Practical Details and The Infinite: Jazz at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference

They gathered—they’re still gathering—thousands of them, at a Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan through Tuesday. The Association of Performing Arts Presenters‘  “Global Performing Arts Marketplace and Conference” brings together the folks who present performing arts and a good many of the artists they present. Kicking things off were two days of conferences within the larger conference. One of these, “Jazz Connect,” presented by Jazztimes magazine and the Jazz Forward Coalition, focused on the problems and promises of the jazz community even as it served to reinforce that very sense of community. There were workshops on relatively new challenges (like marketing through social media) and very old ones (facing up to issues of race). In a closing plenary session led by Peter Gordon, the founder of the innovative Thirsty Ear music label and a driving force behind the loose but focused consortium known as the Jazz Forward Coalition, lots of familiar tropes came up. And there was one I hadn’t heard in a context like this before: “Chemistry trumps competence.”

I missed an address to the conference from Arturo O’Farrill, the pianist and bandleader who founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance. But I’d heard people talking about it, so I read a transcript. The blend of poetry, practicality, attitude, humility and basic understanding of the best implied by the word “jazz” didn’t surprise me at all. That stuff is embedded in O’Farrill’s music and his approach to his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (a program called “East Meets West,” Feb. 1 &2, offers just one example). O’Farrill is a searching sort (here’s a Village Voice piece I wrote in 2011 on one aspect of his search) and a guy who likes to think big without losing sight of the small details. More and more, his words off the stage remind me of the speeches and letters you can find in Mark Tucker’s edited “Ellington Reader.”

At the APAP conference, O’Farrill said this:

Don’t interview me if you want the “official” position. Don’t ask me to decide, decipher, denote or deliver the definitive opinion on what jazz is (or even if it exists). I leave that to the adults. I am not the spokesperson, the authority, the arbiter, the gatekeeper or the source. What I am is someone who is incurably in love with a vast infinity, an endless source of divine wonder. I don’t use jazz to affirm my opinions, to justify my politics or my views on rampant unbridled capitalism. I don’t use it to soothe, affirm, or placate me or to soothe, affirm or placate my listeners. I use it to challenge my complacency and my self-righteousness. That is what happens when you face infinity. Your viewpoint becomes meaningless. What matters is your entry point into this infinity.

And this:

I am not waiting to fit in, we are not waiting to fit in. There are other musicians throughout the planet that are not waiting for the phone to ring. We are creating our own planets, our own organizations, festivals, labels, musical forms and hybrids that are a legitimate part of the original spirit of true jazz. We don’t define ourselves by what we are or what we’re not, nor by opinions of what this music is or what it’s not. We define our music by the possibility of what happens when you relinquish control, carry the pueblo in your soul and leap into the infinite.

But you should read the whole thing, in context. And you can pull these words out whenever someone tries to tell you precisely what jazz is and isn’t or what a musician really ought to be doing. You can find the full text here.

Image/Arturo O’Farrill/photo: David Garten

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