Tuned Out

The Vancouver Courier, June 2001, mistakenly published this article without my byline, which caused considerable speculation in the very tight Vancouver Music Scene and a subsequent brouhaha between the public and the flacks of the Jazz Society. They were very put out at being criticized. In our town, on the record criticism of established institutions is very rare though there is plenty of private dissension. Perhaps what’s needed is a little less talk, and a lot more action, as Elvis used to say.

The Friday night buzz of diners chatting and forks clinking on plates fills the Alma street café. On the small stage, a zaftig blonde chanteuse at the piano and a tall bass player are doing their best to cut through the noise. A few diners listen intently to a finely nuanced rendition of an old classic, “Let’s fall in love.” But to most of the patrons, the duo is clearly just background music. Ten years later, after that blonde singer-Diana Krall-achieves international acclaim, some of the same people will be fighting for $40 to $80 tickets to see her at the Orpheum.

Local jazz musicians claim the now-defunct Alma street café scene is typical of a city that neither appreciates nor furthers its jazz talent, despite a well-organized and funded local jazz festival, now in its 16th season. Vancouver may be a hotbed of top-notch, “mainstream” jazz musicians, but they complain they’re largely ignored by the festival’s artistic director, Ken Pickering, whose preferences run toward the avant garde, both local and European.

Calling it a jazz festival at all sticks in the craws of many local musicians who feel the balance of the festival is skewed. “These days, people who control the money in the arts seem to favour anything that’s new… it’s an intellectual approach,” says Juno award winning (piano player) Oliver Gannon, who says he hasn’t had a call from Pickering in a decade.

By far the most serious complaint is that the jazz festival throws crumbs to the locals and gives major billing-and fees-to big-name out-of-towners like Paul Scofield, who’s made regular appearances over the last years. Or to northern Europeans, a particular thorn in the sides of locals.

Mike Allen, a respected sax player who moved here from Montreal five years ago, says it’s not just a local problem. In Toronto, well-known pianist Mark Eisenman is getting a protest movement going by circulating a form letter in the musicians’ union. In Montreal, the increasingly sidelined local musicians tried to start their own, alternate jazz festival, without much success. “Jazz festivals tend to drastically undervalue and underpay local musicians,” says Allan.

But Al Matheson, a local trumpet player/jazz historian and educator says the problem with jazz in this city goes beyond the festival. He insists local musicians wouldn’t be nearly as unhappy if they had more opportunities to play year-round. “In Europe, people are used to listening to live music everywhere, but here in North America, people have gotten used to listening to canned music. And many just don’t know anything about jazz-they think it’s some kind of cacophony, or Glenn Miller,” he says. “We’re seeing more young jazz musicians graduating from the local colleges, but they have nowhere to play. Cory [Weeds, owner of the Jazz Cellar] tries his best, but one venue just isn’t enough to keep everybody playing year round.”

Jacqueline Guest, the owner of another defunct jazz club, The Cotton Club, agrees. “We brought in international musicians who told us we had a world class club, but it was just dead during the week.”

Many musicians contacted for this article wouldn’t discuss the festival on the record for fear of being blacklisted. In their minds, the jazz festival and by implication, the entire local jazz scene, is run by an influential in-group, with Pickering as cultural dictator.

It’s a suggestion Pickering vehemently rejects. “I don’t see myself as ‘the messiah of jazz’ at all,” he protests. “Nobody can be all things to all people.”

Rumour has it that Pickering is a shark clad in Armani, exuding an aura of power. No such luck. He’s an ordinary looking guy in black shirt and khakis, probably from Banana Republic. Only the avant-garde jazz coming from a couple of large speakers fits the profile. “Oh, that’s Mark Turner on sax, and that’s just accidental that I’m listening to him,” he says, somewhat nervously. Turner is one of the acts in this year’s line up. When I mention my disappointment about the suit, and his normal appearance, he grins impishly. “You expected Drabinsky?”

Pickering is an East Van boy made good. He attended Templeton High and tried to play sax-“I was awful”-discovering jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis at a time when most kids were listening to rock. He got involved with co-op radio, and then with the “fatally mismanaged” C-Jazz radio station, where he met Robert Kerr, now the society’s fundraiser.

Travelling in Europe in the early ’70s, he discovered the avant-garde jazz of Berlin, Amsterdam and London, returning to Canada with a new perspective on jazz, one that clearly influences his choices to this day. He helped organize the first festival in 1985 when he was still co-owner of Black Swan Records. He’s proud of what he has achieved and bristles at the criticism. “People who disagree with our choices can do their own thing. Maybe we have a bias, also called a point of view, but I don’t think we’re giving short shrift to the local jazz musicians at all. And mainstream jazz isn’t the be all and end all. You can’t just play the old stuff.”

He hauls out the program for this year’s festival, which starts June 22, and starts listing the local musicians playing at various venues. The line-up is heavily weighted in favour of the local avant garde, like the Hard Rubber Orchestra. And of course, his old buddies Paul Plimley and Francois Houle. In fact, Plimley has received top billing in the past, and also got to be part of the society’s $25,000 provincially funded Millennium project-along with a musician from Montreal and one from Toronto-that involved composing music for a special CBC broadcast.
Musicians may grumble privately about nepotism and looking out for one’s friends but not on the record; it’s too risky. For a man so influential, Pickering is clearly not used to being questioned. “There’s always a sector that’s disgruntled, and we try hard to achieve a balance,” he says defensively, when asked about musician selection for the project.

Artistically balanced or not, financially, the $2.5-million festival is doing fine. Even those who don’t like Pickering’s choices admit he’s an excellent organizer and fundraiser. Robert Kerr is working hard at finding a replacement for the expected demise of Du Maurier’s title funding, which accounts for roughly 25 per cent of the society’s revenues. The rest comes from other corporate sponsors, government-less than 10 per cent-and ticket sales, worth almost $1 million last year.

The Coastal Jazz and Blues Society doesn’t just run the jazz festival; it sponsors concerts throughout the year at various venues around town. Recently, it brought in renowned flamenco musician Paco de Lucia.

The organization has also started actively supporting local musicians playing Thursday nights at the Jazz Cellar, now Vancouver’s only serious jazz venue playing live music every night.

The Jazz Cellar is jammed. A Wednesday night poetry reading has just finished, and a buzz of excited voices is coming from the crowd. A mix of gorgeous young women in flowing dresses, serious young men, and a sprinkling of older folks out for an evening of food and music crowd into the intimate space, which can hold a maximum of 70 patrons. There’s a tiny stage, an ancient upright piano and a small bar. The lighting is subdued, but well placed; a green spot lights up a slowly revolving silver ball reflected in the one mirrored wall. Tending bar and introducing the band is owner Cory Weeds, described by Pickering as someone who “really respects musicians.” Of medium height, with cropped, white-blond hair, 28-year-old Weeds is a busy and ambitious entrepreneur and talented musician-his band, Crash, is set to play the festival. After introducing the Brad Turner trio, Weeds asks the audience to keep its conversation to a minimum during the set, then rushes back to the bar to get the musicians’ drinks. As the evening progresses, the audience pays more and more attention to the music, and applause increases as conversation levels drop. There’s something happening here-for the moment, jazz in this city seems alive and well. It may even be the germination of a jazz scene not seen in the city since the ’60s. Weeds, who books with all the major names in Vancouver, thinks it’s entirely possible.

But many of the musicians who play at the cellar and wish Weeds luck aren’t so optimistic. It’s a question of money. They say government and corporate funding for jazz is all tied up with the festival, and since Pickering spends huge amounts importing entire orchestras from Europe, they’re left playing gigs for basic union rates-$100 to $150 a night-at the malls during the event. Sax player Campbell Ryga, who plays with the Hugh Fraser Quintet, says he’d rather fish than play the festival, since the Coastal Jazz and Blues has no interest in his brand of music. “They once referred to the Hugh Fraser Quintet as retro-jazz cookie cutters, and all I can say is, I’m doing great as a retro cookie cutter.”

Ian McDougall, an internationally known trombonist/arranger/composer who teaches at UVIC, has often entertained the idea of starting a “jazz guild” that sets rates for festival appearances, arguing the ones being offered are simply not worth the trouble. He and others say that paying basic union rates to internationally recognized musicians is an insult. “There’s no respect for local artists. The whole system is flawed,” says McDougall, who calls Pickering and his team arrogant. He also says well known local players shouldn’t have to send in demo tapes. “You don’t ask Miles Davis for demo tapes.”

Al Matheson, however, says that’s just the way the game is played. “Local musicians should just get some proposals together, that’s the way to do it, and I know that even big names have to hustle their butts.”

Jazz in Vancouver and elsewhere has always been on a roller coaster. Overall, the audience for jazz is estimated to be roughly three per cent of the music market, and Neil Ritchie, the producer of CBC’s jazz program Hot Air, thinks the audience may be shrinking. The genial host, Paul Grant, doesn’t think so. Sitting in his bunker-like studio, he offers a theory about jazz markets: jazz always does well when the pop music scene is dull, and goes underground when the pop scene is good, as in the days of the Beatles. “This is probably the least scientific theory you’ll ever hear,” he says with a laugh, leaning back in his swivel chair, hands behind his head. Vancouver born and bred, he’s dressed down in khakis, sweat shirt and wire frame glasses. If it weren’t for the tiny mike and the familiar, beautifully cadenced voice, he could pass for a professor at a local college. “I love my job. I learn something new every day,” he says. “We have a mandate to air B.C. talent, but at the same time we don’t want to be provincial, either, so we do everything from Dixieland to fusion. I even listen to hip hop.” When his show began in 1947, he says, jazz was a much more conservative and strictly defined medium than it is today. “I don’t know what jazz is, it’s gotten so big and all encompassing that it’s easier to say what it isn’t than what it is.” As for the accusations of nepotism and favouritism at the jazz festival, Grant says it’s an issue that arises every year. “I’m not sure that there’s anything to it. Maybe I’m just naïve,” he says, laughing and shrugging his shoulders.

Musicians might debate the definition of jazz, but the public is voting with its feet-sales alone prove most people love the old “mainstream” stuff. Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, recently re-released, is still outselling just about anybody else playing jazz today. Pickering can point to Legends of the Bandstand, a segment of the festival featuring respected traditional jazz musicians such as Hank Jones and Curtis Fulller, as his nod to the mainstream. Local musicians would say, why not feature our legends at one of the big venues?

In fact, it appears there are as many solutions as musicians.

Well-known American bassist Chuck Israel, now a teacher at Western Washington University says festivals like Vancouver’s need to provide more opportunity for local musicians to produce special projects they can’t afford to do at other times. “It’s a shame that there’s not more of that kind of thinking in any of the jazz festivals that I know about.”

Some disgruntled musicians point to the Port Townsend Jazz festival as an example of a ‘real’ jazz festival, undiluted by rock, blues and hip hop styles. Al Matheson argues the city needs more jazz festivals and more jazz venues like the Glass Slipper, which burned down a few years ago—listening venues where people go for the music, not the food.

Ryga wishes he had the money to start an all-Canadian, interprovincial jazz festival, to showcase the range and brilliance of Canadian jazz musicians. He sounds wistful when he talks about it. For now, all Ryga—and the public—has is the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

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