Jazz West Coast Could Use a Little Color : Commentary: Festival featured mostly over-50 white males, hardly a legitimate expression of the L.A. scene.


One of the very few African American audience members at last weekend's Jazz West Coast celebration looked up at the stage, shook his head, and said, "I just wonder why there aren't any black faces up there."

The ensemble that drew his attention was a big band, assembled for a Saturday night program at the Redondo Performing Arts Center to perform the music of Marty Paich, Lennie Niehaus, Gerald Wilson and others. Although the festival included appearances by such prominent African American jazz players as Teddy Edwards, Harold Land, Buddy Collette and Gerald Wiggins, almost none were among the showcase artists for the principal evening events (other than Wilson's brief conducting stint with the arrangers' group).

A female member of the audience might as easily have asked why there also were no female faces on stage (except for a solitary French horn player in the Stan Kenton concert). A Latino could have wondered about the paucity of Latino musicians, and a young listener might have observed that a majority of the players appeared to be 50 or older.

The same comments, aside from the question of age, could have been made about West Coast jazz in its salad years in the 1950s. It was, in fact, predominantly white and male. The desire to reproduce the music of that period with a kind of historical accuracy was understandable--up to a point. And Jazz West Coast's programming of performances by Land, Collette, Edwards, etc., and the scheduling of panels to discuss the black music scene on Central Avenue and in the L.A. jazz of the 1940s, was an admirable attempt to provide a perspective that stretched beyond the 1950s' all-white image.


But was it enough of a perspective? It certainly made sense that surviving players from the 1950s, such as Bill Perkins, Buddy Childers, Conte Candoli and Bud Shank, should participate in the larger ensembles. But why was it necessary to fill many of the remaining chairs with aging, white studio musicians, and sustain the conception, held by many, that West Coast jazz was lily white.

Why not, instead, underscore the differences between the 1950s and the 1990s by reaching out for a more diverse group of players--black, female, young--to mix with the original artists? Los Angeles is blessed with a large, eclectic pool of musicians skillful enough to interpret any kind of charts, and enthusiastic enough to bring a new outlook to a familiar style of music.

Why not, for example, use a Ricky Woodard in the saxophone section, a Stacy Rowles with the trumpets, or a Ralph Penland on drums? Why not schedule Harold Land or Buddy Collette in prime time rather than in the afternoon? Why not take advantage of the presence of so many fine players to connect with younger people by reaching out into the local communities via master classes and seminars at high schools and colleges?

At the very least, such an approach would surely have generated more varied crowds. The event successfully filled most of its venues, but the audiences were primarily white and over 50. And isn't the development of a more varied base of enthusiastic, involved and receptive listeners precisely what is needed by jazz, jazz festivals, jazz clubs and radio station KLON?

Jazz West Coast was a festival worth doing once, and probably worth doing again. Much of the music was impressive--from the Central Avenue sounds of Wiggins, Edwards and Collette to the massive brass chords of the Kenton alumni orchestra and the still-irresistible baritone saxophone of Gerry Mulligan. But the next installment should strive to present jazz not only as the property of a small group of performers, but as the legitimate expression of an entire community.

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