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In Los Angeles, An Immigrant’s Dream Becomes a Jazz Hub

By Alex W. Rodriguez for A Blog Supreme/NPR Jazz

This piece is a part of the Jazz Journalists Association’s Jazz Day Blogathon, celebrating jazz in local communities in honor of “Jazz Day.” Click the link for updates from all over the world!

Behold: A white piano trio that is not full of shit

This morning, I finally caught up with the jazz internet hoopla surrounding the Toronto-based trio Badbadnotgood (BBNG). I will not link to any of their music here, because they have received plenty of attention already.

I will, however, link to Peter Hum’s excellent take.

Read that, and then come back to see why I even bothered weighing in: because this group exposes the racist underbelly that haunts today’s systems of music distribution and consumption, something that many jazz musicians have been diligently and intelligently resisting for decades.  Read the rest of this entry »


Back home again at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall

Wow, that was a crazy month! And another begins, as I return to campus for spring quarter here at UCLA. This quarter system is a real trip . . . between the 10-week courses and the lack of seasons here in Los Angeles, there is a very different academic ebb and flow than the one became accustomed to on the East Coast.

But enough complaining — I am eager to take on some new courses and extremely grateful and humbled to have had the opportunity to present at last week’s EMP Pop Conference. Despite the fact that our panel was programmed at the same time as a gathering of powerhouse music writers (Greil Marcus and Ann Powers, anyone?) we had a solid turnout, including a number of my friends and former classmates at Rutgers. David Adler, Nate Chinen, and Phil Freeman all gave fantastic, engaging papers, and we had time for a lively Q & A session afterwards. Thanks also to the Music of our Heart for a nice blog recap.

I’d add a small quibble, though, to the characterization of the conference as a “Deep Hang.” I would call it wide, perhaps — the sheer size and buzz of the conference was invigorating, but the depth was uneven at best. There was plenty of deep thinking going on in some places, though: a fantastic roundtable conversation moderated by Greg Tate featuring Vijay Iyer, Jose James, Mazz Swift, and Butch Morris was one highlight. Morris held court for much of the session, defending the word jazz from its recent slough of detractors, and all four shared heavy insights into the role that cities have played in shaping their unique musical visions: “nodes in the network,” as Iyer eloquently called them. Guthrie Ramsay’s panel “Cities, Hegemonic Sound, and Blackness” was another deep and real take on issues of representation in African American music culture, and the closing keynote speech by ?uestlove was highly entertaining for its charming geekiness.

Best of all, though, was the simple act of reacquainting myself (just a little bit) with the city that I left behind last year. Attending the opening reception at Le Poisson Rouge, I caught a whiff of nostalgia for my first concert in the City, hearing Claudia Acuna, Jason Moran, William Parker, and others at the 2009 Winter JazzFest. And I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my three closest friends from Rutgers — Sean Lorre, Paul Brady, and Jared Negley — while catching the Gerald Clayton Trio’s impeccable set at the Jazz Standard. This confirmed the theory that I presented in my paper on Saturday: that “the hang” plays an important role in shaping music communities, and that jazz musicians are especially astute when it comes to making hangs happen.

As I return to my nose-in-the-books life here in Los Angeles, then, I’m exceedingly grateful to have stocked back up on the New York vibe, and hope that the spirit of the hang continues to help me along for another ten-week dive into the depths of academia.

Ben Wendel Frame

Saxophonist Ben Wendel

I had the pleasure of returning to the Blue Whale this weekend, this time to check out the second night of the release party for saxophonist Ben Wendel’s new CD, “Frame.” It’s a great disc, featuring some of Wendell’s stellar contemporaries such as pianist Tigran Hamasyan, drummer Nate Wood, keyboardist Gerald Clayton and bassist Ben Street. Hamasyan and Wood were on hand for this gig, along with Adam Benjamin on keyboards,  Larry Koonse on guitar, and Dave Robaire on bass.  Read the rest of this entry »

Kim Richmond, Photo by William Claxton

After a few months in Los Angeles, I am finally figuring out where the jazz is happening — it’s not like New York, where you can just see who’s playing at the Jazz Gallery or Village Vanguard on a given evening. But after digging the scene at the Blue Whale a few times — including a fantastic show by the Alan Ferber Expanded Ensemble earlier this month, which I wrote about for WBGO — I have started to get the hang of it out here.

One advantage of checking out a big band concert is that it brings a whole bunch of great players together for one evening — just following a few of them has led me to some cool gigs. One of those musicians is trombonist Joey Sellers, who also happens to have just released a fantastic solo trombone record, entitled “What The . . . ?” (Yes, a solo trombone record: that’s how much of a badass this guy is.)  Read the rest of this entry »

The Josh Nelson Quartet wows the crowd at a recent Blue Whale show

In case you’re wondering how I’m ringing in the New Year for 2012, I have the pleasure of joining up with some of my old friends at WBGO for the annual Toast of the Nation extravaganza. The last leg of our multi-city tour features the Billy Childs Quartet from the Blue Whale in downtown Los Angeles, where I’ll be helping out with the broadcast and digging the music.

I’m not sure if the photo above captures it, but this is a seriously cool music venue. Just over two years old, it is a refreshingly up-to-date take on the jazz club concept, far from your typical dimly-lit jazz bar. I’m looking forward to checking this place out a lot in 2012 — starting with one of my favorite trombonists and UCLA alumni, Alan Ferber, next weekend.

But I’m getting ahead of myself — tune in for the broadcast tomorrow, which starts at 8 p.m. EST (5 out here on the Left Coast) with Julian Lage in Boston. Our segment from Los Angeles will run from 2 a.m. EST (11 p.m. LA time) and will count down the New Year in Pacific Time. It’s a great chance to put my radio hat back on for a couple of days — we’ll have a live chat running at the WBGO blog, so tune in and come hang: is the address.

Happy New Year to everyone, and thanks for reading in 2011!

Louis Armstrong, author of countless hilarious missives

I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I have been spending much of my limited internet free time on my road trip (hello, Arizona! Almost there …) reading the many impassioned responses to Roanna Forman’s question, “Do Jazz Critics Need To Know How To Play Jazz?” The question has inspired a very worthwhile discussion and sparked a flurry of great jazz writing — precisely the sort of thing that I had been missing when I wrote my last post.

The question gets right to the heart of what has, for me, often felt like a deep, existential struggle. I have spent much of my life playing with these dual identities, Jazz Musician and Jazz Writer, and remain unclear as to how they can best get along in my life. Most broadly, I agree with Peter Hum’s take:

Good jazz writing is accurate, well-informed, clear, insightful and, I’d contend, passionate. Having my modest but, I’d contend, significant background as a jazz pianist provides me with a vital grounding in most, if not all, of these respects.

Still, I read plenty of great non-jazz-musician jazz writers, some of whom have very thoughtfully defended themselves at their own blogs. So my answer to Roanna’s question, in a specific sense, is “no, you can write about jazz without playing, but basic music training will always inform one’s criticism and is very worthwhile.” But there are deeper issues to parse here; to understand why this discussion seems so relevant today, it helps to hear it in conversation with the music’s long history of critical debates. Read the rest of this entry »

Change: not always what you expect

On Monday, I submitted my last column to the Star-Ledger, and with my professional writing career on hold for now, I’m in a bit of a reflective mood. Looking back at my earlier posts, I am reminded of the fun conversations and insightful dialogues that I have been blessed to join over the past two-plus years, and am proud of what I have been able to contribute to the discussion.

When I started this blog in May 2009, I was delighted and surprised by the vibrancy and warmth of the nascent community that seemed to be emerging on the internet to share its love for jazz. NPR’s A Blog Supreme had just started (long before I became an occasional contributor), musician-bloggers like Ethan Iverson, Andrew Durkin and Darcy James Argue were in full force, longtime jazz journalists were bringing their work online, supported rich, daily contributions, Nextbop was in its infancy, The Checkout was the new thing in jazz radio, and the exchanges and arguments brimmed with possibility.

But as many frustrated liberal politicos can tell you, change rarely plays out in ways that optimists expect. Still, if there are any lessons that jazz can teach a distraught idealist, it’s that there is beauty in the unexpected, and the pleasures of spontaneity reward the adventuresome. Read the rest of this entry »

Roy Haynes Performs at the Litchfield Jazz Fest

By Alex W. Rodriguez for the Hartford Advocate

Adding a notch to my freelancing belt with this one — thanks to Bill Carbone for the connection, and the opportunity to talk to another one of the music’s legends while in my temporary New England digs. Some quotes that didn’t make the final piece:

“I’ve always been a dreamer – in school I used to daydream, but now I know that every moment is to be cherished.”

“I don’t know what the heck I would have done if I wasn’t playing these drums since I was a teenager.”

“I am a natural born drummer.”

Spiffy header image courtesy of Chris Albertson

It’s been another one of those blog dry-spells the past few months, what with the winding down of my life on the East Coast, gearing up for Los Angeles, and, you know, actually writing for a living every once in awhile. I’ve stopped posting individual links to my weekly Star-Ledger columns, but you Jersey locals can stay hip the scene by subscribing to the Star-Ledger Jazz RSS feed. Some good stuff has passed through recently!

Rather than go back and make separate posts, I’ve included links below to all of the other writing projects that have kept me busy this summer, in the style of STUFF WHAT I HAVE WROTE, the monthly series by one of my favorite citizens of the jazz blogosphere, Phil Freeman: Read the rest of this entry »


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