|Into the Future
|Up and coming musicians carry on the state's jazz legacy
By George Kanzler
Thursday, January 11, 2001
The jazz world portrayed in the PBS-TV series "Ken Burns' Jazz" has little to do with today's jazz realities.
But, says tenor saxophonist and South Orange resident Don Braden, the series does reflect a time - the Big Band and Swing Era - when the music was a much more essential part of American culture.
1998 Star-Ledge File Photo
Pianist Renee Rosnes says jazz is "becoming more global."
Photo by John Munson/The Star-Ledger
Above Stefon Harris, a jazz vibes musician.
Above, saxophonist Javon Jackson.
"The commercial viability of jazz has always been tied to the amount of promotion it receives and overall news generated about it," says Braden. "Look at the Ken Burns thing. Everybody is talking about it. The disadvantage is that it's all about dead people. So okay, it's another great history lesson. But how much will it help the scene today?
''There will be a trickle-down interest in the music, but still not enough to focus on those of us who are now in the trenches, hitting hard."
At 37, Braden is one of the jazz musicians carrying the music into the new millennium. He is like other New Jersey-based musicians from their late 20s to early 40s who represent the jazz future - artists who have learned or are learning to live in a very different jazz world, with skills and strategies not hinted at in Burns' documentary.
That senes portrays a world where musicians were just that, working musicians who played every day, week and month, often for the same bands as they toured the country or even settled in for long engagements in cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or
Kansas City. For instance, Newarker Bobby Plater, a lead alto saxophonist and composer of "Jersey Bounce," spent 18 years playing with Lionel Hampton's big band, followed by 18 more with Count Basie's.
Compare Plater's career to that of pianist Matt King of West Orange, who graduated from the jazz studies program at William Paterson University in Wayne in 1986. King never latched onto a job with a permanent band, mainly because there have been no steady, full time bands left in jazz, with a handful of exceptions, since the '70s. So King, 36, who won the Great American Jazz Piano Competition (one of the two prestigious annual competitions for jazz players in this country) in November at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival in Florida, has worked with hundreds of bands of all types in his 15-year career.
"The secret to making a living is to not confine yourself to jazz gigs," says King. "I chose to work mostly in New Jersey, but I also play rock, blues, funk, even church music. And I do some private teaching, too."
Today's jazz musician is confronting a different world and a different reality from his forebears. The days are gone when a musician could move from band to band, city to city, and just play. And yet there are more competent, skilled jazz musicians today than there were back when there were many more opportunities to perform.
"Performance is just part of the job," says tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, 35, of West Orange, "Teaching, giving clinics, educational kind of stuff - thev're all components of what you have to do. Most jazz musicians today can't earn enough money just playing,"
Versatility and flexibility are keys to sustaining a career these days, according to Jackson and Braden. And they require new skills,from being able to talk to students to being able to use computers and the Internet.
"Technology and computers are an essential part of the music now," says Braden, who studied computer science at Harvard and maintains his own Web site (www.donbraden.com), with downloadable samples of his recordings. "The most important contribution of the Internet is to bring the jazz artist and audience together without intemediaries, in cyberspace, Anyone can go directly to an artist ,with a site and hear his music.'"
Braden also has a recording studio in his basement, where he uses computers to generate background accompaniment that he can practice to. And, with other software programs, he can compose and create big band scores, the computer writing out all the instrument parts and even generating a synthesized version of the sounds so he can preview them.
Composing and arranging that way is also much less time-consuming than using a pencil, and that fits right into another difference that Braden says separates today's jazz musicians from their predecessors.
"A lot of us in my generation who stay in touch with each other are trying seriously to have great lives, with physical health, financial stability and a balance between career and family. That's one reason so many of us are moving to New Jersey for the quality of life."
Saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who at 40 is one of the original Young Lions of the '80s and one of the most prominent members of his jazz generation, agrees. The Detroit native moved to East Orange back in the '80s."
After living in New York for a while you get tired of the hustle and bustle and want a different perspective," he says. "Here (in Essex County) I'm still close to the music in New York, but I don't have to live there."
The Jersey scene
But what about the music in New Jersey? Although more and more jazz musicians arc moving to the state, especially to South Orange, West Orange and Montclair, they still find most of their work across the Hudson, as well as across the oceans. Newark's newest resident jazz musician, vibist Stefon Harris, 27, who moved there this month, thinks that is gradually changing.
"As Newark's downtown develops, they're going to want more cultural events and try to encourage artists. NJPAC has had an impact already," he says, "and I think the people of New Jersey would like to have alternatives to going into New York to hear jazz. "A significant sign is all the musicians who are moving out here to this area. It's no big deal for us to shoot around the comer and play a gig. We'll do it just because it's in the neighborhood. It gives us a chance to hang out and develop a sense of community."
Harris is one of several newer New Jersey jazz musician residents who cite Shanghai Jazz in Madison as a venue they enjoy playing, Garrett likes to bring bands he's readying for overseas tours into the club for "dress rehearsals," and Braden, Jackson and pianist. Renee Rosnes, 38, who lives in West Orange with her drummer husband Billy Drummond, all call the club a place that's fun to play and hang out in.
Building audiences, especially younger audiences, is another concern of today's jazz musicians, and each has a different approach.
These young New Jersey jazz artists were honored in 1999: (from the left) James Gibbs 3rd, trumpet; Miri Ben-Ari, violin; B.D. Lenz, guitar; Adam Niewood, tenor sax, and Winston Bird, trumpet.
Gauett, who will be at NJPAC's Victoria Theater on Jan. 27, says he tries "to incorporate some of today's rhythms into my music. I try to be aware of what's going on, musically around me."
Harris feels "composition is becoming more important," an about-face from the primacy improvisation in jazz, "People are ultimately interested in songs, melodies, and composition will be taking a front seat in the near future." Jackson and Braden, like Garrett, also try to bring in more contemporary pop music.
Jackson mixes older standards with Stevie Wonder R&B and Al Green gospel tunes, especially in his bands that use the Hammond B-3 organ, which he says allows him to "take the music in a lot of different directions." Braden's new CD, "Presents the Contemporary Standards Ensemble" (Double-Time), includes tunes that were hits for Steely Dan, Roberta Flack and Wonder.
Braden also hopes musicians will be able to work in bands together more often, as they once did, "The skill level and talent in jazz are as high or higher than ever," he says, "we just need more opportunities to play together more consistently. And for that we need the kind of commercial promotion and support Ken Burns is getting."
Rosnes feels jazz is "becoming more global as musicians from around the world bring their traditions to it, and that's a good thing." She and King both stress the need for rapport with audiences, through communication. "You have to give the listener something to mull over. information about the music," he says. "Tell them what the music is about." she says, "because the more information people have, the more they are drawn into the music."
Ones to watch for
Cecil Brooks 3rd
Here are 20 New Jersey musicians - 40 and under - who should be a big part of the state's jazz future:
Gail Allen, 39, Singer (Passaic): She carries on in the grand tradition of jazz divas Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter.
Miri Ben-Ari, 23, violin (Jersey City): An Israeli, she brings high energy and creative fervor to her electric jazz.
Winston Bird, 26. trumpet (South Orange): After first making his reputation as a big band lead trumpeter, Bird is now developing his solo chops with the T.S. Monk Sextet.
Don Braden, 37, tenor saxophone (South Orange): His solos combine the yin and yang of logic and passion. Braden is a fine composer-arranger too.
Cecit Brooks 3rd, 39, drums (Montclair): He's not only got a solid groove redolent of souljazz, he's also a fine bandleader, talent scout and record producer.
Bill Charlap, 34. piano (Maplewood): A lyrical improviser and interpreter of standards, his trio recently played the Village Vanguard, and he also performs in Phil Woods' Quintet.
Kenny Garrett, 40, alto saxophone (East Orange): His credentials include the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Miles Davis Band, and this future hall-of-famer is equally at home with bebop or hip-hop rhythms.
James Gibbs 3rd , 22, trumpet (Irvington): As a teen, he wowed them at Peppermint Lounge jam sessions in Orange; went on to Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead and now studies with Donald Byrd.
Stefon Harris, 27, vibes/marimba (Newark): A fluent improviser who also cherishes melodies, he's among the best jazz artists to emerge in the last decade.
Rob Henke, 34, trumpet (Montclair): He plays in and writes for Diane Moser's Composers Big Band, but Henke also does projects on the New Music and avant gardc fringes.
Yoron Israel, 37, drums and percussion (Maplewood): Busy and versatile as a sideman, he also leads adventurous bands of his own.
Javon Jackson, 35, tenor saxophone (West Orange): A graduate of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, he is reinventing the sax-organ combo for the new mi1lennium.
Matt King, 36, piano (West Orange): He won the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in 2000. His forthcoming CD features Jazzpar Prize winner Chris Potter.
B.D. Lenz, 28, guitar (Parsippany): Coming to jazz from rock. Lenz is into a more contemporary,electric jazz-Iusionstyle.
Carlos McKinney, 25, piano (South Orange): From a prominent Detroitjazz family, he more than upholds the tradition.
Russell Malone, 37, guitar (Jersey City): The best all-around jazz guitarist of his generation, Malone brought class to the bands of Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall before branching out on his own.
Adam Niewood, 23, tenor saxophone (Glen Ridge): Son of saxophonist-flutist Gerry Niewood, and a graduate of William Paterson University, jazz is in his blood.
Ralph Peterson Jr., 38, drums, percussion and trumpet (Pleasantville): A ferocious and adventurous drummer. his Fo'tets, with soprano sax, vibes and bass, are on jazz's cutting edge.
Renee Rosnes, 38, piano (West Orange): A gifted composer as well as player, Canadian-born Rosnes. who is in the Carnegie Hall Jazz (Big) Band, has been exploring her India heritage.
Asher Stein, 17, alto saxophone (Maplewood): A fearless player, he first sat in at jam sessions at age 10. He was featured last year at a Charlie Parker tribute at NJPAC.