Let’s do a festival, or have we done this already?

by gary fukushima

LAJC Summer Festival
Saturday August 23
Sunday August 24
both shows start 9pm

A few years ago I had the honor of playing music with the actress Marilu Henner, whom some of you (and by that I mean those of you born before 1980) might remember as Elaine, the gorgeous redhead on the hit TV series ‘Taxi’.  In Los Angeles, it’s not necessarily extraordinary news when anyone gets to perform with a celebrity.  What is extraordinary about this is we were performing at a fundraiser for the Department of Neurology the University of California, Irvine.  Ms. Henner had been the subject of some extensive research by the university for a rare condition she had, called ‘Perfect Autobiographical Memory”.  The actress had the ability to recall virtually every event from every moment of her entire life.  You could call out any date from all the back to Marilu’s childhood, and she could tell you what she had for breakfast that day, what she did and who she met and what she said to them.  It’s totally freaky and awesome, and probably annoying to no end.

I only bring this up to contrast Ms. Henner’s memory with my own, which is really terrible.  I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.  I forget people’s names as soon as they utter them.  Just now, I even had to look up the name of whatever the real name of that girl from ‘Taxi’ was because I forget her name was Marilu Henner.  Bless you, internet, for saving me from a lifetime of dysfunctional forgetfulness.

Those first two paragraphs came about because I was on the internet trying to remember when our first LAJC festival was, and as I was thanking the internet for saving me from a lifetime of dysfunctional forgetfulness, I somehow happened to remember my encounter with someone who never has to try to remember anything.  If I had Marilu’s memory I now would have thirty more minutes of my life than I currently own.

Okay, back to my original point.  Our first festival was, unbelievably, six years ago, on April 4th and 5th in 2008.  That was a long time ago, and so much has happened in that span, wonderful things which have transformed the landscape of jazz in Los Angeles.  There is so much music happening all over the city, played by an ever growing multitude of incredible talent, with a variety unlike anything we have had before, from faithful renditions of jazz from earlier eras to strange Frankenstein-ish pieces sewn together from various parts across the musical spectrum.  There are many different scenes of musicians and fans of those musicians.  It’s an exciting time to be a musician in this city.

Given all the good developments, it might be hard to remember the pervading attitude of jazz in Los Angeles not even a decade ago, when there seemed to be almost no opportunities to play creative music anywhere in the city.  This is what I wrote back in 2008:

I am proud to announce the birth of an organization that I hope will be part of an important movement in the city of Los Angeles towards the promotion and celebration of creative improvised jazz music by some of our finest composers and improvisers.

May I present to you: The Los Angeles Jazz Collective.

The LAJC is at its core a group of jazz musicians who have decided to pool our resources and talents to come up with ways to think outside the usual boundaries that confine jazz musicians, who are often faced with the choice between playing standard tunes in crowded restaurants and banquet halls where no one is listening, or playing a late set to six people or less on an off night in a small jazz club or even worse a seedy rock n’ roll club that needs to do jazz occasionally to satisfy its entertainment license requirements. Many talented jazz musicians are dying a slow death as they are ripped in half by these two inevitable scenarios.

Part of the dilemma lies in the paradoxical nature of the genre of jazz music itself. It’s association with swing bands and supper clubs makes it too casual to be considered art by most arts organizations, yet the ever-increasing complexity of harmony and rhythm in jazz makes it too “artsy” for the mainstream music industry. Having been bastardized by both the music industry as well as the artistic community, many jazz artists are indeed orphaned, left to freelance and fend for themselves, teaching lessons and picking up whatever gigs they can. This is a toxic environment that could squeeze the creative soul out of nearly any artist.

Well, that was perhaps a little more dark than I intended, but the LAJC is committed to bringing some light to this situation by becoming an organization that will be an advocate for the talented, creative jazz musician. We hope to provide a forum for jazz musicians to showcase their talents and inform the general public about some of these extremely talented yet relatively unknown artists. We plan to do this by hosting regular events, collaborating with great jazz musicians both locally and from out of town, supporting and promoting talented students from our local colleges and high schools, and having the occasional festival…

…the first of which is happening this week.

And with that, we were off and running, on our own personal mission to ‘save jazz’ in LA.  Our first festival, held at the Pasadena Jazz Institute and Cafe Metropol, was a smashing success with standing-room only crowds boisterously applauding our efforts.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there were more than a few musicians (participants and listeners alike) who came away from the weekend feeling more encouraged, and more whole.

For the record, I do not think the Los Angeles Jazz Collective could do anything as outrageous as to single-handedly Save Jazz In LA.  If there’s anything to be learned from the history of this music it would be its penchant to survive and adapt to the changing societal environment which seems intent on killing it.  Jazz adapts much faster than the sluggish trolls who continue to proclaim to the world that JAZZ IS DEAD.  (One such article appeared in the Washington Post just last week.  I’d link to it but it’s really not worth the two seconds it takes for the page to load.)  Jazz will continue to defy its detractors, and I have become more convinced that its defiance is also what defines it, born out of the cruelties of prejudice and enslavement, refined and modernized by those who belonged to the wrong end of an in-equal and unjust society, and transformed into the most sublime of art forms when an entire nation eschewed it for the easy digestion of popular song and dance.

Jazz is doing just fine, thank you, but one can’t really say the same for the vessels who carry this living water of improvised inspiration.  Musicians are as talented and as creative as they have ever been, and as a whole they are probably as impoverished as ever.  An artistic soul is often a malnourished one, and it pains me to see the numerous posts of excellent and notable artists who are looking for additional students or other solutions to generate more income.  One of the long-term goals of the Collective is to find ways to connect artists to sources of funds, through grants, donations, workshops, and concerts.  Our belief is that if there are ways to make the art-making economically viable, the result will be more art.  We have taken the first steps towards realizing that goal by applying for non-profit status.  As a non-profit organization we hope to be the sort of entity that can eventually raise enough funds to provide financial assistance to worthy jazz artists.

In the meantime, we will keep soldering on, putting on these occasional festivals, which have always addressed our primary goal of creating a stronger jazz community in Los Angeles.  With all that is happening in the city these days, it’s a delightful challenge to reach out and connect with new and exciting players and bands.  In a little over a week, we will present what we hope will be the start of a more frequent occurrence of trying to get a high concentrate of artists all in the same place at the same time.

Over the next few days I’ll be writing additional posts focusing on the groups participating in our upcoming festival.  I’m excited for each of these groups and can’t wait to see all them.  I hope a few of you come out and celebrate the non-death of jazz, in remembrance of that which is still very much alive.

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