At the beginning, yes, that is how most stories begin. And what a beginning.
It was 1960 and I was asked to promote Dave Brubeck’s quartet in concert at Westminster College (the Missouri one). I was a fan. Take Five was often on the turntable. While Brubeck’s name is still memorable, especially to jazz fans of a certain age, perhaps his collaborators are not. Let me help: Paul Desmond, alto sax; Gene Wright, bass; Joe Morello, drums.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I had been a small-time trombone player in a band—Brubeck was big time. He graced the cover of Time magazine (a big deal back in the day). If I had been offered, on the spot, the chance to promote concerts, my emotions at least would have argued for “yes”.
Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and then later Monty Alexander, Cyrus Chestnut, Dominick Farinacci, Aaron Diehl and others spun on my turntable and then various analog devices and then spun off as compact discs (CDs) seemingly prevailed—until they didn’t.
CDs introduced binary, 1s and 0s, recordings—the internet’s language. Streaming has prevailed. Obituaries are now being written. My mind recoils, it hears Don McLean singing “the day the music died”.
So, there I was at The Avalon in Easton, probably ten years ago, listening to Don McLean sing “Bye, Bye American Pie—the rock anthem. It clocked in at eight and a half minutes. The crowd wanted it to go longer and McLean played on. And I remember the lines of fans after Monty Alexander’s concerts to buy his latest CD and get his autograph.
But the lines became shorter and shorter no matter who was performing. Streaming was ascendant; CD players were disappearing. The sale of CDs was disappearing along with the several hundred extra dollars a recording artist could earn—a deserved performance bonus in a music genre where gifted artists exceed venue seating.
Along the way I have learned a few things. Staging, sound systems and focused lights framing performers are magnetic when done right. Indeed, I would guess live is never out. And Easton with its destination sensibilities and attractions can fill up our theaters and more. I can recall Monty Alexander Jazz Festival crowds that backed up pedestrian traffic on Dover Street’s sidewalks. I can recall joining jazz artists over coffee at The Tidewater’s sidewalk cafe. Their music had been charismatic and their response to autograph requests gracious.
Okay, I’ll move on. While I enjoy reminiscing, this is meant as an encouragement. One of my pastimes is enjoying the jazz clubs in New York. My last concert featured Dominick Farinacci’s new band Triad at Birdland and in a couple of weeks a sizable cohort of the Sikes family will be at Dizzy’s for a salute concert featuring the Juilliard Jazz Band playing Duke Ellington’s compositions: America’s music. In Easton my wife and I recently enjoyed an Ebenezer staged appearance by Cyrus Chestnut.
The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival is now in the rear-view mirror. But clubs in Washington, Baltimore and New York survived the Covid assault (that also dinged Easton’s festival). There is also well out of public view a continuing font of talent. Juilliard, Berkeley, Peabody and other colleges of music are graduating extraordinary talent, many of whom find their soul mates and produce new music and variations on the timeless. The talent is there. The performance fees are affordable.
Easton has a recent history of jazz appreciation, no: enthusiasm, and sporadically its concert venues respond to demand. For the sake of our ears and the artists livelihood, I hope the momentum is forward.
Ahmad Jamal, the elegant and distinctive jazz pianist, died last week. He painted deeply textured melodies and variations on the keyboard. If you would like to add a Monet to your collection buy: At the Pershing: But Not For Me.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.