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T.U. Jazz Festival 2017: Of Role Models and Acolytes



Larnell Lewis and Mark Kelso at the T.U. Jazz Fest 2017
Larnell Lewis and Mark Kelso at The Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival 2017

Our knowledge of human history is limited by several stumbling blocks. The greatest of these is belief; not belief of the religious kind but more importantly, belief in the facts that exist before our very eyes. Most important of all is the fact that all civilisations grew out of the one protohistoric one that originated in the birth place of all civilisations: Africa. All other fallacies and false beliefs – especially the confusion between myth and reality – stem from that. And one of the most significant victims of all of this is the virtual abandonment of the oral tradition, one that still remains not just active, but gloriously alive among the gnawas of North and West Africa, in India and remote China, and in Far Eastern nations such as Indonesia, among others. Coincidentally all of these places also boast some of the most magical griot traditions that are still alive today.

It is no secret that much of this would have survived had it not been for the systemic corruption of the very educational institutions that arose to perpetuate some of these historic traditions. Quite simply those institutions came to be headed by remarkably ignorant people who mistook their positions of power to be Divine appointments that had nothing to do with the transmissions of knowledge from teacher to student generation after generation. Another tragedy came to be with the demeaning of art, which has always been the food for thought and which naturally became the first victim of those same brokers – often the teachers themselves – who felt the tremors of fear and loss the moment they were challenged, which (challenge) was always something encouraged by the oldest teacher-student relationships. So in its place came codified systems purportedly (dictats or) commandments from a superior Divine power.

The Funny Funk Band performing at the T.U. Jazz Festival 2017
The Funny Funk Band performing at the T.U. Jazz Festival 2017

Over time these systems have virtually obliterated learning and replaced it with study not only did tedium set in, but as Nigel Kennedy put it recently in an interview with The Observer, an opinion-based columnist in The Guardian. Here’s some of what he said:

“You do hear some amazing talent, but [it] has been kind of fettered,” he told the Observer. “If you listen to one version of a Brahms concerto or Beethoven against another one, they’re unfortunately too similar.”

Mr Kennedy dismissed the “protocol” training by music colleges, which “doesn’t actually help people use their brains or their ears – two important factors in music”. He said: “A lot of classical musicians are steered away from that in order to learn ‘the method’. How many talented young kids are going into these colleges nowadays all over the world? How many come out speaking as an individual?”

Jazz greats such as Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong didn’t have these lessons, he argues. “They just learned from experience. Then they got something completely unique … whereas now we’ve got factory lines of pianists and violinists coming out.”

In an aside he [Nigel Kennedy] nailed some of the perpetrators: “[Music] professors should be less lazy. Instead of imposing one system for all, listen and cater for the individual”.

Larnell Lewis and Rich Brown at The T.U. Jazz Festival 2017
Larnell Lewis and Rich Brown at The T.U. Jazz Festival 2017

Very little of this seemed to be in evidence at the T.U. Jazz Festival 2017 that was held on the 8th and 9th of September at Mel Lastman Square [after a launch at The Rex Bar on the 7th of September]. Everywhere you went on Friday and Saturday, you could feel a ferocious unleashing of visceral energy as undergraduates – acolyte-musicians; young artists all – from music [Jazz – a misnomer?] departments at universities and colleges: Universities of Toronto and York, Humber College; and from Quebec – Concordia and McGill Universities. Appearances were also made by student musicians from Boston and New York. According to the organisers, the Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival, there were more than 200 musicians in attendance – including some of their teachers. The latter offered stellar performances and featured the Hilario Durán Quartet, the Christine Jensen Quartet, Mark Kelso and The Jazz Exiles, Larnell Lewis – with his Lewis-Brown duo with bassist Rich Brown and a drum duo with Mark Kelso, both of which were quite unforgettable and a performance by Mike Murley to close the festival.

The Mel Lastman Square was also turned into a festive plaza for two days and nights with the Global Food Fest [always a spot attractive to those hungry for music too]. While attendances seemed thin at times, appearances can also be deceptive. No numbers have been made available, though no doubt these will be part of an organisers brief to sponsors. But some aspects of this event need to be mentioned. Firstly that it was a superbly organised affair; alive not only with music, but with a great sense of community at every turn. Much of this has to do with the fact that art was on display here and this involved those fashionably referred to as ‘Generation Xers’. But it was the dynamic between teacher and musician that became the biggest featured winner here. It was not only in the camaraderie on and off the stage, but it seemed to be in the air and in the music.

Mike Murley Quintet at The T.U. Jazz Festival 2017
Mike Murley Quintet performing at The T.U. Jazz Festival 2017

Perhaps it’s because there is some degree of informality left in the world of so-called ‘Jazz’ music and this continues to spill over into the streets and in the clubs and other venues where this music is listened to; but it is almost certainly because of the nature of the music itself – where improvisation builds community, which is something that the violinist Nigel Kennedy observed, as mentioned in an earlier quotation involving him. Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that in music – especially music played in the style of Jazz – ‘listening’ (as opposed to hearing, that is – is key and also because boundaries between teachers and students are more blurred and less rigid even when instruction has been formalised to such an extent that most charts first appear as black dots on staved paper until the musicians themselves find the inspiration and the voice to lift the black dots off the paper it is written in.

‘Paying one’s dues’ in some form or the other is something that every artist has to endure whether he or she is a poet, musician, sculptor or painter. This is something we don’t learn amidst the haloed halls of learning; it’s something we learn on the street where we canvas as much our audiences as the producer and label, or publisher, studio or atelier. Getting turned away by [sometimes] 99 percent of them is all part of the learning process. This is what makes the T.U. Jazz festivals – and this is the second in the series – so important. Remarkably, the organisation comprises newly graduated students from [Jazz] music faculties at Humber – and, in the case of the 21 year-old Ana O. Tokareva, whose role in the organisation is that of head of Business Support – and co-founders David M.J. Lee [a drummer] and Becky M. Hargreaves [a baritone saxophonist] are musicians.

Mark Kelso and The Jazz Exiles at The T.U. Jazz Festival 2017
Mark Kelso and The Jazz Exiles at The T.U. Jazz Festival 2017

I watched all three, unbeknownst to any of them, at close quarters and was enormously impressed by their dedication and enthusiasm: Miss Tokareva went beyond her business role and was seen happily distributing pizza slices to volunteers, and Mr Lee and Miss Hargreaves took in the performances by Mark Kelso and Larnell Lewis as well as that of Mr Lewis and Rich Brown drinking it all in with a clear sense of admiration and dedication to learning at the feet of their role models. Just as impressive was the fact that all the acolyte musicians drank in the first-hand opportunities to also learn from their teachers – Hilario Durán. There was a young lad [clearly a drumming student] who stood glued to the stage – eyes agog – during the monumental performance of Larnell Lewis’ performance with Rich Brown and, later, the performance of the Mark Kelso-Larnell Lewis drum duet; that added up to a total of three solid hours on his feet in addition, we heard, to the master class that Mr Lewis taught at the Memorial Hall on the 9th of September from 4 pm until before the performances started that day an hour later. He was not, I’m sure, alone in this marathon.

Impressive also were Elena Rawlins, a young singer fresh out of Humber College and who has already cut her teeth by performing with Snarky Puppy and New York Voices. Mason Chance and The Robert Lee Group offered standout performances as well. One of the most outstanding performances was by a young alto saxophonist named Jesse Ryan together with his ensemble Bridges. Mr Ryan clearly has pedigree and Toronto is the richer for his warm, voluptuous saxophone sound that he has honed from performances in Trinidad and Tobago as well during his scholarship years at Berklee School of Music and Humber College. Likewise the Daron McColl had a stellar set, as did The Accolades and the Composers Collective and especially The Robert Lee Group.

The Accolades performing at the T.U. Jazz Festival 2017
The Accolades performing at the T.U. Jazz Festival 2017

These two days in September were probably among the most memorable learning experiences for the 200-or-so young musicians, who clearly relished the opportunity to literally share the stage with their role models. And while the acolytes did not disappoint, neither did the role models. The duet between Larnell Lewis and Rich Brown was – for me – the highlight of the 9th of September and here’s why: The music was like nothing I had ever heard before from the eldest of elder statesmen to the edgiest [Snarky Puppy]. It was breathtakingly original. Rich Brown’s writing is fresh and comes from a very deep place. The music grows out of an African experience that is unique, and emotionally connected. Mr Brown’s bass is an important piece in the music, but it isn’t all; his manipulation of delays, fades and tapes is organic to the music as we heard on his horizon-defying composition dedicated to the young Nobel laureate, Malala Yousefzai.

Clearly Mr Lewis [who had played a magnificent solo set to kick things off] wasn’t finished after his duet with Rich Brown [neither was Mr Brown who surfaced again with Mark Kelso’s Jazz Exiles]. The Toronto drummers teamed up in one of the most fascinating events of any festival on the circuit this [or any other] year. The rattle and hum of drums and the hissing of crashing of cymbals was just a part of the set. An improvised duet on electronic percussion was clearly the crest of the wave with both drummers revolving around a single electronic pad and the rhapsodic rhythmic arabesques that ensued were among the most riveting music we have heard in a long time. It was incumbent upon the Mike Murley Quintet to bring the T.U. Jazz Festival 2017 to an official close. Sadly many in the audience began to walk away, fatigued, no doubt from the embarrassment of riches that were feasted up throughout the day. But the students and the Jazz-nuts remained as Mr Murley and his group showed why they are one of the hottest tickets in Canada.

Lawful Citizen Band at The T.U. Jazz Festival 2017
Lawful Citizen Band at The T.U. Jazz Festival 2017

Speaking with Becky Hargreaves it became clear that she, David Lee and Ana Tokareva are in it for the long haul. They must be as they have now – despite all odds especially their youthful years – succeeded not only in impressing dogged music fans, but sponsors with deep pockets. The current climate for music – especially music played in the style of Jazz – is on the rise. Clubs have been reborn [not only in Toronto and Vancouver, but elsewhere; even in smaller Canadian cities], publicists have multiplied, festivals are drawing mammoth crowds, labels have re-committed themselves to the recording process, classes at Music departments [read that as ‘Jazz’ Music Departments] have grown and while the rate of attrition will be high from these [remember Horace who said poeta nascitur , non fit] the strongest and most talented are already well into the pipeline.

Hope is on the horizon and governments across Canada, inspired by [or in competition with] Justin Trudeau are spending more on the promotion of the arts and this – in a hockey-crazy country like ours is an enormous step forward. Much more needs to be done before we, as an artistic community, are in the pink of health as the world was shortly after the Vietnam War. One thing seems almost certain, however: The Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival organisation will be alive and well and kicking for a long time to come if they build on what they have started, relinquishing power to another generation when the time comes, of course. And that is always good news not just for the role models that we will have left behind, but also for the new generation of acolytes eager to learn from them.

Feature Article by Raul da Gama. Photos by Danilo Navas

YouTube Video – Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Fest 2016

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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