JALC Hosts Jazz Congress After 3-Year Dormancy

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From left: Mike Bindraban from Good Music Company moderates a panel on the universality of jazz with Nduduzo Makhathini, esperanza spalding and Shabaka during Jazz Congress.

(Photo: Gilberto Tadday)

The New York jazz scene had a busy Martin Luther King Day weekend. Indeed, one could attend a daylong international conference for jazz industry professionals and enjoy a full weekend’s jazz festival, all without leaving Jazz at Lincoln Center. And those weren’t even half of the jazz-related adventures to be had just in Manhattan.

The first of these, however, was the event that drew this writer to New York for those wintry days. On Thursday, Jan. 11, JALC played host to the Jazz Congress, the global industry gathering that started up again in 2024 after three years’ dormancy. (The 2021 and 2022 editions were canceled because of COVID; last year, JALC’s calendar was stuffed with the concerts they’d had to reschedule during the pandemic.) While the comeback edition lasted only one day — as opposed to the two-day schedules of previous years — it was a busy one, with 15 different panels and workshops held at JALC’s Columbus Circle facility.

Community advocacy was front-and-center at one of the two opening panels, “Leading Your Own Organization: How to Bring Jazz to Your Community Through Education and Performance” (held in JALC’s Appel Room), which featured leaders of five jazz-based nonprofit organizations based in New York, Charlotte, Houston, Las Vegas and Montclair, New Jersey. Radio hosts and programmers, on the other hand, could drop by the returning popular needle-drop forum “Jukebox Jury” to the Varis Leichtman Recording Studio. The panel comprises jazz radio professionals participating in a kind of blindfold test, with snippets of music being played and each panelist saying whether they would include that in their music sets. (There were some differences of opinion, of course, but a surprising bit of unanimity on the final selection, a forthcoming track from Meg Okura and the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble.)

The highlight of the mid-morning sessions was the Appel Room’s “Eddie Palmieri: His Life and Legacy,” a retrospective panel on the icon of jazz and salsa music. When moderator Philip Klint congratulated Palmieri on turning 87 in December, the pianist-composer immediately rebuked him. “I’m thirty-seven,” he insisted. The legendary Cuban trumpeter Chocolate Armenteros, he added, “taught me that after 50, you gotta start counting from 1 again.” It began a lively discussion with fellow panelist-musicians Bobby Sanabria and Conrad Herwig, radio host Marysol Cerdeira-Rodriguez and journalist Ed Morales on not just Palmieri, but the full history of Latin jazz and salsa music since the 1960s and Palmieri’s place in its pantheon.

The afternoon sessions began with discussions of international touring, an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A with various industry professionals and a discussion of how jazz genius, leadership and innovation intersect with jazz gender and justice. (This panel was led by author and Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, but its star witness was drummer and educator Terri Lyne Carrington, founder of Berklee’s Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.) There was also a presentation in the Armstrong Classroom of a new AI tool, developed by several professors at universities in the U.K. and U.S., to enable research into stylistics through jazz history. Much of this discussion was dominated by worries about how it might also enable plagiarism, although once the software was demo’d, minds were set at ease by a tool that was capable of finding the use of short phrases across thousands of recordings at Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies and the Scottish Jazz Archive.

Then came “The Universality of Jazz,” a discussion marking the 20th anniversary of New York’s Winter Jazzfest (WJF, held concurrently with the Jazz Congress). Held in the Appel Room, it was among the best attended and most fascinating sessions at the event. What might in other hands have been 75 minutes of platitudes and self-congratulations was instead — at the instigation of South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, American bassist esperanza spalding and British saxophonist (and 2024 WJF artist in residence) Shabaka — a profound philosophical discussion of ontology, epistemology, semiotics and nuanced cultural history, among other things.

Asked about the potential of jazz as a healing force, Makhathini immediately went deep. “If this is an inherent part of the process of music — healing, as it were — it means … the sound invokes another place,” he explained. “It’s an alternative place. Healing then comes as this connection with this other place. And so when we think about the transatlantic narratives and the ways in which this place goes against the very notion of trying to locate them, this leaves us with this kind of homelessness. … So when you’re displaced, you’re not only displaced from a geography, but there’s a sense in which you’re very untouched, yet distracted.”

And that was within the first five minutes of the discussion. Elsewhere, Shabaka sank his teeth into the notion of jazz as an epistemic system of thought (in itself a rebellion against Western hegemony), while spalding delved into the limitations of language to facilitate common understanding (“I always say ‘jazz,’ because I think I’m trying to flick away the quickness. You don’t know what I mean by that, and I don’t know what you mean by that, we’re just using it here as a placeholder, but it’s going to take time and conversation for us to come into commonality about what that even means inside of my body and my heart.”) If moderator and artist manager Mike Bindraban often seemed to be in over his head, well, so were most of the attendees.

The Jazz Congress’ keynote session came in the evening with a two-part presentation. First came the awarding of the 2024 Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award to singer, producer and otherwise multi-hyphenate Dee Dee Bridgewater, presented by her daughter, singer and TV personality China Moses, and by saxophonist and Bridgewater protégé Lakecia Benjamin. They gave an extended introduction — “This is long, I’m so sorry, but I will celebrate my mom!” Moses emphasized — followed by a thoughtful, humbled (and humbling) acceptance speech from Bridgewater. “I am always questioning why people treat me like they do, because I still don’t feel deserving,” she began, then detailed a list of life events that highlighted lessons learned more than achievements.

Then, for the evening’s capstone, the Jazz Congress paid tribute to the Wayne Shorter, the legendary saxophonist and composer who died last March at 89. Friends and associates of Shorter’s, including moderator Carrington, filmmaker Jon Fine and bassists spalding, Buster Williams, Marcus Miller and John Patitucci, shared favorite sayings and memories of the jazz icon’s. Spalding’s selection, “You have to throw yourself into the ocean even if you can’t swim, because otherwise you have to be thrown in even if you can,” was simultaneously a revelation and a head-scratcher, perhaps a fitting end to a day of trying to untie the Gordian knot of making the jazz life work. DB



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