The final figures are not in at this writing, but the size of the crowds and the level of enthusiasm have spoken for themselves: the Kool Jazz Festival has once again shown the thriving state of the art and, for the most part, its economic viability.
Such external nuisances as the hotel strike in Manhattan apparently had little or no impact. More significantly, the attempt to stretch the boundaries of the word jazz beyond what have long been considered the normal borderlines has had a salubrious effect.
George Wein, who has masterminded this fast 10-day event and its various predecessors since the original festival in 1954 at Newport, R.I., now delegates the authority to various co-producers who in many cases suggest the concepts as well as helping to line up the talent and sometimes find their own narration. Though he still obviously has final control over everything that is heard, this system has played a significant part in the presentation of concerts that are only marginally definable as jazz.
Obviously, there has to be a reasonable quota of the familiar names: No jazz festival would be complete without the Sarah Vaughans, Gillespies, Brubecks and Fitzgeralds who have long been the backbone of the art. Nor is it either surprising or unreasonable to look for such electric fusion specialists as Stanley Clarke, Bob James and Jeff Lorber. Ray Charles was on hand to satisfy the soul seekers; Wynton Marsalis and some of his colleagues represented the younger New Orleans generation.
It is only when one looks, say, at the Ray Charles bill and finds the Commodores listed as a supporting attraction that the time arrives for a little healthy suspicion. This group is an expression not of jazz but of contemporary black pop music. If they are to be included, why not Madonna? Or Prince? Why not contemporary black or white classical music by Leontyne Price or Itzhak Perlman? Just where and when is the borderline reached?
Some of this, presumably, has to do with the attempt to attract blacks, who despite their very substantial numbers in New York's population were disappointingly underrepresented at concerts honoring such giants as Ethel Waters and Wes Montgomery. It seems that including certain jazz/rock artists such as Miles Davis, and soul performers (obviously including the Commodores) is the only way to attract this segment of the potential audience.
Another factor that has to be taken into account is the influence of the media. New York in effect now has four daily papers: the Times, the News, the Post, and Long Island's Newsday, which has a growing Manhattan readership. The Times alone assigned four of its jazz experts to cover the often overlapping concerts. Newsday, on the day of the Ethel Waters tribute, ran a full page photo of Waters on the cover of its arts section and a two-page in-depth interview with Bobby Short, the producer. The Village Voice, with its two regular jazz critics, also carries valuable clout.
Wein, though he knows the importance of such publicity, has had a reputation for reluctance to bow to pressures. However, when the complaints have been loud and continuous, as in the case of constant accusations that he was neglecting the so-called "free jazz" or avant-garde, he began to acknowledge that an audience exists for this "outside" music.
The results have been inconsistent at best. This year a particular favorite of several critics, the saxophonist David Murray failed, despite all the drum beating, to draw more than half a house to the relatively small Town Hall. Like any impresario, Wein is not eager to stage concerts at a loss.
Something else happened at Murray's concert that had a special significance. Despite his avant-garde image, it was not until one number included a comedy dancer, and another satirized a corny old-time Dixieland theme, that the crowd came alive. Do the jazz audiences come to be educated, informed, uplifted, or essentially just to be entertained? The answer is all too obvious.
While the musicians decide at what point to jettison their artistic principles in favor of exciting and amusing their listeners, Wein is constantly confronted by the problem of maintaining a delicate balance between commercial validity and artistic values. To his credit, he is presently offering vigorous examples of the relationship between jazz, Latin music, and Third World cultures in general, as in the Afro-Brazilian and Spanish nights this year.
At the same time, though, he seems to be moving back toward a rapprochement with rock, or at least with the jazz/rock fusion, as illustrated by Miles Davis, Lorber and others. It does not require too long a memory to recall that his booking of rock acts into Newport led to his having to abandon that city after the 1971 festival. Of course, the reasons for the Newport authorities' decision to stop the festivities was due not directly to the music itself, but to the ugly and uncontrollable crowds they attracted. The storming of fences, rioting and demolition of property, as some of the rock-attracted hooligans invaded the stage, was a product of social conditions prevalent in those turbulent days.
This year a few of the audiences were noisy, particularly when the attraction was the heavily amplified blues/rock of Stevie Ray Vaughan; but there was no evidence that the Newport fiasco will ever be repeated. At most of the events I attended in Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall, the ambiance was more or less conservative, aside from an excessive tendency toward standing ovations.
Other dilemmas, more pressing than questions of crowd reaction, now confront the jazz world. Wein has expressed concern that there may not be enough attractive new talent coming up to replace those who are taken from us by death, illness or desertion. My own sense of this situation is more optimistic. Just as conditions seem to be at a low ebb, something new, surprising and stimulating always seems to come along.
Look at the record of the last two or three years, in which we have seen the rise to prominence of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Makoto Ozone, Michel Petrucciani, Stanley Jordan, Emily Remler, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans and others who, though little known today, show similar potential for no less impressive accomplishments.
Just as certain as the emergence of new and vibrant young artists is the inevitable climb and fall of the old school. It seems improbable, for example, that the innovative stylists of the 1920s and '30s will have their counterparts in the shape of jazz to come. A symbol could be observed simply by visiting West 54th Street, where until a year or so ago two clubs, Jimmy Ryan's and Eddie Condon's (both with histories that went back, in other locations, to the 1940s) continued to fly the flag as the last bastions of traditionalism. But Ryan's has been torn down, and Condon's will yield later this month to the wrecker's ball.
To draw any gloomy inferences would be unjustifiable. Just as the pioneers who populated Ryan's and Condon's have given way to a new breed of creative musicians playing in fresher and more sophisticated idioms, by the same token the nightclub as a needed modus operandi is giving way to the concert hall, where the audiences and the rewards are incomparably larger.
Finally, there is one very real problem that has to be faced by Wein. This has been the last festival under his five-year agreement with Kool. Unless a new sponsor can be found, conceivably there could be no festival in 1986. But Wein has a record of landing on his feet. In the light of what happened after Newport (with his move to New York the festival became bigger and more comprehensive than ever), one can reasonably assume that the perennial "same time next year" promise still applies.