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Jazz : Keeping A Kool Balance


NEW YORK — The final figures are not in at this writing, but the size of the crowds and the level of enthusiasm have spoken for themselves: the Kool Jazz Festival has once again shown the thriving state of the art and, for the most part, its economic viability.

Such external nuisances as the hotel strike in Manhattan apparently had little or no impact. More significantly, the attempt to stretch the boundaries of the word jazz beyond what have long been considered the normal borderlines has had a salubrious effect.

George Wein, who has masterminded this fast 10-day event and its various predecessors since the original festival in 1954 at Newport, R.I., now delegates the authority to various co-producers who in many cases suggest the concepts as well as helping to line up the talent and sometimes find their own narration. Though he still obviously has final control over everything that is heard, this system has played a significant part in the presentation of concerts that are only marginally definable as jazz.

Obviously, there has to be a reasonable quota of the familiar names: No jazz festival would be complete without the Sarah Vaughans, Gillespies, Brubecks and Fitzgeralds who have long been the backbone of the art. Nor is it either surprising or unreasonable to look for such electric fusion specialists as Stanley Clarke, Bob James and Jeff Lorber. Ray Charles was on hand to satisfy the soul seekers; Wynton Marsalis and some of his colleagues represented the younger New Orleans generation.

It is only when one looks, say, at the Ray Charles bill and finds the Commodores listed as a supporting attraction that the time arrives for a little healthy suspicion. This group is an expression not of jazz but of contemporary black pop music. If they are to be included, why not Madonna? Or Prince? Why not contemporary black or white classical music by Leontyne Price or Itzhak Perlman? Just where and when is the borderline reached?

Some of this, presumably, has to do with the attempt to attract blacks, who despite their very substantial numbers in New York's population were disappointingly underrepresented at concerts honoring such giants as Ethel Waters and Wes Montgomery. It seems that including certain jazz/rock artists such as Miles Davis, and soul performers (obviously including the Commodores) is the only way to attract this segment of the potential audience.

Another factor that has to be taken into account is the influence of the media. New York in effect now has four daily papers: the Times, the News, the Post, and Long Island's Newsday, which has a growing Manhattan readership. The Times alone assigned four of its jazz experts to cover the often overlapping concerts. Newsday, on the day of the Ethel Waters tribute, ran a full page photo of Waters on the cover of its arts section and a two-page in-depth interview with Bobby Short, the producer. The Village Voice, with its two regular jazz critics, also carries valuable clout.

Wein, though he knows the importance of such publicity, has had a reputation for reluctance to bow to pressures. However, when the complaints have been loud and continuous, as in the case of constant accusations that he was neglecting the so-called "free jazz" or avant-garde, he began to acknowledge that an audience exists for this "outside" music.

The results have been inconsistent at best. This year a particular favorite of several critics, the saxophonist David Murray failed, despite all the drum beating, to draw more than half a house to the relatively small Town Hall. Like any impresario, Wein is not eager to stage concerts at a loss.

Something else happened at Murray's concert that had a special significance. Despite his avant-garde image, it was not until one number included a comedy dancer, and another satirized a corny old-time Dixieland theme, that the crowd came alive. Do the jazz audiences come to be educated, informed, uplifted, or essentially just to be entertained? The answer is all too obvious.

While the musicians decide at what point to jettison their artistic principles in favor of exciting and amusing their listeners, Wein is constantly confronted by the problem of maintaining a delicate balance between commercial validity and artistic values. To his credit, he is presently offering vigorous examples of the relationship between jazz, Latin music, and Third World cultures in general, as in the Afro-Brazilian and Spanish nights this year.

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