Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Not For Us To Know

Friday's performance at jazzfest was boffo. My general philosophy on these things is a Mel-Brooksian 'hope for the best, expect the worst' sort of thing and I'm sorry to say that at many festival stages my pessimism is rewarded. At the New Orleans festival though, I've never had a bad experience. Everything came off without a hitch (no small accomplishment at an event that can draw over a quarter-million people per weekend) great on-stage sound, professional, laid back stage crew. We had some serious wind gusts out of the northwest that threatened to blow everything onstage out onto Gentilly Boulevard, but we kept everything battened down with both clothespins and plexiglass (insert joke about 'scores tied, basses loaded' here).
The students played great and, for the most part, conducted themselves like pros. On big band gigs like this everybody's got to carry their own water, I don't have the time or the resources to babysit folks. But even the stage crew was impressed by how the band got there early and got right to it with the sound check.
In fact, things went so smoothly that we wound up starting early (well, on time actually, something that doesn't always happen at these big events) and the stage manager asked, amazingly, if we could do an extra ten minutes. Fortunately Matheson and I had worked up a couple of small combo things with the rhythm section (Joe Newman's "Cue-in the Blues" and Coleman Hawkins' contrafactum on the changes to Just Me, Just You, "Spotlight") so we got to blow a little bit together as well, something we haven't had a chance to do in years. I don't know if it was a new addition this year or if I just never noticed before, but the Gentilly Stage has a Jumbotron screen now. Doubtless when my huge head appeared on it there was a caption underneath that said "ego=actual size."
All in all, a very pleasurable fifty minutes, especially considering how much I normally hate playing outdoors. Special kudos to pianist Rachel Brotman for doing such a great job on the vocal to Alan's arrangement of Harold Arlen's "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," trumpeter Joel Greco for his turn on Ray Anthony's Al Hirt feature "The Man With the Horn," and everybody on the band for playing tight like that, in particular new bassist Samantha Silverstein and old hand drummer Geoffrey Burmeister.
Having Alan around facilitated the continuation of discussions we've been having about jazz and jazz musicians for thirty two years. Alan was particularly gratified by the enthusiastic reception that traditional jazz here gets from such a wide demographic. After our set we walked over to the Economy Hall Traditional Jazz tent to see fellow Tulane faculty member John Joyce play drums with his band the Louisiana Repertory Ensemble and Alan commented on how nice it was to see the place packed with hundreds of people, young, old, and in between, dancing and grooving to the music. Alan was also able to renew his aquaintance with trumpeter Willie Singleton, whom he had last seen over 20 years ago with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, as well as the rest of the cats on John's band.
One of the things we talked about was the much cherished notion (among musicians, anyway) that jazz is somehow the last surviving meritocracy, that politics and luck and self promotion are not necessary to achieve recognition. The cream rises to the top. Just being the best player is enough.
This is clearly far from the case now, when often it is people who best understand the workings of grant-writing and the machinations of jazz festival politics who get the most exposure. Some of these people are also great players. Some are not (and some, as a prominent alto saxophonist once put it to me, could benefit from spending less time writing grants and more time in the practise room). Excellence in and of itself will definitely get you a heavy rep among working jazz musicians (who are in a position to know who's playing and who's not) but that doesn't necessarily translate into a high profile with the listening public.
It's tempting to think that these are developments of a cynical, modern age; that back in some now-vanished golden age of jazz, genius was always acknowleged. Not so. Matheson collects vintage Downbeat magazines, and their front covers feature all kinds of 'next big things' that no one remembers now. And iconic figures that we currently revere as jazz masters are sometimes not featured at all.
This leads me to suspect that it's hubris in the extreme to make generalizations about where jazz is 'going,' who is and is not 'moving the music forward,' and which players are the new 'modern masters.' I'd especially advise skepticism about statements of this kind made by critics. Their past record in this area has been less than stellar.
History will sort itself out in the long run. But in the long run, we'll be gone. Enjoy the music as it happens. It'd be a hell of a thing to find out from beyond the grave that the new 'golden age of jazz' is right now and you, like some critics, missed it.

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