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New York warms to Winter Jazzfest

The weekend event hopes to fill the void created by the loss of the International Assn. of Jazz Educators.

January 08, 2010|By Geoffrey Himes
  • Winter Jazzfest is "not like most jazz festivals, which tend to be overly corporate," Jason Moran says.
Winter Jazzfest is "not like most jazz festivals, which tend to be… (Clay Patrick McBride )

Violinist Jenny Scheinman is eagerly anticipating this weekend's Winter Jazzfest in Manhattan -- not only because she'll be introducing her new duo with pianist Jason Moran but also because she'll have a chance to catch up with friends that she rarely gets to see.

"Often I avoid the mayhem of festivals," said Scheinman, an up-and-coming talent who in the past has collaborated with musicians such as Bill Frisell and John Zorn, speaking by phone from New York. "But for this festival I'm going to find a baby-sitter for my 4-month-old son and go see a lot of people I haven't seen a while. It's really important to stay connected with people, and that's hard in this business."

A musical community needs an annual gathering where its members know they'll find one another -- record-company representatives, managers, agents, publicists and journalists as well as artists. The South by Southwest Music Conference, held every March in Austin, is the most successful of these get-togethers in the world of indie rock and pop music, and smaller conferences mimic various pieces of the SXSW formula: multiple, simultaneous showcases, workshops, panels, private parties and a trade show.

The annual gathering for jazz used to be the International Assn. of Jazz Educators' January conference, held more often than not at the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan. But the organization declared bankruptcy in 2008 and was forced to cancel its 2009 conference in New York.

The Winter Jazzfest is hoping to fill the void created by the IAJE's absence. Launched in 2005, the event last year moved from its original home at the Knitting Factory to the West Village in Manhattan, occupying three different clubs on two nights. This year it expands to five clubs, where it will present such jazz notables as Nicholas Payton, Matt Wilson, Lionel Loueke, James Blood Ulmer, Marco Benevento, Lonnie Smith, DJ Logic and Roseanna Vitro.

"Every year at Winter Jazzfest there's a lot of networking," said the event's founder and producer, Brice Rosenbloom. "Last year there was more of it because there was no IAJE. I liked the IAJE, but I was always disappointed that it didn't showcase musicians outside the Hilton. If you're going to appreciate jazz, you need to see it where it lives, in a downtown nightclub, not in a sterile hotel conference room."

A critically acclaimed pianist since his 1999 Blue Note debut, "Soundtrack to Human Motion," Moran said he enjoys the intimacy of the experience of playing Winter Jazzfest, and that his Knitting Factory appearance in 2005 led to his booking a number of other gigs.

"It's not like most jazz festivals, which tend to be overly corporate with sponsorships and big stars on big stages -- these are all young, hungry bands playing for presenters in tiny clubs," Moran said. "Unlike a Downbeat Critics Poll Award, where you just get some mythical applause, here the applause is real and the people who are applauding have the power to say, 'I want to bring you to my venue so my audience can applaud.' "

Both Scheinman and Moran suggest that the financial hard times in jazz could force the music to reinvent itself in creative ways. Already the violinist is finding ways to incorporate the country and folk music of her rural California childhood into her improvisation, and the Houston-raised pianist is doing the same with the funk and hip-hop from his youth.

When they put those elements together in their duo show at the Winter Jazzfest Saturday, the sound of worlds colliding is likely to be eye-opening, if not as immediately lucrative as such debuts can be for bands who have made a big splash at SXSW.

"Jazz is never going to be so popular that there'll be too much money in it, so anyone who sticks with it is hungry," Moran said. "Everyone's trying to be better than the group that was just on or the one that's coming on after -- you know all these guys and girls and you know what you have to do. That kind of competition can only be good for the music."

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