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Time to Think Outside L.A.'s Musical Boxes

The jazz scene could be a musical mecca--if only it weren't so fractured. What we need is communication among the separate entities.

September 03, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Earlier this summer, tenor saxophonist George Coleman was in town for a series of local appearances. Several were at non-ticketed venues--a free museum date at LACMA and a free performance at the Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel's Jazz Lobby among them. But Coleman was also scheduled to appear, after the free dates, for a cover-charge event at Rocco's in Bel-Air--a booking made by the club reportedly with no awareness that Coleman would be making the earlier, no-charge appearances.

The situation--in which the prior dates might easily have undercut attendance at Rocco's--was not unusual. Jazz club owners and concert presenters rarely have much communication with each other, and they generally make their scheduling choices according to their own interests. (The larger venues, in fact, usually have contractual time and geographical limitations with performers regarding other appearances in the area.)

Jazz education seems to take place in the Southland in similarly random fashion. The Los Angeles Jazz Society, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and the annual summer teaching sessions of the Henry Mancini Institute are among numerous organizations making individual efforts to illuminate the art at varying levels. As do the many university-level programs, ranging from jazz departments at USC and UCLA to Cal State Northridge and Cal State Long Beach. But here too there is very little evidence that the programs make any effort to explore common goals beyond their own individual efforts.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 6, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Concert locale--Tenor saxophonist George Coleman's free performance at a Los Angeles museum this summer occurred at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Another museum was incorrectly cited in an article in Sunday Calendar last weekend.

Should they?

In a word, yes. Each individual entity--the clubs, the concert series, the educational programs--are, whether they choose to acknowledge it, part of a large, complex design in which jazz has maintained its entertainment-world connections while establishing itself as an American art. There is no better evidence of the extent to which this transformation has taken place than the success of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

But jazz, and the support for jazz, in Los Angeles, is as balkanized as the city itself. The far-ranging collection of individual organizations, educational entities and commercial interests that essentially controls the music never seems able to break out of a myriad of self-interest agendas.

Rodney G. King's plaintive call for community--"Why can't we all get along?"--was the metaphor at the heart of a jazz column I wrote a few months ago, calling for the organization of an Academy of Jazz Arts and Crafts. Why not, I suggested, create a centralized, nonprofit umbrella organization to support jazz of every stripe and style--from New Orleans and swing to bebop, avant-garde, fusion and Latin?

Listing the benefits that could accrue from such an organization, I finished with a plaintive call of my own: "Anyone ready to step up and form a steering committee to make the Academy of Jazz Arts and Crafts a reality?"

From the responses I received, it was apparent that there were many who would be willing to serve, but virtually no one who was prepared to take on the process of organizing and leading such a committee.

In addition, there were warnings from those who had attempted similar organizations in the past. "You'll never get all the jazz interests in L.A. to sit down at the same table" was the message that was repeated over and over.

Because of those competitive interests, the small amount of available funding--from individual, corporate and government sources--is distributed with little sense of focus, fragmented by the narrow needs and demands of individual organizations. No wonder there's a reluctance to take on the task of bumping heads with so many different interest groups.

So it seems obvious that--before anything as far-reaching as an academy can be achieved--the Los Angeles jazz community needs to find a way to "get along" on a more modest level.

And it can start with the establishment of a nonprofit "We all can get along" organization that might be called JazzWorks L.A.

There's no question that the local community deserves such support. The Southland is home to some of the world's finest jazz artists, and the skill on every level of performance--from world-class local artists such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter down to the students in the many high school jazz programs--is first-rate. Los Angeles jazz doesn't have to take second place to anyone, and its practitioners deserve all the support they can get.

But there are problems that are a direct reflection of the city itself.

For one, Los Angeles is not New York City, and its geographical layout creates difficulties not present in the short distances and heterogenous neighborhoods of Manhattan. Musicians, like anyone else, tend to develop friendships within their own neighborhoods. In the Southland, that means, for example, that musicians who live in the Valley are not likely to spend too much time jamming with players from South-Central or East L.A.

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