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1994 / YEAR IN REVIEW : JAZZ : Kenny G Is a Force, but Young Lions Rule : L.A. audiences seem willing and eager to hear jazz but reluctant to take a chance on anything other than major names and familiar music. New York, anyone?

December 25, 1994|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer.

The peculiar state of jazz at the end of 1994 was best summed up early in December, when Billboard's Contemporary Jazz Artist of the Year award was given to Kenny G. There it was: a year in which more people were buying jazz records than ever before, and Kenny G was the headliner.

Weird as it may seem, however, logic was on Billboard's side. The magazine makes its awards on the basis of sales, and G clearly sold more albums than anyone else.

But is G's music "contemporary jazz"? Not exactly. And if there was one silver lining for the year, it was the growing recognition that the music played by G, and performers such as Dave Koz, Richard Elliot, Candy Dulfer, etc., is not contemporary jazz but harmless, pop-oriented instrumental pabulum. The problem lies in the mistaken identification of pop jazz as the contemporary expression of the jazz mainstream. 'Taint so. Kenny G may be able to co-opt the name, but he can't really play the game.

Fortunately, 1994 was a year in which several young musicians who could play the game and legitimately claim roles in contemporary jazz came to the fore, via performances and recordings. Players such as Joshua Redman--who brings his quartet into Catalina Bar & Grill for six-nights starting Tuesday-- David Sanchez, Christian McBride, Billy Childs, Joe Lovano, Wallace Roney, Vincent Herring, Benny Green and dozens of others came rushing onto the scene, actively proclaiming the widespread establishment of a generation of talented young artists.

Enhancing the work of the newer players was the impressive resurgence of such powerful veterans as pianists Kenny Barron and Barry Harris, saxophonists Joe Henderson (continuing to reassert his role as the premier tenor player in jazz), Jackie McLean and Eddie Harris, and trumpeter Art Farmer (to name only a few).

Conversely, it was yet another year in which the most widespread media, television, didn't quite know what to make of jazz. The rare TV performances were usually limited to well-established players, generally on PBS programs, with a few regular shows on the BET cable network and a few videos on Bravo cable.

The starry-eyed prospect--never actually very likely--that more jazz would appear on "The Tonight Show" when Branford Marsalis joined Jay Leno to become music director in 1992 had already drifted away into the programming ether when the show celebrated its second anniversary in May. (Marsalis now is planning to take an extended hiatus in January to support a new album, which ironically may contain more hip-hop and rap than jazz.) Yet, curiously, jazz was popping up all over the place in TV commercials: a Coltrane-like soprano saxophone playing "My Favorite Things" in support of the Mitsubishi Galant; a Cadillac Seville ad that mentioned Wes Montgomery in its text (accompanied by a Montgomery-like underscore); a Benny Goodman quartet clone hyping the Saturn, and a flat-out Goodman big band-style version of "Sing, Sing, Sing" to sell Chips Ahoy. Maybe the network programmers should start taking lunches with the ad guys.

Radio remained pretty much status quo. In Los Angeles, KLON, with its difficult transmission signal, was the only full-time game in town, although other public radio stations such as KPCC and KCRW came up with the occasional bright moment of special programming. (Marian McPartland's performance-oriented interviews with musicians on NPR is an especially fine example of the still largely unfulfilled possibilities of jazz radio.)

Sadly, 1994 was a year which saw the passing of an all-star roster of jazz greats: guitarist Joe Pass, trumpeters Red Rodney and Shorty Rogers, saxophonist Bob Cooper, singer Carmen McRae, bossa nova godfather Antonio Carlos Jobim, drummer Connie Kay, composer/critic Leonard Feather, among too many others.

*

From a local perspective, employment prospects for L.A. jazzers did not improve. Like dozens of gifted musical associates, talented artists such as saxophonists Rickey Woodard, singer Stephanie Haynes, pianist Cecilia Coleman and multi-instrumentalist Ray Pizzi traded off high visibility in their chosen field for the joys of living in Southern California.

A few new clubs came, a few old ones shut down. On the upside, the Jazz Bakery began to book major name acts. On the downside, the Bakery--despite its attractive new venue and secure parking facilities--was having difficulty selling enough tickets to fill the room. Catalina Bar & Grill, in the face of high artist fees and occasional slim audiences, continued to carry the banner for major artist appearances. It would be hard to even think of Los Angeles as a world-class jazz city without Catalina's year-round schedule of first-rate bookings.

The World Stage and Fifth Street Dick's, on considerably smaller budgets, became equally important performance arenas, vital keystones in the structure of jazz in the Southland that are willing to risk taking chances with new ideas and new players.

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