[JPL] Jazz dead? Don ¹ t count it out quite yet

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Sat Mar 10 13:52:03 EST 2007


Published - Thursday, March 08, 2007

Jazz dead? Don¹t count it out quite yet

By ADAM BISSEN | Staff writer

³I take a lot of my inspiration on the tenor saxophone from ‹have you ever
heard of John Coltrane?²

‹ Corey Cunningham, Holmen High School class of 2004 and a music composition
major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Yes, Corey, I have heard of John Coltrane, but it is a reasonable question
to ask. Jazz music isn¹t exactly the most popular genre in America any more
‹ although, in fairness, it hasn¹t been for at least 60 years ‹ but it has
got to be just a little disheartening to try to make a career in the field
of jazz, which is Cunningham¹s goal.

Nobody takes a trumpet solo on ³American Idol.² MTV hasn¹t touched jazz
since they were desperate for footage in 1983 and Herbie Hancock had a cool
video with robots. I can¹t even remember the last time I heard jazz in an

But if he is going to make it in jazz, Cunningham is starting from a pretty
good place. The UW-Eau Claire music program is actually one of the more
prestigious programs in the country. The university¹s jazz band has been
nominated for two Grammy Awards and been named Downbeat magazine¹s best
collegiate big band five times since 1996.

The group, with Cunningham on guitar, will perform a ³History of Jazz²
concert at Holmen High School on March 9.

In an hour-long telephone interview, Cunningham makes it plainly known that
he has a passion for jazz music. Conceivably, he spends about every day with
people who feel the same way. But does he ever worry about trying his hand
at a style of music that¹s hardly ever on commercial radio and whose most
famous living performers are rarely younger than 60 years old?

³That¹s actually something I spend quite a bit of time talking about,²
Cunningham said. ³The goal for all of us isn¹t really to be selling millions
of records or anything. We tend to focus on the idea that there¹s actually a
pretty involved jazz scene if you know where to look and if you¹re into it.²

So it¹s worth examining: where in America is jazz music?

For starters, it¹s all over public radio, satellite radio and the Internet.
You can find it in commercials and in movie scores. Most every TV talk show
host on after 10 p.m. banters with a bandleader with some serious jazz

It¹s even easier to argue that jazz never went away but continues to show
its influences in the development of new musical styles. The blues,
bluegrass, rock and roll, rhythm and blues and even a lot of country and
western music took its rhythmic and tonal cues from American jazz music.

Compulsively danceable music like disco and electronica owe their existences
to jazz syncopation. Hip hop, the voice of urban black America that
reinvents its sound every four years, is the modern-day embodiment of jazz.

But the style presses on in its purest form, too. The Coulee Region might
not have a wealth of jazz clubs or an abundance of bookings, but in New York
City, Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans, live jazz can be heard till
near-dawn 365 days a year.

The Marsalis brothers (Branford, Delfeayo, Ellis Jr., Jason and Wynton)
often play in the traditional post-bop style and have the best living brand
name in jazz. Saxophonist Joshua Redman, who also harkens back to the golden
era, might be a more soulful player. Bill Frisell is the most innovative
jazz guitarist in the post-fusion era.

In other fields, more longwinded and youthful groups like the Bad Plus, the
Benevento/Russo Duo, the Jacob Fred Jazz Oddyssey and Medeski, Martin & Wood
have an energetic, exploratory sound that have won over many fans in the
³jamband² world. Soft jazz is still a huge seller with Chris Botti
surpassing Kenny G. as its most prolific artist.

All that jazz and much more is readily available to anyone with an Internet
connection and just a little bit of know-how ‹ in other words, high
schoolers who might be tired of listening to the same old crap on the radio.

A three-chord, verse-chorus-verse Nickelback ballad can sound incomparably
dry after hearing Charlie Parker run scales on the trumpet. Some Panic! At
The Disco fans might develop appreciation for a new type of stage presence
after viewing YouTube videos of Miles Davis or Jaco Pastorius in their

³That leads them down the path to jazz because jazz provides the most
variety of chord structures and of melody and of different kinds of rhythm
because of the improvisational factors,² said Robert Baca, the director of
jazz studies at UW-Eau Claire and leader of the university¹s big band.

These days, 2 percent of Americans cite jazz as their favorite style of
music, Baca said, but the Internet could bring about a jazz renaissance.

For comparison, 2 percent of Americans prefer classical music, while country
and western claims America¹s highest market share at 28 percent.

Cunningham, who also plays lead tenor saxophone in the university¹s Jazz II
combo, listens to a variety of music but says jazz is his favorite style.
Like many before him, Miles Davis¹ ³Kind of Blue² was his gateway record.

In high school, Cunningham managed to catch a Wayne Shorter concert in
Appleton and a Maynard Ferguson show in Mauston and became hooked on the
sound. The UW-Eau Claire jazz band actually made an earlier appearance at
Holmen High School while Cunningham was enrolled there and he said it made a
big difference on his life.

Now a junior in college, Cunningham hopes his band¹s appearance at Holmen
High School will once again make a difference in a life of another musically
curious young person.

The ³History of Jazz² show is essentially that: an overview of the
development of the most American form of music performed by some
high-caliber talents. The tickets are only $5 for reserved seats or $2 for
general admission.

Cunningham actually pleaded for a cheaper student rate because this is how
jazz music can survive and grow.

³I just hope we get some kids (to attend the concert). Maybe they like
music, but they¹re not really sure if that¹s something that they necessarily
want to do, and seeing a group like ours in a more professional setting and
music of a higher level and looking at that (they can) say ŒYeah, this is
what I¹d like to do,¹² Cunningham says. ³I certainly had those experiences,
and it¹s important that we be able to reach people like that.²

Contact Adam Bissen at 786-6813 or adam.bissen at lee.net.


WHAT: ³The History of Jazz² concert by the UW-Eau Claire jazz band, which
features Holmen High School graduate Corey Cunningham on guitar.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 9

WHERE: Holmen High School¹s Trygve Mathison Fine Arts Center

COST: $5 for reserved seats up front or $2 for general admission

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