Come birthday time people often look in the rear-view mirror, and my husband is no exception. John Levy is just a few days shy of celebrating his 96th birthday. Happy as he is to awake each day, to drive about town (and out of town, too), to listen to live music (Sonny Rollins at Cerritos Center this past Saturday was especially wonderful), I am aware that it must be fairly depressing for him to consider the vast numbers of people he has outlived, including one son and almost all of his best friends, Joe Williams and Cannonball Adderley among them. The collection of obituaries that we cut out from the newspaper grows way too quickly. Yet I think there is something that saddens him even more — having lived all these years hoping to see some change, when little if any change has occurred.
I can think of two interrelated areas of concern, things about which he might even have prayed for change. The first is racism, inextricably linked to the social class-ism from which our culture suffers as we watch the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class all but disappear. The second cause for lament is the state of jazz – which maybe alive, but is not well. The music survives almost against the odds. The media prefers “smooth jazz” and supports amateur contests in lieu of paying talented professionals who have honed their craft. And let’s not even discuss the launch of white pop singers under the guise of jazz . (We call them ‘chanteusees’.) Jazz clubs that once existed all across the country have vanished, jazz promoters have limited budgets requiring artists to fly around the country on multi-leg journeys, and even the jazz organizations want the artists to appear for nominal sums, if not for free — “it’s good exposure” or “you’ll sell your CDs” being the all-to-familiar pitch. Even worse is the pay-to-play syndrome, which is pretty much the scenario even at the IAJE convention (International Association of Jazz Educators). And speaking of that particular organization, today we read a piece online (Woe is IAJE) about what appears to be the organization’s demise. After reading it, John shook his head and said, “Nothing’s changed.”
Both issues are rooted in struggles over race, power, and money. Here’s an account of one of John’s many attempts to “organize” the jazz people; this particular episode (excerpted from “Men, Women, and Girl Singers”) took place 33 years ago this month.
On April 6, 1975, the World Jazz Association met for the first time. Our goal was to promote jazz music and musicians on a global scale. Jazz seemed to be the only genre without a national organization. The first bone of contention was who would run such an organization—the businessmen or the musicians? A compromise was reached with the selection of Paul Tanner as president. He had been a professional musician and was now a jazz educator at UCLA. I too fit the description of both musician and businessman and I was officially elected as chairman of the board.
The next challenge was to build alliances with other existing organizations. I can’t speak for any other WJA members, but it was never my plan to actually merge with any other group on an operational level, or even to take over a function that another organization was fulfilling. On a trip to New York the following month I met with some New York jazz organizers. It was a fiasco. They were convinced we were trying to upstage them and get our hands on whatever funding sources they had. They had fought hard to build their organizations and raise the funds to support their salaries and programs. The fear of losing their positions blinded them to the possibilities that might be afforded to a larger coalition, a coalition whose size would command recognition. When I left that meeting I had serious doubts about our prospects for success, but it was too soon to give up.
Not so much because I was the chairman of the board but because of my experience working with artists and producing shows, it was up to me to supervise the arrangements for WJA’s first in what was supposed to be a series of national fund-raising projects. The first major event was the November 14 concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. I was the hands-on producer of this concert that featured Stan Getz, Les McCann, Bob James, Quincy Jones’ Big Band, and Randy Crawford singing “Everything Must Change,” a song written by Benard Ighner with an arrangement by Quincy. Joe Williams was supposed to appear as well but got snowbound in London. The show was recorded live and paid for by Bob Krasnow at Warner Brothers.
The proceeds from the recording were to go to WJA, but during the sound check on the day of the concert Stan Getz and Bob James reneged on their agreement. They refused to sign the recording contract, and the record couldn’t be released. Sometimes that’s what you get when you trust someone’s word. I probably could have taken them to court and won because they had “received consideration,” from our verbal contract. By that I mean that we had already paid for them to fly to Los Angeles to participate in the project. But I didn’t think the fight would be worth the cost or effort. Luckily, the box-office receipts alone spelled success for the concert itself, and the fund-raiser came out ahead on the financial balance sheet.
Unfortunately the WJA, as an organization, was not a success. For some reason, the jazz community has never been able to pull together for a common goal. There are a multitude of little jazz societies sprinkled across the country that advance the status of jazz, but they are mostly at a local level. True jazz lovers run them, but these people lack any real industry experience outside their own local landscape. Then there are a few more professional organizations, such as the International Association of Jazz Educators that helps preserve the history and perpetuate the jazz art form. But to this day, what doesn’t exist is a professionally run national organization to promote jazz, jazz musicians, jazz education, and jazz awareness on a national if not global level—something on a par with the Country Music Association.
Throughout the years there have been a few serious attempts to form an organization, and WJA was one attempt. But these groups fail continually. Why is it that other genres—country music, classical music, even gospel music—have been able to get it together and we haven’t? Sadly, I think the answer is a matter of racial conflict and power. Country and classical performers are mostly white and gospel musicians are mostly black; consensus is easier to come by. The world of jazz artists, on the other hand, is completely mixed. Add to that difficulty the fact that the business of jazz—the record companies, radio stations, distribution companies and the like—is controlled by whites. Those that have the money have the power, and they aren’t going to share it. Even among smaller organizations that enjoy some degree of success, black or white, you won’t find much cooperation for fear they’ll lose whatever it is (usually funding) that they’ve gained to this point.