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Do We Really Need Jazz Appreciation Month?

Alex Marianyi
Contributing Writer
alex.marianyi[at]gmail.com / @alexmarianyi

Anthony Dean-Harris may be bad at holidays, but I’m even worse. I didn’t know until I read his post on the 4th of April that it was Jazz Appreciation Month. As an atheist, many religious holidays are lost on me, and I don’t really like being reminded every year of how young/old I am. I’m usually a big proponent of celebrating every day, month, and year equally; so, upon reading ADH’s post, I thought, “Should I support Jazz Appreciation Month? Do we even really need it?”

I listen to John Coltrane’s album Coltrane’s Sound every week, revel in its genius and raw emotion, and cry on public transportation when a phrase strikes me particularly hard. I listen to Christian Scott’s Yesterday You Said Tomorrow almost as often, feel the urgency in his playing, and use that as a catalyst to get off my duff and do work. I listen to Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues while I sit at my day job, let it remind me of how far our music has come, and show me its limitless potential. So why do I need a month to help me celebrate this?

And then I remembered the breakdown of the word “commemorate” in ADH’s second paragraph, “the prefix ‘com’ meaning ‘with’” specifically. I think Jazz Appreciation Month is exactly what a splintered jazz community could use. Some people are so caught up in the difference between “out” phrases and “bebop” phrases or how Wynton Marsalis and the JALC have alienated the modern jazz community that sometimes they... sorry, we forget we’re all in this together, myself most certainly included in that forgetfulness.

I live in Chicago, and the theater scene here has over 200 theater companies, ranging from the multi-million dollar Goodman Theater to the shoestring budget of Steep Theater Company. Actors all go to auditions where they become friends with others who are competing for the same roles. Most working actors in this city have agents, and an actress may become acquainted with others on her agent’s roster. A typical lighting designer, set designer, or director will work at a few different companies across the city in an average year. These theater companies coexist even though their programming differs greatly from each other.

All of this in one (mostly) unified community! Imagine if the jazz world were like that.

In some ways, it is. There are certainly groups of people who play together often, and they have different rotations of personnel. Those personnel get to know each other well and can form friendships outside of purely musical interests. Saxophonists become friends with each other through subbing, playing a few big band gigs, and going to see other shows. Because of the essential role they play, rhythm section players play with a host of different singers and horn players across a wide variety of musical styles. So, what is it that makes me jealous that I didn’t study acting in college?

I think it’s the money. Some theater companies provide a living wage to actors working for them, and the Actors’ Equity Association provides benefits for those actors who’ve worked long and hard (or are lucky) enough to be allowed into the union. These upper echelon organizations give actors, actresses, technical support, and directors, not to mention administrative office staff, a goal that can be attained through certain defined avenues. Of course, there are still the toiling masses picking up weekday food service shifts and barely squeaking by on their rent because the show they’re in pays $10 a night, and it is by no means a perfect system. I know there are musicians’ unions in most major cities, and there are gigs that you can land which pay quite well. But there just isn’t the level of organization in the jazz world that exists in Chicago’s theater community.

You could make the argument that this level of organization discourages creativity and individuality, and I’m willing to bet that there are some exceptionally talented and creative artists who will never rise up in Chicago’s theater scene. On the whole, however, I believe that this type of structure is a benefit to all. It allows theater people (executive directors, marketing directors, etc.) to control how theater is perceived and presented to the public, something that jazz greatly lacks. In fact, I think that’s the key to the Chicago theater community’s success: together, they have enough of a presence and voice to convince people that it’s important to spend $50 per ticket on a show.

So, during Jazz Appreciation Month, I’m going to see more jazz shows, I’m going to support the jazz community more, and I’m going to use it as a reminder that we’re all in this together. I’ll try to encourage others, jazz musicians and non-jazz musicians alike, to see more shows. Heck, if you really catch me in the Christmas spirit, I might even pay your cover for a show I think will be particularly scintillating. During Jazz Appreciation Month and all months following, I will try to do my very best to make the jazz community more of a community in the hopes that one day, we’ll be able to raise our collective voice and convince people that packing a house for a local artist at $50 a ticket is important.

Alex Marianyi is a musician with an artistic identity crisis based in Chicago, IL. You can follow him on Twitter, and he won’t even file a restraining order.