Good lord. I need to write about the Esperanza win before it gets passed over for other distractions. Generally I have little use for the annual music-industry-suits-patting-themselves-on-the-back-for-making-themselves-millions-of-dollars-while-limiting-the-scope-of-our-culture festival which is the Grammy Awards, but to deny what happened last night as a major public event within our relatively tiny jazz community would be an gigantic missed opportunity, and this was an upset exceeding even Hancockian proportions. All of us who love jazz understand and begrudgingly accept that we’re backing an art form which isn’t ever going to garner the kind of mainstream affection enjoyed by the Britneys and Kanyes. Yet I imagine that for many of us, that acceptance comes along with a fervent wish that we could share this dynamic, soul-enriching music with the masses, or at least pull that 2% of the American population who “gets” jazz up to, say, 10%? 30%? 90%? (I love this excerpt from conductor Ben Zander’s brilliant TED Talk, who works from the assumption that ALL people love classical music… they just don’t know it yet! The full version is well worth your time, arts advocates.)
All of us who are passionate about jazz LOVE that feeling when acquaintances come to us for music recommendations – a few of us obsess over yearly lists – and we want people to understand and get hooked by these sounds. And in a very real sense, Esperanza winning “Best New Artist” last night over the tween-phenomenon, multi-million selling, music industry-funded, now-starring-in-his-very-own-movie-so-apparently-he-can-act-too, Justin Bieber, gives me a glimmer of hope that artistically challenging music forms like jazz might have a slightly better shot at reaching people today than it did yesterday. It’s all about incremental progress, right? And it’s also, importantly, about not making this unfamiliar music come off as elitist or unapproachable, or gloating about Bieber’s loss (even though his fans vandalized our girl’s Wikipedia page within minutes after her upset, which if nothing else, points to the absolutely dictatorial vice grip of loyalty the music industry has managed to manufacture within their creation’s “fans.”) And I’m guilty of a bit gloating myself – it seems the most instinctive reaction is to make fun of the tweens (in the great post-Grammy Twitter-fallout last night, I called them “sheep”), rather than figure out a way to leverage a legitimate jazz artist’s newfound cred and name recognition into a greater awareness of this music we believe in. When you believe in something, you want to share it, and though we might not reach the angry Beliebers (yikes, can’t take credit), convinced that an eternal injustice has been perpetuated upon the universe, we could get quite a lot of the folks in the middle who might be curious about jazz but find the whole enterprise intimidating. And FWIW, for all of the hype placed on Bieber’s hair, I think we win that battle too.
And I think Esperanza’s music is positioned at the perfect nexus for this – it’s hip and funky enough to grab the people who “need a beat,” but challenging and complex enough to pull hardcore listeners up out of their chairs.
I mean, for Chrissake… on her debut record, this woman sings and scats over a pulsating, smooth-as-silk version of Body and Soul. In Spanish. While playing the bass. In freaking 5/4 time. If we can’t get behind this woman, jazz fans, there’s no hope and we should resign ourselves to decoding Anthony Braxton’s geometrical compositions amongst our dusty, out-of-print LPs down in the basement. Look, as much as I wish Keith Jarrett’s wishes would magically come true – that American audiences might simply wake up one day with high artistic expectations – I also know that’s not (and won’t ever be) realistic, and that if jazz is ever going to gain any traction in the mainstream, it’s almost certainly going to happen by way of a gateway figure.
In that light, a quick story. Over the course of a few semesters, I’ve played this video of Esperanza covering, no transforming, Stevie Wonder’s Overjoyed, recorded in front of the First Family (they’re big fans of her music) for my audio production classes, in front of kids who’s knowledge of music extended mostly to Top 40 and the “boxes” that the music industry had put them in based on race and socio-economic factors. (Meaning: for the most part, the white kids liked punk and metal, the black kids R&B and rap. The very rare mention of jazz as a “like” usually came from the influence of a parent who played it in the house.)
But everybody dug Esperanza (just like they dig Bach, incidentally); after I played the video, most students reached for pen and paper and wrote down her name. But why, I asked, why doesn’t this music receive airplay on mainstream commercial radio? I mean, clearly, everyone was into it! Most seemed to think that though they liked it, it was either too complex for the masses (as if somehow they weren’t an accurate sample?), or, importantly, it didn’t sell sex and image in the way that popular black female artists are expected to. (Love ya, Beyonce, but it ain’t just your voice selling those records.) Esperanza has stated outright that she wants her music to speak for itself; although she presents a fashionable and distinctive “look,” it’s ultimately her musical voice which makes her such a compelling figure.
So as advocates for this music, how do we leverage this rare mainstream recognition into a safe space where the other infinite varieties of jazz might be explored by more people? Cuz if you can hook people up with Esperanza, then other fascinating jazz-based modern singers are a very short step away: Gretchen Parlato, Jo Lawry, Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot, Diana Krall, local gems on-the-rise like Lena Seikaly, and many, many more. And another thing: it’s been my experience that after proper exposure, most college students absolutely adore Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong; after our section on Billie (and Ella too!), I often hear students sound annoyed and confused that no one has ever taken the time to introduce them to this music. My response is that the industry has absolutely zero interest in exposing them to anything outside of what the latest hit record is, and sadly because the industry has such unchecked, unprecedented control over American culture, these are the only messages they’re receiving. (The industry’s entire musical philosophy might be summarized in the following two words: KEEP CONSUMING!) Though perhaps our community is guilty of missed opportunities in other areas? I mean, does anyone know what the hell goes on in high school music classes? I took an informal poll of 60 students last week, asking how many people could tell me what instrument either Miles Davis or John Coltrane played. (Not tell me about their style, or what their best album is… just what instrument did they play?) Miles and Coltrane are unarguably two of the most important musicians in American history. Out of 60, exactly one person knew. Exactly one person had even heard of them. So, my friends, this is what we’re up against. And though my heart sank, I wasn’t terribly surprised; young people today are absolutely drowning in advertising and corporate-sponsored pop culture, but my experience tells me that many long for something richer. And I understand that arts classes are shamefully being slashed in every direction, but if the teachers we do have aren’t teaching the basic figures of American art music, it’s no wonder there’s such a lack of awareness and appreciation.
But I digress. Perhaps there’s unrealized synchronicity in the fact that “esperanza” means “hope” in Spanish. So I’m happy this morning, and yes, hopeful: hopeful for our community, happy for the listeners who will now get turned on to these exciting, new sounds, and maybe most of all excited for a girl who has worked her tail off not on her image, but on creating and developing a very original, very fun musical voice. What a thrill to see that rewarded in the mainstream. (And y’all know, by the way, that the jazz savvy Q-Tip is producing her next record, right? I thought you did.) Obviously, I’d love to hear what readers think about any of this dynamic, or about how we can help jazz reach more ears, so comment away. Cheers and congrats to Esperanza, to whom I wish all the esperanza I can muster!