Jazz Lives at SXSW
During the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music, Film and Interactive conferences on March 8–17, the city of Austin, Texas, became an authoritative crossroads of industry ideas, rare musical showcases, cinema-centered debates and cutting-edge digital technology. Entrepreneurs, artists and fans annually converge upon the Austin Convention Center and local venues for a parade of non-stop industry activity. The panels and performances at this year’s SXSW Music program on March 12–17 painted a multidimensional picture of the current musical landscape, providing much evidence of the continuing impact of jazz and blues.
Many of the panel discussions held in the convention center addressed a theme all too familiar to the jazz community: marketing beyond a niche audience. In the March 14 panel “New Orleans Music Today,” a group of Crescent City music veterans—hip-hop emcee Truth Universal, Planarian Productions talent buyer Lefty Parker, OffBeat Magazine Publisher Jan Ramsey, Q93.3 radio personality Wild Wayne Benjamin and Preservation Hall Jazz Band leader Ben Jaffe—discussed New Orleans’ unique musical environment, from brass band culture to classic r&b to the foundation of bounce music. Each panelist suggested solutions that could broaden the visibility of each of these genres beyond Bourbon Street and increase community-based arts advocacy. Ramsey said that the popularity of the “Treme” TV series and the necessity for musicians to tour after the Hurricane Katrina disaster opened eyes to new marketing possibilities.
“[Touring] is very beneficial in a couple different ways,” Ramsey said. “One, it exposes [an artist’s] talent to a much broader audience, and two, it shows the musicians themselves how impactful their music is in a broader sphere.”
The panel was moderated by Scott Billington, vice president of A&R for Rounder Records.
“You might think of the foundations of jazz, such as Louis Armstrong, who created a template that people still aspire to today, or you might think of Jelly Roll Morton, the first great jazz composer,” Billington said. “All of these things are history, but do people reach back to that history to go forth with what they’re doing today? Sometimes the music that you find may confound your expectations—or maybe it will exceed them.”
In line with the mission of promoting New Orleans artists to wider audiences, Rounder presented its high-energy, no-frills brass band of the moment, The Soul Rebels, during a party at the venue Maggie May’s. Soul Rebels snare drummer Lumar LeBlanc also participated in a panel titled “Finding The Funk” that included Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell and George Clinton.
A focus on regional style also surfaced in the March 15 “Born in Chicago” panel. A documentary film of the same name aims to preserve and promote the legacy of the electric Chicago blues scene. During the panel discussion, blues musicians Corky Siegel, Barry Goldberg, Sam Lay and Nick Gravenites, along with Vanguard Records Director of A&R Bill Bentley, swapped stories about falling into the Chicago scene and learning from legendary bluesmen such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.
Earlier that day, at the “Guiltless Pleasures: Imagining a Post-Snob World” event, Rolling Stone Associate Editor Simon Vozick-Levinson and Billboard.com Contributing Editor David Greenwald attempted to buffer accusations of genre-based elitism in music journalism. The panel also addressed the presence of a widespread generation gap in today’s music consumption.
“Snobbery can even extend to critics and writers who are choosing what or what not to cover,” Greenwald said. “Where do you draw the line between what you consider ‘snobbery’ and what’s serving your readers and providing the right material for them?”
Jazz and blues artists pervaded Austin’s bustling Sixth Street club scene, serving up interesting configurations and surprise guests along the way. Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch teamed up with reedist Sha at St. David’s Bethel Hall, delivering an emotive, multilayered set that seethed with Asian and classical influences.
Parliament alum Worrell invaded SXSW during the wee hours of the night with his diligent nine-piece Orchestra, heating up the brisk Austin air with globally inspired, percussion-heavy funk and danceable throwbacks.
Due to overcrowding—often a potential problem at SXSW—fire marshals canceled Robert Glasper’s early afternoon performance at Empire Garage. However, the keyboardist and his neo-soul/hip-hop-leaning crossover project, The Robert Glasper Experiment, compensated for the loss with an intimate, house party-style show at Sonos Studio.
The quartet brought its signature blend of digitally processed vocals, ambient, feel-good grooves and trashy, diffused instrumental breakdowns full-circle. Glasper held down the rhythmic fort against bassist Derrick Hodge’s graceful, arpeggiated fret work. Halfway into the set, surprise guest Erkyah Badu hopped onstage to the delight of the packed house. Badu kicked off her performance with silky smooth vocals on “Afro Blue,” the track on which she sings on Glasper’s Blue Note album Black Radio. She kept the crowd hyped as she delivered material from her acclaimed 1997 album Baduizm.
Glasper’s set was one of those transcendent gigs that keeps fans flocking back to SXSW year after year.