Music Smooth mess 

In its 22nd year, the controversial Jazz'SAlive searches for a pulse

Several years ago, Wynton Marsalis appeared on a talk show to discuss the future of jazz. At one point, a self-described jazz lover in the studio audience expressed indignation that the people of his community had failed to turn up for a concert by Grover Washington Jr. Marsalis swiftly retorted that Washington's music was not jazz, and should be seen for what it is: instrumental pop.

The debate over what does - and does not -constitute jazz is an old one, and it's been muddied over the last two decades by the fact that the instrumental-pop of Washington and his ilk has come to be known as "smooth jazz."

click to enlarge music-shorter1_330jpg
Wayne Shorter: Jazz titan with a restless soul.

"Smooth jazz" isn't quite the contradiction in terms that "soft rock" or "jumbo shrimp" are. A great deal of noteworthy jazz, from the classic sides of Ahmad Jamal to the early '60s work of Miles Davis, could accurately be described as "smooth." But these records fall in an improvisational tradition that can be traced from Louis Armstrong to Count Basie to Charlie Parker. If so-called "smooth jazz" follows a tradition, it's one that includes the likes of Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, and Celine Dion.

Even by the diminished standards of recent years, the booking for this year's festival struck many musicians as unacceptable.

All these issues recently came to a head when the lineup for the 2005 Jazz'SAlive festival was announced by the San Antonio Parks Foundation, sponsor of the annual event. Glaring in their absence were straight-ahead jazz groups such as the Ron Wilkins Quartet, the Regency Jazz Band, and Small World. Also absent were respected musicians such as saxophonist Rob Hardt and drummer Gerry Gibbs, and the internationally recognized Jim Cullum Jazz Band, this city's foremost preservationist of the early New Orleans style.

Jazz'SAlive Schedule:

Saturday, September 17

Jefferson Street Stage

12:00-12:45
Percy Lewis

1:15-2:00
2-Tone

2:30-3:15
Bishop Cunningham

3:35-4:45
The Bett Butler &
Joël Dilley Quintet

4:30-6:00
Zamar

Bud Light Main Stage

6:15-7:15
Lara & Reyes

7:45-9:00
Lao Tizer

9:00-9:30
Urban-15's Carnival de San Anto

9:30-11:00
Wayne Shorter

Sunday, September 18

Jefferson Street Stage

12:00-1:00
Charlie Wood

1:30-2:30
Galileo

2:45-3:45
Zarabande

4:15-5:15
Beverly Houstin & Breezin'

5:45-6:45
Jon Barry Project

Bud Light Main Stage

7:00-8:00
The Brew

8:00-8:30
Urban-15's Carnival de San Anto

8:30-10:00
Bobby Caldwell

In place of these acts, the festival had been loaded down with smooth-jazz performers handpicked by Soft Rock 101.9 DJ and account executive David Muñoz. The most notable exception, sax titan Wayne Shorter, had been selected as a festival headliner months before Muñoz entered the process. Most galling to local musicians was the fact that Muñoz made his choices without soliciting the opinons of the mainstream jazz community. As a result, a group of local jazz players, including Gibbs, drummer Chuck Glave, percussionist Henry Brun, and bassist George Prado, organized and expressed their shared outrage over what had become of the festival.

Now in its 22nd year, Jazz'SAlive emerged in 1984 as an attempt by the Parks Foundation to reclaim Travis Park for public use, and by all accounts the once-vital festival has deteriorated in recent years due to a combination of sponsorship and Parks Foundation staffing issues. But even by the diminished standards of recent years, the booking for this year's festival struck many musicians as unacceptable.

In reaction to the criticism, Muñoz made a concession to straight-ahead jazz by booking the Bett Butler & Joël Dilley Quintet for a Saturday afternoon slot at the festival. In conjunction with the always compelling Shorter and the guitar wizardry of Lara & Reyes, this showcase ensures that Jazz'SAlive will offer at least a few performances that mainstream jazz aficionados can embrace. But at a time when the city is experiencing a resurgence in straight-ahead jazz, and with KRTU 91.7 providing a model of intelligent jazz programming, Jazz'SAlive inevitably looks like a missed opportunity.

For those interested in attending the festival, the 72-year-old Shorter commands the most attention. A tenor and soprano sax virtuoso, he first attracted attention as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, before playing a crucial role in Miles Davis' classic mid-'60s quintet, and forming the definitive fusion band, Weather Report, with Joe Zawinul. Revered though he is among jazz purists, Shorter - much like his old Miles Davis bandmate Herbie Hancock - has never hesitated to explore different genres, dabbling in everything from ambient electronic music to Latin rhythms.

Not surprisingly, Shorter accepts few limitations when it comes to defining his chosen music. He may be a jazz icon, but he's certainly not a purist.

"The word 'jazz' means to me 'no category,'" Shorter said in a 1992 interview with Saxophone Journal. "But when you get stuck into wanting to do something the way it was, with the 'jazz emblem' or logo around your neck, you play in a frozen moment in time and you keep fermenting the '50s, saying jazz should be this way or that."

By Gilbert Garcia


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