Miles from the Mainstream
Miles from the Mainstream
The State of Jazz as Seen by Baltimore Musicians
(This story began in 2005, got put down, and recently finished)
Jazz has gone through many changes since the 1950s when local Pennsylvania Avenue spots like Club Tijuana and The Comedy Club pulsated with pure energy. Along with baseball, jazz used to be considered a national pastime in the United States.
As it continued to evolve, though, the genre slowly descended off the mainstream map. The decline has been steady for the last 20 to 30 years, while some say even longer. Culture has shifted away from the traditional sense and jazz has suffered immensely.
There is a lot of discussion about the jazz timeline, the current state and what the future holds for jazz.
Miles Davis had this to offer before he passed away in 1991: “I never thought that the music called “jazz” was ever meant to reach just a small group of people, or become a museum thing locked under glass like all the other dead things that were once considered artistic.”
Here are three Baltimore musicians, each from highly diverse backgrounds, who wanted to share their thoughts on the current state of jazz:
The Charlie von Nordeck Quartet could lose its Wednesday night gig at Café Troia if they don’t start attracting a bigger audience. The tables are almost filled on this May evening but there is still ample space in the bar for listeners. More must show in the future if they intend on remaining employed says the owner.
The guitarist and his band, Richard Dorsey, saxophone; Jamie Hopkins, bass; and Tim Ghiz, drums - have been scorching through standards and originals at the Towson eatery for almost two years.
“We play some tunes by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins and Larry Young, as well as standards and a couple of things I’ve written,” Nordeck explained.
Why is the band having trouble producing an audience?
“On a local level, (jazz) it’s worse than I have ever seen it,” asserted the bandleader, a local, himself, who has been on the scene for years. “There is a distinct lack of venues to play jazz in the Baltimore area. During the 70s and 80s there were several clubs around town where live jazz was featured four, five, six or even seven nights a week.”
“Even if you weren’t ‘working’ at a club, you could go and sit in,” he explained. “Musicians could go there and hone their skills, see other musicians and ‘network’.
Today he says jazz is going through “a sort of soul searching process.”
Nordeck, who is in his 50s, began listening to jazz at the age of 15. “I used to hear it at night on the radio, and watched the TV show Peter Gunn,” he said. “When I became aware of jazz it was just something that really became a constant in my life.”
The guitarist began playing in bands and was a music major at then Towson State College, now Towson University. “Since my 20s I have played in the music business and worked for the record business, both in wholesale and retail,” Nordeck explained.
Having been on several sides of the music for over 30 years now, he knows the business and has a lot to say about jazz’s decline.
“I guess that in the last 20-30 years jazz has become a victim to pop culture,” Nordeck voiced. “Most people don’t want to have to do any real thinking when they listen to music.”
“The major media and entertainment companies are all profit driven, and quick profits,” he asserted. “They are not into the long picture.”
He even says smooth jazz, which is the most mainstream version of the genre today, is in most cases merely instrumental R&B with only some of jazz’s elements.
Though it may sound so, not everything modern has been bleak for the jazz musician. Technology has made getting local music much more accessible.
“It is now possible for a musician to record his own CD, and sell it online while completely avoiding the conventional music distribution channel that was once necessary,” Nordeck explained.
But jazz is said to be an experience that must be witnessed live and attracting an audience to embrace the music is the challenge.
Trombonist Jim McFalls is what you would call a schooled jazz musician. At 14, he played professionally in local jazz combos in his southern Pennsylvania hometown. After high school, the horn player joined the U.S. Army Band, only to be accepted into the more elite U.S. Army Field Band soon after. That was the school.
He has toured 17 years with the Jazz Ambassadors; had a 3 year run with Chuck Brown; appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien; played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival; and toured and recorded with a lot of important people in the business; etc…
In addition to his hectic performance schedule, McFalls serves on the faculty at Towson University, the Peabody Conservatory of Music, the University of Maryland and Gettysburg College.
He says that jazz is more than a type of music. “It is, first and foremost, America’s only true art form,” McFalls explained. “Personally, jazz allows me to express myself more than just about any other thing I do.”
Mcfalls has an optimistic and professional view about the genre’s youth. “Various jazz education programs, which were non-existent 30 years ago, are helping to expose players to this great music at a much younger age,” he said. “This is helping to produce a wealth of superb young players.”
But his brightness dulls when speaking of current state of jazz, though. “Steady work as a musician, however, is becoming more and more difficult to find,” McFalls said. “I’m talking about work that is artistically meaningful and financially fulfilling.”
“The live playing opportunities for jazz, at least here in the Baltimore/Washington, DC area, have dwindled significantly,” McFalls explained. “These types of club settings, where young players could go to a jam session and rub elbows with older, more experienced players, offered an educational situation not found in colleges.”
He doesn’t blame the present situation on a decline in jazz but a decline in culture, an idea he says has a much more broad impact. “Folks now have a plethora of ways to entertain themselves that gives today’s society the instant gratification that is desired.”
He cites digital cable, the Internet, on-demand and other electronics as choice entertainment. “All this comfort of home without driving to a jazz club, paying the extravagant cover charges and after a two-hour set, driving home,” he explained.
Originally from Prince Frederick in southern Maryland, Charles Funn, 53, first came to Baltimore to study jazz trombone at Morgan State College in 1970. After receiving his bachelor and master’s from Morgan he began teaching at the elementary level, later shifting to high schools, where he remains today.
His playing credentials aren’t that bad, either: “I’ve been fortunate enough to play behind Sammy Davis, Jr., Billy Eckstine, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, not to mention a lot of people who I listened to growing up on those things called records.” These days Funn plays locally in Gene Walker’s big band.
An educator at heart, he notes that he has been fortunate to have been able to start a lot of people on what he calls their musical trail. “Not only do you have to create an audience, but you have to create the musicians also. So basically what I did, I started organizing a jazz band here (in Baltimore city).”
His award-winning Dunbar High School Jazz Band has played with Wynton Marsalis at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and at the prestigious International Association of Jazz Educators convention in New York, to name a couple.
Like McFalls, though, Funn is apprehensive about after his students leave his knowledgeable nest. “What I’m finding out is that we need to provide some kind of outlet for the kids who are coming up playing.”
“Because unfortunately there aren’t enough places for kids to play, and you don’t want kids who are in high school going out and sitting in nightclubs where alcohol is being served,” he continued.
But as far as a decline in jazz, Funn had this to say: “It tickles me how every five years or every ten year’s there’s always a critic that’s talking about the resurgence of jazz. But to me jazz has never died. It’s a thing where people might think that it goes into hiding, but the jazz musicians are still playing.”
He agrees that the jazz community isn’t as strong as it could be. “But it can’t be better, not unless we create an audience for it and create musicians for it,” Funn explained. “I mean, there is an ignorance about it, and the only way of overcoming that ignorance is through educating the public, which is what I’m trying to do with the jazz band here.”
“But as far as the music is concerned, I just hope that it will live on forever.”
*Charles Funn quotes from http://webdrive.jhsph.edu/eschaaf/sas/people/funn/funn-oralhistory.html