Over the weekend Washington Post writer Matt Schudel wrote a piece entitled “Kennedy Center’s Jazz Season Could Use More Variety and Experimentation.” This made me think that Schudel would be criticizing the Center for a back to basics approach rather than pushing the art form forward. Instead I was treated to a history lesson in addition to a rundown of the season’s events.

Schudel began with an introduction of Billy Taylor who was a major player in the large-scale jazz festivals and and concerts that occurred at the Center for the past forty years. He passed away in December of 2010, and so the Kennedy Center is planning a festival and concert in his honor which will be titled “Swing, Swing, Swing.” Jon Hendricks and Manhattan Transfer will be there and the plan is to open up a huge dance floor for participants complete with instructors on the sidelines for beginners.

Other parts of the larger 2011-2012 jazz season at the center include vocals, woodwinds, and strings and the full schedule can be viewed HERE. Get your tickets early!

Schudel criticized two aspects of the season. First, he stated that the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival was too typical in that it will be featuring all too familiar faces. He calls for an expansion to the artist lineup to include new, up-and-coming artists such as vocalist Wesla Whitfield or trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. Secondly he called for the integration of a Latin Jazz festival that will pay homage to the influence of the Caribbean on American jazz.

As can be seen in the slow death of the orchestra in this country, jazz seem to be slowly moving towards worship of “the greats” in lieu of opening up roads for the development of new greats. This is, of course, a blanket statement and I do not mean to say that there are not many excellent programs across the country dedicated to teaching students and bringing them up within the tradition. But the key is just that: tradition. These bright new artists, what are they playing? Miles Davis? Charlie Parker? Louis Armstrong? What are they singing? Fitzgerald? Holiday?

Looking at the 2011-2012 season I see tributes to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, and with the artists who don’t describe the music they will be playing I can only imagine that “classics” form a strong foundation in their repertoire. The question I have posed of music teachers and that I will pose here is: What happens when a reliance on the classics drowns out the development of the new? Does anyone know what musical period we are currently in? What kind of jazz is played most often in clubs or in concert?

“Classical” music (used here to describe any music of the Western Classical Tradition i.e. romantic, baroque, classical, etc.) faces this problem today. Many symphonies face budget crises as patrons basically grow old and die, while the larger symphonies (New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, any military ensemble) have either very rich patrons or other organizations to fund their endeavors.

Jazz is such a malleable musical art form, more so than its stuffy classical cousin, and is better suited for change over time. It would be a shame to become stuck between 1900 and 1970 with no room to go forward but to continue to recycle again and again the same routines. While there isn’t anything new under the sun, jazz holds the key to making us forget that this is true. I hope that the field continues to use more variety and experimentation, as Schudel suggests, so that one of the few truly American art forms does not become inconsequential.

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