM So, your fellow panelists’ contention was that the center of jazz is in Europe now rather than the United States…

GG  Yes, but of course, I don’t buy that, and I argued against it. While there are gifted young musicians like the 17-year-old Cafiso in Europe, we have brilliant young musicians all over the place. And whether they are 17 or not is immaterial. I asked the panelists if they knew of anyone in Europe as stimulating and original as Jason Moran, and everyone agreed that they didn’t. Outside of the avant-garde, Europe is still swimming against the American tide. I realize that that’s a chauvinistic thing to say, but I recall some Brit arguing in the New York Times about this great band that incarnated a new day in jazz. Then the CD came out. I mean it was laughable — a high-grade composite of funk and new age.

There are two ways people evaluate jazz, especially when they get older. One way is the way we do when we’re young, which is to look for the new thing, and I still have a certain affection for the innovator, the pathfinder, the risk-taker. With older fans, however, the issue is often, can young musicians play in the idiom that they — older fans — are comfortable with. They don’t care about “new,” they just want to know who can play. Leonard Feather got to be like that. All he was looking for were guys who played in the accepted manner, and a lot of critics do that because we are no longer in a period where the music is charged by a forward momentum. It really hasn’t been like that since the 1970’s. When someone like Jason Moran or Brad Mehldau comes around, you can’t fail to hear originality. Being able to mimic someone doesn’t do anything for me.

JJM  So the importance isn’t so much how they play, but what they play.

GG  Actually, I would say it’s the reverse. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. This is a big difference between jazz and classical music. If you play a Beethoven Sonata, you want to be able to kill with it, and the more lucid and exciting your interpretation the more highly regarded you are. However, if a jazz musician comes along and plays an Art Tatum piece note for note, we shrug and walk away. We don’t give a shit, yet that, too, requires the same technique and imagination. This doesn’t count for anything in jazz, and that is partly due to technology. For example, if we had a recording of Beethoven playing his own sonata, we might not be as interested in hearing Schnabel or Kempff or Martha Argerich or anyone else play them. But because jazz is so well documented, we want to hear musicians express themselves. It’s wonderful that Jason Moran can play exhilarating, personal versions of James P. Johnson and Jaki Byard, but the key word here is “personal,” and in jazz that means more than an empathic interpretation of a score.

JJM In 1945, Norman Granz used the name “Jazz at the Philharmonic” to describe the traveling concert series that included the likes of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Dizzy Gillespie. By the 1950’s, Jazz at the Philharmonic ensembles were performing all over the world, and their travels spawned live recordings and helped promote the work of the musicians involved. With this as a model, would record companies of today benefit by recording these live festivals — such as Ouro Preto — and marketing their artists around these events? Is this something that the promoters have forgotten?

GG  For some reason, jazz has never been short on young people who want to be critics, but what ever happened to those who want to become promoters, producers, entrepreneurs, and impresarios? They are just not around anymore. More kids are going to college in the United States today then ever before, and these institutions have more discretionary funds to spend than ever before, yet there are no promoters creating tours that would bring jazz artists into the colleges. I don’t understand why that has not happened in the past 30 years. One of the reasons we were able to get such unbelievable musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong into Grinnell, Iowa when I went to school there is because we discovered that they would always have open nights to play while touring Midwestern cities. They always had a night free, which means they weren’t getting paid, so they were glad to fill in that evening even at a dramatically reduced price.

JJM  Sometimes, all you have to do is ask…

GG  That’s right, and they would play for a fraction of what second-rate rock bands were asking — the Duke Ellington orchestra performed for a total of $4,500! This was during a time when Big Brother and the Holding Company, a trio — without Janice Joplin — was demanding a fee of $12,000.

JJM Jazz musicians need all the help they can get in terms of getting their name out there, and evenings on college campuses would certainly serve that purpose.

GG  An example of that, of course, is Dave Brubeck. After his Jazz at Oberlin record came out, colleges wanted to book his group, hoping that they would record at their school. It got to be a big deal — it was competitive, and it was hip to have these bands at your school. I don’t know why they don’t do it today. I remember a period of time during the 80’s when, if a student government had $15,000 to spend on jazz during the course of the year, they would hire five different bands with it — now, they use all of that money and hire one big name, often because they have to sell tickets. That’s another difference, most colleges sell tickets now. At Grinnell, all the concerts were free, so we weren’t too concerned about the size of the audience. But if you’re worried about sales, you are more concerned with promotion than introducing students to music they might never otherwise encounter. With all of the thousands of colleges we have in this country, this should be a gold mine for booking bands. Jason Moran should be on the road as much as he wants, and not just in Europe or South America.

JJM  Jazz education appears to be expanding somewhat in the United States, and it would seem like a natural tie-in to have performances as well…

GG  I’m not in the academic world and I really can’t talk about jazz education with any authority, though I recently taught a short three-week course on jazz at Grinnell, my first time in a classroom in over a decade. The only other person in recent years I’ve actually seen teach is Scott DeVeaux, and I was knocked out by his class. He knows how to convey information in a very large lecture hall, giving students a good sense of who the artists are, saying a great deal in a short time. I saw him teach Mingus and Coltrane in the same session, and I don’t know how he did that so effectively. I started talking about Armstrong in one class, and had to continue with him in the next, I got so carried away.

I don’t much like the idea of jazz being about homework and test, and that really bothers me. I’m going to be doing some more teaching in the coming year and I don’t to want to create students who are sitting at home memorizing who the clarinetist was in the Hot Five. It is not about memorizing the music, it is about loving the music, what they used to call music appreciation. But they often frown on that in the Academy because music appreciation can’t be quantified, while facts can. Inevitably, jazz has gone the way that all music is taught and there’s not much you can do about that. But I would have thought that with the number of jazz courses offered in the universities, they would supplement them by having more jazz musicians performing on campus.

JJM  Is that a reflection of the market and their unwillingness to devote any of their budget to jazz music — putting it into popular music instead?

GG  Yes, that’s part of it. But let’s remember also that when you are in college, one of the things you do is read books that you probably wouldn’t otherwise read — you should also be able to have access to music that you wouldn’t otherwise listen to. There was a period in American education when it was considered a waste of time to read 20th century novels because they assumed you were going to do that anyway. In college, the feeling was, you should be reading the Greeks and the classics as a foundation for your education. Now, modernism is accentuated and institutions make sure that every ethnic group and women are represented. Well, fine, but that should apply as much to music, whether or not they are selling tickets. When I went to my college reunion 15 years after I graduated in 1970, many of my classmates reminisced movingly about being able to see Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cecil Taylor, Bobby Hutcherson, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Ted Curson, Eddie Harris, Lil Hardin, and others perform. It didn’t seem like such a big deal back then, though in fact, there were often protests from students who complained that the bookings were too jazzcentric. They weren’t wrong.

JJM George Wein said that he has two criteria for the musicians playing at his festivals. “I program the music I love and I program the music that sells. I used to also do music that would give me credibility with the critics. I’ve given up on the third.” How do producers at jazz festivals balance the need for presenting cutting edge and enlightening artists with those who sell tickets?

GG  It was relatively simple for important producers like Wein and Norman Granz because they just booked the musicians they liked. They were fans. Granz loved Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Oscar Peterson and all those people. I don’t recall Granz ever producing musicians he didn’t like. George Wein had a much bigger operation with large halls to fill, so he was looking for names to fill the place. I think when he said that he stopped “listening to the critics,” he really meant that he stopped listening to the new, cutting-edge music. So, while the young critics were raving about the latest flavor of music within the avant-garde, he just didn’t care. Most of the musicians he really loved from his generation have died off, so he is going to be much more inclined to book guys who play in their style. George Wein has nothing but the highest regard for Cecil Taylor — he gave him one his first big gigs at Newport in 1957 — but does he love Cecil’s music? I doubt it. So, I don’t think he has any kind of feelings about having to present him. Granz felt that he should be presenting Art Tatum because no one else was, and Wein presented people like Miles Davis or Sarah Vaughan every year, and did it right. My question is, Where is the 30-year-old George Wein? Where is the 28-year-old Norman Granz with a business degree who also loves jazz?

JJM  In addition to being good business people, Wein and Granz understood the aesthetics of jazz. Loving jazz while also knowing how wide to go with artists is important, otherwise you start inviting people like Bruce Hornsby to the party.

GG  That’s right. That’s one of the reasons that Ouro Preto was so good and, for that matter, why so many of the European festivals are good — unlike the New York Festival, which is a real grab bag of talent and you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes smaller is better. But I do wish that American festivals would do more to bring in musicians from around the world, and I think it’s time to revive staged jam sessions, which not only entertain audiences but often give the musicians new perspectives. As always, the music is healthy, the musicians are holding up their end, and it remains for a business template to reemerge to bring them to market — a synergistic infrastructure that combines recordings, tours, festivals, radio, television, and film. The problem has never been that people don’t like jazz; it’s that they never get a chance to hear jazz in all its motley. No one likes all jazz; but I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like some jazz.








Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books


Gary Giddins


This conversation took place on October 30, 2006



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