Ambrose Akinmusire, one of the featured acts at the upcoming Playboy Jazz Festival (June 11-12), is what jazz aficionados might refer to as “the real thing.” The 29-year-old trumpeter — whose debut on Blue Note, “When the Heart Emerges Glistening,” earned four stars in Downbeat and prompted an extensive profile in the New York Times — plays the kind of music more associated with the label’s bebop legacy than the soft pop of its flagship artist Norah Jones.
But Akinmusire also harbors no illusions about straight-ahead jazz’s drawing power, or his ability to make a living in a genre that commands less that 3% of music’s album market share, according to Nielsen Soundscan. “Making a living comes from an internal sort of being,” Akinmusire tells Variety. “I’m happy. I get to play music. I get to travel the world with four of my favorite people to be around, so I’m rich (figuratively).
“But it is unfortunate that more people in my generation at least are not so into jazz, or put off by jazz, and I think that’s because jazz has this corny connotation to it these days.”
Even Bill Cosby, who will emcee the Playboy fest for the 30th year the weekend after next, acknowledges the hardships faced by jazz musicians who are serious about carrying on the form’s more adventurous traditions. “Now these musicians are selling CDs out of the trunk of their car,” he says. “The radio stations play them, but it’s difficult.”
Jazz festivals like Playboy, and more ambitious similar events in New Orleans, San Francisco and Montreal, have long relied on the collective drawing power of blues, pop and other crossover acts to fortify their bills.
“Jazz has always had limited commercial appeal but also a loyal audience,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, which tracks the concert business. “Playboy and Montreal have become successful institutions over the years. New Orleans is a worldwide attraction, although it’s tough to call it a true jazz festival when Bon Jovi plays it.”
None of the events Bongiovanni mentions were among Pollstar’s Top 200 concert grossers in 2010 (the Capitol Jazz Fest, headlined by the decidedly non-jazz singer Gladys Knight, landed at No. 197), and the only artist remotely jazz-oriented who landed in Pollstar’s Top 100 North American tours is Jones, at No. 93.
Darlene Chan, the producer of the Playboy fest since its inception in 1979, says organizers started booking crossover acts from the beginning. “We started out (in the first one) doing a tribute to Charles Mingus featuring Joni Mitchell, which is way outside the box. We were the first major festival to really include world music and an emphasis on Latin music.”
Chan credits Playboy for breaking such acts — or at least introducing them to a larger fan base — as Jamie Cullum, King Sunny Ade, Ozomatli, last year’s Naturally Seven (back again this year) and Esperanza Spalding, who went on to win the new artist Grammy. This year’s bill mixes traditionalists like Dianne Reeves, Lee Konitz and Terrence Blanchard with the Roots, Buddy Guy and, from Cuba, nueva tropa pioneer Carlos Varela.
“This music has morphed more times than any form of American music,” says Cosby, who’s very much old-school in his tastes despite being one of jazz’s most enthusiastic proponents. “Even with electronics, I think that at its best, it’s still acoustical. I think we lost a great deal when a person would hear a musician and be able to say, ‘That is Dexter Gordon,’ or in a heartbeat you could recognize Horace Silver.”
Yet, as the recently departed Gil Scott-Heron once sang, heroes like Lady Day and John Coltrane can “wash your troubles away” and in this regard, jazz remains a unifying force among fans, and even an inspiration for those too young to view it as outdated or square.
Wynton Marsalis, who just started a lecture/performance series at Harvard, has been teaching jazz to high school kids for many years as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and detects a healthy sense of rebellion in many up-and-coming jazz players like Akinmusire.
“I sense in them a refusal to bow to the trends of their time,” Marsalis says.
And even as his star is rising, Akinmusire is already thinking about the next generation of jazz musicians. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher at the college level,” he says. “I have my master’s degree. I think I’ve dreamed of being a teacher more than I’ve dreamed being a touring artist.”