11 June 2010

Local Event: Rochester "Jazz" Festival

Today is the start up of the Rochester Jazz Festival and I feel obliged to mention it. I do so, though, with pretty systematic ambivalence. While the city is desperate for anything to liven up the dead streets and deader economy, I have a couple of serious complaints.

First, the organizers' definition of "jazz" is so indiscriminate as to be meaningless. This festival is a tool for attracting suburbanites into the city and making them feel comfortable. So, any music that might actually challenge popular tastes is off the agenda. Bland is the word. I couldn't find a single performance on the schedule that I'd want to drive into town to see. That, in fact, is part of the problem: you cannot remedy the problems of the city simply by getting people like me to drive in from the countryside. The festival model of urban revitalization seems to me to be a mistake, I have posted pretty often on the need to foster spaces of creativity rather than just spaces of performance as the scaffolding of a vital urban culture.

Second, by my casual count the festival reflects a typical pattern. Most of the black performers (who I'd bet are a distinct minority) are playing R&B or something. Most of the nominally jazz performers are white. It is much like checking out the jazz section at Barnes and Noble. Jazz is an overwhelmingly African-American art form (I'm not just counting numbers of performers; virtually every notable innovation in the tradition was produced by African Americans) but you'd surely not know it from the way it is peddled, whether in the stores or at events like this one. I am not just complaining about effacing history. This pattern denies the active careers of a large number of amazingly talented and creative musicians. This pattern cannot be an accident. Ask the organizers what is going on.

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