FESTIVAL REVIEW Montreux, the musical petri dish

On the future of jazz, pop, and everything in between

Montreux Jazz Festival

Montreux, Swizterland

July 2 - 17, 2010

Jazz festivals are a strange, modern beast, a queer mix of federally funded tourist traps alongside the grassroots gatherings of lonely fanatics to meet, greet, and bitch about the state of culture today. On one hand, they’re a wonderful way to take in a huge breadth of musical diversity, to see and talk to the greatest practitioners of old and new jazz — a Davos for the aficionados of the world. On the other hand, they can be ridiculously expensive, attracting those who may have the funds to pay for tickets but not necessarily those who should be deciding the future of jazz. Certainly, Charlie Parker wasn’t playing for sexagenarians in lawn chairs. Even close to the peak of his career he busked on Manhattan streets for heroin money. Parker was the 1940’s hipster icon, the scourge of the squares, and the founder of bebop.

There’s a big difference between music and the music business. Quincy Jones might have written the book on this. After starting a band and going broke, Jones turned off the beaten path of being another musically talented obscurity and got into the producing business. Now he’s a talented musician, the producer of the album Thriller, and one of the main influences on the Montreux festival, producing and hosting it on a number of occasions, starting in the 90’s when he recorded and played on Miles Davis’ last album Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux. The festival has been run since 1967 by Claude Nobs, but no jazz musician, from the particular group of musicians that defined 20th century jazz, has had more impact on Montreux than Jones.

Jones fits in well with Montreux’s spirit on inclusion; since the 70’s, Montreux began headlining all sorts of rock and roll acts: Santana, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa. They then started presenting world music, including a heavy emphasis on Brazilian musicians. The late 80’s and early 90’s, saw a heavier infusion of pure pop. They called 2002 the year of Bowie, with a schedule that included Muse, Slayer, and Cake next to Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett (and Bowie).

It puts jazz fans in a bit a weird spot. Most of the hardcore aesthetes feel that even calling Montreux a jazz festival now is a bit of misnomer. However, the language of openness, of freedom, and experimentation isn’t being true to its roots if Montreux became exclusionist. (Not to mention that jazz is frequently criticized as having retreated to an ivory tower). Jazz has always been underground, so that’s not new, but it’s traditionally been under the street, not under a museum floor.

I wonder how much intergenre dialogue Montreux actually generates. The night before Mehldau performed, I went to the Jazz Cafe with some friends and acquaintances. We ended up listening to the Britpop act that was playing at the time. I had a mental picture of who was listening, how they were listening, and what they were feeling. For eighteen hours, that was my Montreux.

In the afternoon the following day, I got to catch some European youth jazz bands. There is no better way to scare off Britpop fans than this, folks. I was suddenly surrounded by your more typical breed of jazz nerds concentrating, talking, debating. It was night and day. And I doubt that the Britpop scenesters had metamorphosed into the scrawny music school kids I saw before me.

The simple fact was that the lip service to pan-aestheticism wasn’t creating dialogue — if anything, it was diluting the monologue.

Part of this must be attributed to the setup of Montreux itself. At Montreux, one buys tickets for individual shows. People will listen to newer songs, but they won’t pay 90 francs for it (and that’s for standing room). At the Newport Jazz Festival, for example, you pay a flat fee for a day. After that, you get to listen to whatever you want and you can’t help but have your ear caught by something new, even if it’s just for a moment between the kebab stand and your mainstage towel outpost. So even though it’s a pure jazz festival, they have a lot of different jazz, and even if you don’t like all the jazz you hear, hearing the stuff you don’t like will at least reaffirm your taste for whatever it is you dig.

So is the issue really the divide between jazz and pop? Brad Mehldau’s setlist is telling: Smells Like Teen Spirit. Nirvana. Tear Drop. Massive Attack.

And it was definitely jazz.

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, star bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding remarked, “I come from the world of jazz, I suppose, where people really value what you do based on the quality of your work. You don’t need a lot of smoke and pyrotechnics. In the pop world, it’s a lot about the bang and the boom and smoke and mirrors. It’s cool, it’s just different.” It’d be an exaggeration to say that jazz and pop are secretly in love while their Capulet and Montague fan bases fight in the streets. There is a mutual respect, though. It’s no coincidence that Spalding can be good friends with Prince, as with Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson,

The lines aren’t drawn by the musicians, or even the producers, but by the fans themselves. But I also agree with Esperanza, and the big difference for me is not what people listen to, but how they listen to it. I also like to listen to Nirvana, but I don’t think I’d want to go to a Nirvana concert. The biggest turnoff of the live pop scene is not the sound, but its de-emphasis: to the jazz fan, pop fans are over-talkative, cellphone-waving, cherrybomb-throwing fashionistas.

My biggest lament, then, and one that Montreux might be able to fix if it tries a little harder, is that the scene controls the music. Outside the Auditorium Stravinski, they had a few banners of various musicians and their thoughts — musicians judged to be “significant.” The first was Herbie Hancock, talking about how we should embrace youth or something like that. The third was Justin Bieber.

I admit that I did vote to send Justin Bieber to North Korea (Google it), but that’s not my real hope. My hope is that our little Canadian goes on to live a full career, Sinatra-style, instead of fizzling out after five years like so many other artists today. Puberty be damned. One gift that jazz has — and that pop has only achieved in a few cases — is the gift of longevity. Too few pop artists are given the chance to evolve, to change their sound, and to look into the future, for fear of losing their devoted but narrow-minded fanbase. It would be the serene irony if Justin Bieber, of all people, could break that narrow-mindedness.

Maybe Montreux is the place where that can happen.