What Are Our Goals?
Musicians live and work in every city and town in the world, not just the “meccas” where most of the music industry’s corporate headquarters have set up shop. And I would venture to say that the locations of these headquarters aren’t that important to the musician choosing to relocate to one of these urban centers. The music industry doesn’t give value to a local music community, although it does attempt to assign value by manipulating the broader musical culture. One imagines a time when the music being disseminated by the industry was stuff that musicians were already playing to their fans. The industry was merely widening that fan base and skimming lucre off the top. Now it seems that the industry has defined a variety of products to sell to demographically delineated subsectors of a marketplace.
I’m not sure how long this has been going on, probably for centuries; but I’m sure that the literate-ing of music has been an essential part of the process, which suggests origins in Ancient Sumer—about 20,000 years ago. Fortunately, not all of human civilization opted into the paradigm, and diversity of musical performance, theory, philosophy, and aesthetic has fueled the musical marketplace. Some might suggest that this diversity has kept the world’s music healthy. But we live in a world where the prominent culture pushes for “globalizing” itself, and part of that globalizing effort is narrowing down the fields of music being sold.
Without going into the how-and-why of this trend, I’ll point to my entry from two weeks ago as an indication of the effect this anti-diversification process is having on our “local” music community that represents more than 300 million people. To be real, the reinstatement of the 31 categories that NARAS eliminated last year wouldn’t begin to mirror the diversity of America’s musical palette. I don’t think artists like Elliott Sharp or Tom Hamilton could be included in any of the existing categories. The same holds true for vocalists Fay Victor, Tom Buckner, and Dean Bowman, drummers Tom Rainey and Nasheet Waits, pianists Jason Moran and Eric Lewis, or bassists Mark Dresser and Tarus Mateen, even though their work is neither new or radical. What is common to the names listed above is that the level of their musicianship is very high and the music they play is deeply personal, qualities that the music industry has little interest in. That the best jazz vocal album of the 2012 Grammy awards went to a drummer’s project that included more vocalists on it than the rest of the nominations combined is telling. That this happened to the jazz vocalists should raise an alarm because it is they, and not the music industry, who give value to music. Without words, music is so much deft manipulation of pitches and timbre. Semiologically profound on occasion, but devoid of any real meaning. It is when words are included with the notes that music moves us the most. The semiotic potential of a motive or phrase is given to it by the words attached to it. There’s a very good chance that we won’t see Michael Franti’s name any time soon in a Grammy ceremony, even if Gil Scott-Heron was given a posthumous lifetime achievement award this year. My hope is that none of the names mentioned above become marginalized to the point of obscurity. They, and so many others, work hard to better than break even in one of the toughest businesses, where operating at a loss is the norm. To categorically silence each vocalist individually is to deny their individual expression. In a sense, NARAS has denied jazz a point of view.
It’s true that many venerated and accomplished musicians who, sometimes by their own choosing, perform rarely or only play locally and are not recognized by the musical industry, despite their talents and contributions. They’re in every city where there are musicians, which is just about every one. I can think of many: the late Claude Sifferlin and Earmon Hubbard (brother of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard), both pianists from Indianapolis; saxophone genius Bert Wilson of Olympia, Washington; multi-instrumentalist Andrew White (oboist with the National Symphony and bassist with Stevie Wonder as well as the 5th Dimension, also responsible for transcribing the recorded output of John Coltrane); guitarist/educator Jerry Hahn of (recently) Witchita, Kansas. The list is endless. I mention them because the musical meccas have them, too. And many are vocalists. One of them, Anne-Marie Moss, passed away early Wednesday morning. She was an amazing vocalist who moved to New York in the early 1960s while singing with fellow Canadian Maynard Ferguson. She was adept at singing vocalise and had a huge range (rumored at five octaves) and briefly filled in for Annie Ross in Lambert, Hendricks and Moss. She spent most of her career in a duo with her first husband, singer-guitarist Jackie Paris. This was a time when the distinction between jazz and popular music was blurred. Jazz vocalists, like Peggy Lee, were the Adeles and Houstons of their time. Jackie and Anne Marie lived in a studio apartment on the Upper East Side until they divorced in the late 1980s and worked tirelessly to promote their superior vocal skills, which were appreciated by the musical community in New York, but rarely heard anywhere else. Anne Marie’s student roster is a Who’s Who of jazz vocalists, especially Roseanna Vitro (a 2012 Grammy nominee), Judi Silvano, and Jane Blackstone.
While some believe that the measure of success is how many recordings and high-profile concerts you perform in, Anne Marie Moss measured hers in how well she sang and how effectively she could instruct her students in how to sing with their “chest” or “speaking” voices. Moss was part of the faculty of The New School and Manhattan School of Music. I was fortunate to work with her and Jackie Paris from 1978 until 2004, and my wife studied with her until she retired around 2005. Still, her discography can be counted on one hand: a single solo album, Don’t You Know Me (Stash ST-211, 1981), a duo album with Jackie Paris, Live at the Maisonette (Different Drummer DD 1004, 1975), three tracks on a compilation Best of the Jazz Singers, Vol. 2 (LRC Ltd. 40050, 2008), and one song—“Let’s Fall In Love”—on a Maynard Ferguson reissue, Dancing Sesssions (Jazz Beat 514, 2007). While few in number, these recordings cover a wide range of settings, from pedal-to-the-metal big band to a voice and drum duo that displays perfect control of her range from pianissimo to double forte. Listening to these recordings has the same effect on the listener as hearing her sing in public did, leaving you wanting more.
I would offer that the number of recordings one is on should not be the measure of an artist’s success, but rather a measure of the success of the culture that artist must negotiate. A society that refers to itself as “the greatest in the world” should be able to document the careers of its greatest artists based on the merits of their work, not on how much they can hustle the music industry. Our goals as artists can be to make good art without having to pretend we admire the pablum that corporate America is hooking our children on.