Rochester Jazz Fest: Point of Order: What the Hell is “Jazz?”

The dissection and analysis of Rochester’s biggest festival, the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival continues. And I for one couldn’t be happier. Its wonderful beyond words for a person who has been so active in the musical community (admittedly years ago) to see a really vibrant debate on a genuinely successful musical endevour. Most any musician in this town is bored to tears of the foot-shuffling, “we have no music scene” mope-fest that predominates most of the discussion much of the time.

@roccitynews (City Newspaper)’s Mary Anna Towler discusses the crowds and selection of music, much the topic here and on the @13wham news blog with @rachbarnhart (Rachel Barnhart) and @scarroll13 (Sean Carroll) weighing in. But I had to point out one bit of silliness that has permeated the discussion that Mrs. Towler addresses:

Nugent’s talking about adding more events – but he says they’d likely be free outdoor-stage events. Ummm… I like the outdoor events. But they are trending more toward rock – or jazzy music so loud that it feels like rock. And while I’m all for as much rock as we can stage in the summer – and all for doing whatever we can to attract young adults – too many loud, rock-like events could change the tone of the Jazz Festival. This year, frankly, we seemed to be at a tipping point.

Oh, boy. Not to get all music history on you, but Jethro Tull and King Crimson played jazz festivals all the time. Is Spiro Gyra a rock act or a jazz act? What the hell is Bela Fleck’s music? Dave Matthews? Steely Dan?

The list goes on and on, but you see the problem. There is no “Jazz.” There is only a sliding scale between a huge variety of genres, nor should we shy away from that panoply of sounds if we want a real jazz festival. Yes, there’s room for a Dixieland band and a Glen Miller tribute, if that’s what some people insist on seeing as “jazz.” Or whatever that guy in the beret and sunglasses insists is “jazz.” Fine. But not at the expense of the rest. And most jazz festivals are outdoors, from Newport to Monterrey.

I think that if the festival was allowed to spill out onto East Avenue, we could cater to more sounds. There’s buskers o’plenty out there anyway, why not setup small tents (like the $75 Sears canopy size) for smaller acts as well? I want more music, not easily defined music, and as much of it outside as possible.