We are currently living in an era of acquiescent mediocrity. This is brought on by the allowance of businesses and corporations to run our society as well as our government. Nothing is of value unless it has commercial value. Put another way, only those things that generate what is seen as adequate sums of money are considered valuable. To most corporate types, the arts or even competent governance is of little value; only money, profit, and power are of value. True mastery in our era is considered valueless unless it generates great sums of money. This is much like how jazz is seen in our world. Only music that generates millions of dollars matter and matters only because of that, not because of the music itself. Musical excellence is entirely irrelevant because the formula created that can make millions of dollars is music that is primarily mediocre compared to the music of past eras. Thankfully because a few people have not given up on desiring mastery and excellence in their music, musical mastery and excellence still exist; even though the overwhelming majority of music in our era is of the mediocre variety. It is my hope and intent to be in pursuit of the former and for those hardy individuals.
With this in mind, on Saturday, October 20, 2018, I performed at Fordham University’s McGinley Center with top New York jazz musicians, Tomoko Ohno-piano, Mike Logan-bass, and Greg Bufford-drums. The event was a celebration of the art of the late Frederick J. Brown by the Bronx African-American History Project. I was determined to match as close as I could musically, to the level of mastery and excellence of Mr. Brown’s work. Frederick Brown’s work is now in public and private art collections throughout the world, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum of China in Beijing. However, he is fondly remembered for his close relationship with jazz artists, many of whom were personal friends through his extensive series of over 350 portraits of jazz and blues musicians, and for his famous loft seen in the 2002 documentary film “120 Wooster Street” which grew to be a central gathering place for artists, musicians, writers, dancers and performance artists.
We performed two sets surrounded by Mr. Brown’s wonderful paintings, an artistic marriage of the first order! We were brought to the event by the legendary producer Kunle Mwanga, who managed and produced some of the most important jazz artists and recordings of the 20th and 21st century for great artists such as Ornette Coleman, Geri Allen, Anthony Braxton, David Murray among many others. Mr. Mwanga has been currently working on my last release, “Scene From A Dream”, the Dale Fielder/Geri Allen Session NYC 1983, which is how we met. He is also working on a European tour for the band. The event was produced by Frederick Brown’s son, Bentley Brown, a 2017 graduate of Fordham University who is now a graduate researcher at New York University and his longtime mentor, Mark Naison, Ph.D., professor of history and African American Studies at Fordham. The evening, emceed by Naison, began with a talk by the great American poet, community activist, journalist, media personality, and politician Felipe Luciano.
I saw this as a new challenge for my musical vision; to play an entirely original music program in front of a hip New York audience. For far too long, my being “exiled” in Los Angeles, I’m often requested to perform more familiar tunes and jazz standards. And the baritone sax certainly as a frontline instrument is an acquired taste. So I’ve noticed some resistance to my playing only the baritone sax as well as performing only original jazz compositions. Until people actually hear my baritone and original tunes. The reaction I’ve gotten is that listeners find my music oddly familiar, yet it isn’t! The comment I also hear is, “I didn’t know a baritone could sound like that!” So I approached playing in front of a “knowledgeable”, “seen it all” New York audience with keen interest.
For ‘Exhibit A’ on this blog, here is my composition, “Consensus”. The response from the audience speaks for itself, I think. The first thing many of my LA friends will notice is that I am playing without any music on stage and the freedom it brings. I can be honest and say I’ve gotten a little lazy being in LA. Because I cannot make a living financially solely from my music, I have to work a day job as a staff accountant because I have a house, wife, car payments etc. And because I have to finance my musical projects for my Clarion Jazz label, I work evenings and weekends driving Uber. This eats up a lot of personal time. To help internalize my level of compositions (which is much more complex than playing the blues or standards), I need consistent performance opportunities which in southern California just ain’t happening. I often joke with my DFQ band members (that have been together now for almost 24 years), that each time we get a really good gig where we can play originals, it usually takes a whole first set to just remember ourselves and what we each usually do on the tunes! By the second set, we can actually start playing something.
For me, because of my lack of available time to practice thoroughly, its just been easier to glance at charts on stage. I knew that I could not be bringing that to New York, and carved out time to memorize and internalize my material. What I discovered when I threw away the crutch of reading chord symbols as I improvised, I was able to dig deeper and tread new ground I had not walked before musically and came up with new ideas I’d never played before. I found myself stretching beyond where I played before, growing and evolving my improvisations. Reading chord symbols really in a way was holding me back. I now felt a freedom that anything I concentrated on I could bring it out on my horn! This is what every jazz artist desires! To say I was exhilarated would be an understatement! Now I would not say I’m there now and happening, but I’m definitely on my way. This is what I got out of this performance. And the audience? They absolutely loved it! I can never forget when we ended the concert, not a single soul got up to leave. It was weird! I presented each member of the band, thanked the audience and said our goodnights. I handed the mic back to Dr. Mark and stepped to the side. I looked at the audience and remember looking at all those faces looking back at me! It was as if I could read what was on their minds: “That’s it? It’s over? There really isn’t going to be anymore? Bummer! I could listen to some more!” Maybe I should’ve done an encore?