If jazz isn’t what you think it is…

On Tuesday, we announced the line-up for the 2nd Annual SF Offside Festival with the tagline “So, you think you know jazz? Think again!” On the very same day, Canadian jazz writer Peter Hum wrote a blog post in the Ottawa Citizen titled, “If jazz isn’t what I think it is, then what is it?”

Was he responding to our announcement? Not directly, no. It was actually a response to the Victoria International Jazzfest, whose slogan this year happens to be “Jazz ain’t what you think.” But his puzzlement over their slogan surely applies to ours as well.

jazzfestSo, what does Mr. Hum find so puzzling about a slogan that suggests jazz may not be what it is perceived to be? For a start, he’s bored, as many others are, with “that tedious ontological debate about what jazz is,” and thinks that any marketing ploy that tries to capitalize on the idea that jazz “suffers from an excruciating identity crisis, and no one knows what it is,” is doomed to failure.

If, on the other hand, the slogan is aimed at jazz-haters instead of jazz-fans and is shorthand for “Jazz is really good, not as bad as you think it is,” he wonders if there isn’t a more effective way to try to disabuse the haters and draw them in with a message that says something more than just, “You’re wrong.”

The last option he considers is that their slogan is intended to signify that the Victoria Jazzfest is abandoning the grand tradition of instrumental jazz in favor of pop- and soul-infused “crossover vocal stuff,” which, he laments, is what “puts the most butts in seats” these days.

Obviously, I can’t speak for any other festival but our own, and I have no idea what the producers of the Victoria International Jazzfest were thinking when they decided on their slogan. But as far as Offside is concerned, let’s rule out this last option right away. There will be absolutely no “crossover vocal stuff” at our festival, however many butts that might be likely to attract. It’s not that Alex or I have anything against that kind of music—it’s just not what rocks our boat, so to speak. It’s not what excites and compels us, as audience members or as curators and event producers.

So, what does our tagline mean? Is it aimed toward jazz-fans or jazz-haters? Or is it just a “harmless throwaway line,” as Hum might hope?

First, I take full responsibility for the line. When I wrote it, my first goal was simply to say something bold, attention-grabbing, and yes, Mr. Hum, something with sass. It was also, I confess, a play on the TV show, So You Think You Can Dance? Yeah, whatever.

Second, there’s no denying that our tagline blatantly says that jazz may not be what you or I or anybody else thinks it is. Which, of course, begs Hum’s question: well then, what the hell is it? And: is pointing out this identity crisis really the best way to build new audiences? (Indeed, if that’s our marketing strategy, we may as well just hire Nicholas Payton to do our PR. “So, you think you know Postmodern New Orleans Music??” Um, actually, no. I have no clue what that is.)

Now, despite my most excellent taste in music, I’m no authority on jazz. I’m neither a jazz musician nor a jazz historian, and I don’t claim to have any special insight on what does or does not constitute jazz. So, what on earth was I thinking when I wrote that line?

I was thinking about my own journey that ultimately led to me co-founding a grassroots jazz festival, despite certain associations I had with the label that would seem to prohibit that very possibility. Let me explain.

As a kid, my parents were both jazz fans. They liked mostly old style jazz, which was popular in Ireland when they were young—big band swing, bebop, and dixieland jazz. My father loved Ella Fitzgerald, my mother Billie Holiday. They both loved Louis Armstrong. On Sunday afternoons when I was a pre-teen, we would drive out to the harbor town of Howth, on the north side of Dubin Bay, to an old hotel that hosted a weekly jazz jam. I loved going there each week. Until I reached a certain age, that is, and the thought of spending Sunday afternoons with my parents just seemed like the most uncool thing ever.

Skip ahead to my mid-twenties, when I moved to the Bay Area for graduate school. I had a boyfriend at one time who was a professor at another institution and about six years older than me. He was a huge jazz fan, but it was not the kind of jazz I had heard before, certainly not the old jazz I grew up listening to. I remember he would go to Yoshi’s, back when it used to be on Claremont Avenue, to see people whose music I knew nothing about, like Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett. Although I was invited to go, I always declined. I viewed his obsession with jazz in much the same way I viewed his habit of wearing knit cardigans—something I tolerated because I found his “old-man” tendencies vaguely charming, albeit in a rather comedic way. I teased him incessantly about both his love of jazz and his cardigans.

It was probably not till about ten years later that I finally rediscovered jazz for myself. That was when I started to go out regularly to see live music played by local musicians in the Bay Area. The jazz I was hearing—from the straight-ahead to the more adventurous—really ignited my interest and made me realize that I did, indeed, love jazz. How could I not? But certain associations I had with the label made me so closed-minded, I had written off a lot of it as “boring” without ever actually listening to the music. What were those associations? In a nutshell, that jazz was for middle-class, old, white guys who liked to wear cardigans.

“So, you think you know jazz?” is a question directed at my former self just as much as it is directed at anybody else. I thought I knew jazz in my twenties and, as a result, I probably missed out on hearing some amazing music. Back then, I wouldn’t even consider attending a “jazz” concert, never mind a whole goddamn festival. And, I’m pretty sure, there are many others out there who are just like me.

But will our tagline do anything to entice those who are not already sold on the idea of jazz?

Well, I grant Mr. Hum that the line by itself probably won’t have much effect. By the same token, nor will the “Jazz ain’t what you think” slogan. But we didn’t use our line by itself. It was paired with a photo from last year’s festival and, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. To me, this photo subverts expectations, not exactly about what the music sounds like, but rather about who is producing the music, where they’re performing it, and, by inference, who the consumers of that music might be.

klaxon

For diehard jazz-haters, this piece of visual rhetoric will hardly convince. But for young people in their twenties and thirties, part of the demographic we’re trying to reach with our festival, it presents an alternative picture of what a jazz scene looks like. And it’s one in which they are included. It’s one in which they can see themselves. It’s cool. Definitely not the kind of jazz their parents or their prematurely middle-aged boyfriends might have taken them to.

Of course, a picture of the super cool Esperanza Spalding or Vijay Iyer (who are both playing at the Victoria International Jazzfest) might convey the same message to this demographic, but with one significant difference. The price tag. The kind of festival that books folks of that stature, which, let’s face it, is pretty much every regional jazz festival in the US and Canada, is not going to be affordable to as many young people. Tickets to see Vijay Iyer perform in Victoria, for example, cost more than a full festival pass to Offside.

Interestingly, Iyer recently played a free solo concert at Community Music Center in the Mission, which is where we host the last night of our festival in May. Afterwards, Alex asked him his thoughts about how to build specifically younger jazz audiences, to which he responded: make it affordable. And that is definitely what we are doing with our festival.

We’re also focused exclusively on local musicians and composers. It’s not about flying in big names from out of town. It’s about celebrating the incredible jazz talent found right here in our own backyard.

So, you think you know jazz?

You think you know jazz festivals?

Think again!

Advertisements

A Letter Home

Last July, on a sunny summer Sunday at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, composer and trumpeter Darren Johnston premiered his Songs of Seven Miles, a song cycle for three vocalists plus ensemble, based on interviews Johnston conducted with various Bay Area-based immigrants. As an immigrant himself (originally from Canada), living in a city where it’s rare to meet natives, the immigrant experience—people’s reasons for leaving, the stories of their journeys here, and the new lives they create for themselves in our wonderful city—is a topic he wanted to explore.

Following that project, Yerba Buena invited Johnston to do a second piece along the same lines, which will premiere this June, again as part of the Gardens Festival. For this project, Letters to Home, Johnston commissioned letters from eight local immigrants, and wrote the libretto using excerpts culled from these letters. I was absolutely thrilled to be included in this distinguished group of letter-writers. As you can see (if you click on the “Darren Johnston” tag associated with this post), I’ve been a huge fan of Darren’s music for some time, so it truly is an honor to participate in this new project of his.

Johnston asked his letter-writers to write “either to a beloved of their choosing back in their country of origin, or to themselves at the time they first arrived in the US, sharing advice they wish they’d received at that time.” Although it did not quite fit the description, I decided to adapt a piece I wrote here, last time I was in Dublin. It was written one month after my father passed, and a few days before my mother passed. I was preparing to leave my parents’ house for the last time, and contemplating leaving Dublin forever.

Dublin is not a city I feel especially connected to. It has never felt like home to me in the way San Francisco does, for example. But at the time I wrote what is essentially a goodbye letter to Dublin itself, very literally a letter to home, an old and thoroughly sentimental song called “The Dublin Saunter” kept going through my head. Just thinking about that song now brings tears to my eyes.

Though I have yet to hear Darren’s composition, I keep hearing about “my song” all over the ‘hood from friends who’ve heard it performed by Broken Shadows Family Band, Johnston’s group dedicated to his newfound interest in writing music with lyrics, and from various friends involved in the Letters to Home project, some of whom didn’t realize right away that this particular song they were working on—”Laura from Dublin”—was inspired by the letter I wrote.

Letters to Home is a more ambitious piece than Johnston’s previous Songs of Seven Miles. For the premiere this summer, Johnston is assembling a massive, multi-generational group he’s calling the Trans-Global People’s Chorus, featuring vocalists of a variety of backgrounds and training, and also some dancers and theatrical performers. There’s going to be all sorts of clapping, stomping, and body percussion happening. I can’t wait to see it!

Broken Shadows recently began a new residency at my favorite Mission hangout, the Revolution Cafe, every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. I missed the first night of the residency, and thus the first opportunity to hear “my” song, as I ended up staying home that night to watch the opening concert of the new SFJAZZ Center. Two weeks later, when they played again, I was sick, so I missed another opportunity. But I will be there this coming Wednesday, February 27, come hell or high water.

I was excited to learn that violinist Matthew Szemela, possibly the most in-demand musician on the local music scene, has joined Broken Shadows. Having spent many years in New York, Szemela came to the Bay Area fairly recently when he got hired in the Berkeley Symphony, led by the adventurous Joana Carneiro. Pretty quickly, he was playing everywhere with everyone—Musical Art Quintet and Classical Revolution, Todd Sickafoose, Family Folk Explosion, Quartet San Francisco, Rupa and the April Fishes, and now Broken Shadows, to name a few. That list, which cuts across many genres, surely indicates what a versatile musician he is. I’m hoping Szemela will also be performing with the Trans-Global People’s Chorus at the Yerba Buena premiere.

Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows are at The Revolution Cafe, 3248 22nd Street, SF, every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Letters to Home premieres Saturday, June 22, 2013, at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.

Performing Words

Journalism is supposed to stay detached, objective. It’s supposed to report the facts, not get involved in or try to influence the situation being reported. That’s, at least, what I’ve always heard.

There are blatant violators of this conventional standard, such as Fox News. The “journalists” that report for them seem to have no qualms about simply making up facts to fit their political agenda. If they didn’t have power to beguile and persuade so many, their outrageous brand of “journalism” would be pretty funny.

While I would never want to be put in a category that is anywhere even in the remotest vicinity of Fox News and their ilk, I must admit, I too sometimes want to write in a style that poses as journalism, but which is lacking in detachment, or so-called “objectivity.”

I want to engage in a kind of writing you might call “participatory journalism” as opposed to, say, “observer journalism.”

Let me put it like this: I want to be in the revolution, not merely televising it (or, more accurately, in my case, digitally sound recording it). I want to get involved in what I’m writing about and not just monitor it from the side-lines. My part can be big or small, it doesn’t matter, but I want to have some part. Because, if it’s worth writing about, it’s worth doing something about.

Writing itself can be a way to participate creatively in a project, it can be a “performative” of sorts [JL Austin turns in his grave]. I sometimes like to use the moniker “concept-monger” when I do this kind of work.

There is also a kind of participation that comes before any such writing, participation that helps bring a project to life, that nurtures it, and helps get it off the ground. This can be anything from project management or marketing (which usually involves writing) to flyer distribution or ushering.

Or, you know, making banners and getting out on the streets.

Bringing these two ideas together—writing as a kind of performance in itself and practical support that come before any writing—we have something approximating what I mean by “participation.” When a participant in a project in this sense writes something journalistic about that project, then this is what I would call “participatory journalism.” I think this is a different way to write than when one is merely an “objective observer.”

You might think I am relying here on an artificial dichotomy between observer and participant. Observation is, after all, a kind of participation, albeit a more passive kind. Just being present as an observer has an effect on the situation being observed, however small that might be. And reporting on a situation contributes to how things will unfold in the future because in doing so, you are changing what people know, which can affect how they behave.

Journalists who write good previews for performances, for example, knowingly become part of a marketing campaign. By the same token, those who write negative reviews are also trying to influence the behavior of others, though in a different direction. So, you might think, this idea of “participatory journalism” is rather empty, once we start to examine it. It is, at best, a pleonasm.

While it’s true that any kind of reporting is indeed a kind of participation, it’s also true that doing nothing is a kind of participation, though not a kind that contributes very much.

Attending a proscenium style performance, for example, and sitting passively in the audience is equally a kind of participation, but that doesn’t make the event a participatory performance. For that to be the case, the audience must creatively contribute to what unfolds in the performance so that the line between “audience” and “performer” becomes blurred.

Using the analogy of participatory performance as a model, then, we can see how participatory journalism goes beyond traditional, “proscenium style” observer journalism, even if the latter always involves some minimal level of participation. Lines are crossed, boundaries blurred, and the so-called “objectivity” that can only be achieved at a distance gets lost in the mix. The writer gets close, gets involved. Or, maybe she was involved from the beginning and only later decides to write about it.

A question that naturally arises for any activity that attempts to push conventional boundaries is, “But is it still X?” For participatory performance, once you understand its history and how it has evolved out of traditional performance, the answer, I think, is clearly “Yes.” It still counts as performance, even if it’s not always clear who the performers are.

As for participatory journalism, the reason I want to call it journalism, as opposed to personal memoir, or something along those lines, is because the writer’s personal experience is not what is written about. While the subjective experience informs the writing, and that surely is the point, it is by no means the focus.

To see this difference, you can read two pieces I wrote about Cambodian circus Phare Ponleu Selpak. Circus With a Social Conscience, an article I wrote in Thailand, focuses on PPS and their incredible social activism through art, whereas a blog post I added later talks more about my personal experience and how I came to be involved with PPS on their visit to Chiang Mai. Another article I wrote, Glimpses of Nijinsky . . . 100 Years Later also counts as participatory journalism.

Welcome to Fenderhardt

Greetings from Chiang Mai, Thailand!

And thank you for stopping by Fenderhardt, my brand new blog. It’s a bit of an experiment, so let’s see how it goes.

I’ve been in somewhat of a happy limbo for the last year or so since finishing up a postdoc, teaching humanities to first-year undergraduates at Stanford. Although I’ve always found teaching at a top-notch university to be an intellectually stimulating and rewarding experience, one that fits in easily with my San Francisco slacker lifestyle, I’ve known for some time that a regular career in academia was not in the cards for me.

For a start, I’m too much of a dilettante to ever seriously consider myself a scholar of any kind. I did manage to finish my PhD, but only after many years of personal struggle coupled with the unfailing support of my advisor.

Second, I never have and have no future plans to publish anything in an academic journal. I don’t really consider this a choice I’ve made. It’s simply not who I am. I feel neither capable of nor interested in this kind of writing and publishing.

Third, the market for PhD’s in the humanities is so over-saturated, it would be very difficult for me to find a tenure-track job, should I want one. Even the crappiest universities now look for candidates with a strong publishing record. Having a PhD from Stanford doesn’t really mean all that much in this milieu, despite any naive expectations I might once have entertained.

And last, if I did want a tenure track job and was able to find one, it would most likely be in Buttfuck, Alabama. Although I’m sure Buttfuck is a beautiful town with many virtues of which I’m ignorant, and the people there are lovely, once you get to know them, it is not a place I want to live.

In fact, there are very few places in the US I would like to live. I’m a little particular, shall we say? In the US, San Francisco is definitely the place for me. I couldn’t even hack it in Berkeley or Oakland, both of which I’ve tried for a while. Maybe I could live somewhere like Portland, but so far nothing is drawing me there. So for now, with the US, it’s San Francisco or nowhere.

In January 2008, when I had a quarter of sabbatical from my postdoc, I took off for Buenos Aires, where I stayed for almost three months. My time there, I felt, was too short, so when I returned home to San Francisco it was—for the first time ever—with sorrow. Living in a strange city where I knew virtually no one and couldn’t speak the language was a challenge I needed, having gotten too comfortable on my own turf.

My Stanford postdoc ended in 2009 and I still had very little idea what I was going to “do” with my life. An indefinite period of funemployment loomed ahead. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and try living in another strange city where I knew no one and couldn’t speak the language. And so, I found myself in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

Over a year later, here I am again in Chiang Mai, having returned to the Bay for a few months during the summer. I’ve been spending my time here making lots of new and wonderful friends, producing and promoting dance/art events, occasionally teaching a dance form called Contact Improvisation, eating incredible food, and, of course, writing.

Many friends have suggested over the years that I start a blog. My response has usually been, “But aren’t blog posts supposed to be short?”

Now I say, “Fuck it!” I’ve spent enough of my life already not doing things because of some silly idea that what I want to do is not how things are “supposed” to be done. I almost didn’t finish my PhD for this reason. Now it’s time to do. No more excuses!

If anybody has actually read this far, thank you. I can’t make promises that future posts will be any shorter or more exciting. But I have to write. So, here I am and here you are. Let’s see how it goes…