A Few More Thoughts On Jazz Tribute Shows

by Jason on February 2, 2010 · 10 comments

in Business, Gigs, Thoughts

Jason Parker & Cynthia Mullis paying tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane - photo by Darrah Parker

Jason Parker & Cynthia Mullis paying tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane - photo by Darrah Parker

As I mentioned in my last post, there’s been some negative talk about jazz musicians playing tribute shows to other jazz musicians recently. Journalist Phil Freeman discussed the idea in this Twitter conversation, jazz blogger Peter Hum took a little shot in this post, and trombonist Vincent Gardner wrote the most extensive piece on the subject in an article for All About Jazz titled “Let’s Tribute Ourselves”.

Also mentioned in the previous post was a tribute show that I was involved with this past Friday. My band played in a series of tribute performances dedicated to the varied career of Miles Davis that was put together by LUCID Jazz Lounge here in Seattle. LUCID has had a string of very successful tribute nights over the last six months, including shows dedicated to Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, “The Birth of the Cool” and now Miles. I’ve either played in or been in attendance at each of these shows and I’d like to share my experience of them here.

I am going to try to stay away from broad generalizations in this post and speak of my experience, but I would like to say just a few words first about some of the things my esteemed colleagues have written. For instance, when Freeman writes “How much do jazz artists hurt themselves by explicitly referencing history – releasing “[New Guy] Plays [Dead Guy]” CDs all the damn time?” I believe he is being over general and a bit closed-minded. Jazz musicians are always referencing history in some way, as are all artists, really. Whether celebrating that history or trying to destroy it, we’re all reacting to what has come before us. Peter Hum goes one step further when he shares his belief that “most tribute projects are easy outs taken to the detriment of original music”. While this may be true in some instances, I can think of countless tribute CD’s and concerts that I’ve seen/heard that were most thrilling and original. Sure, sometimes these concerts can be simple rehashing of something that has been done before. But just as often they can be extremely telling examples of just how original jazz musicians can be, even while playing the music of others. It’s a way to show what we, as jazz musicians, have learned from this music and how it informs the decisions we make in our quest to say something unique and original. And while tribute shows and CD’s are more programmatic, I don’t see how they differ hugely from John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things” or Brad Melhdau playing Radiohead covers or Vijay Iyer playing M.I.A.’s “Galang”. I don’t think anyone would accuse Trane or Brad or Vijay of taking an easy out.

Perhaps the backlash against tribute shows is because, as Gardner points out in his piece, it has become commonplace for jazz festivals to use tribute shows to anchor their programs. He writes:

Concert and festival promoters are under a misconception that they have to package music this way in order to make it appealing to the audience. The truth is, people can hear and feel honesty in music and respond to it. I can’t tell you how many times that, after talking to someone who attended a tribute concert of which I was a part, they asked me, “Who was that Monk you were talking about on the stage?” My experience has been that usually they don’t remember or make a connection with the person we were paying tribute to but always remember a great musical moment of the night, regardless of whose tune it was on. They always say, “That piano player could play,” the point being that he could have been playing on a Monk tune or one of his own originals. If the right musicians are allowed to present their music without constraints, audiences will appreciate being able to connect with the musical vision of those jazz musicians as they see it today.

But Gardner’s own words could be used in reference to tribute shows as well. I agree that “people can hear and feel honesty in music and respond to it.” Which is why I believe that tribute shows can be of great benefit to us if we remember to bring our own passions and our own truths to the music we play. Whether it’s my composition I’m playing or something from the Miles Davis canon, I strive to bring my own personality to bear on the tune.

Now, I’m not arguing that we should do nothing but tribute shows. I agree with Freeman, Hum and Gardner that musicians need opportunities to present our own works in concert and on CD. But here are a few of the upsides I’ve seen from the string of tribute shows at LUCID:

Tributes Bring Out New Audiences

Each of the tribute shows LUCID has put on has been packed with people, many of whom were experiencing the venue and the band for the first time. Attaching a name like Mingus or Miles to a show gets people’s attention. I have seen first-hand these new audience members getting turned on to the bands playing, and I have seen them come back when the band has subsequently presented shows of original music. Personally, I have sold more CD’s and signed up more people for my mailing list at these shows than at most of my other shows. How is that not a win? Also, the venue has attracted new fans that will come back again on the nights when bands are playing their own music. And just for the record, in 14 months, LUCID has had music 4-5 nights a week and only 5 tribute shows. That’s 98.2% original music, for those keeping score.

Tribute Shows Attract the Media

For better or for worse, tribute shows get the attention of the media. Just like the audiences, the media perks up when they hear a name they know. This has allowed both the venue and the artists to receive coverage and attention that is much harder to come by on our own. We have gotten radio mentions of our shows on the local NPR station and write ups in the major daily, weekly, and jazz papers in town. I don’t think I have to explain what a coup this is. And again, it leads back to point number one, that new audiences will hear about and attend these shows.

Tribute Shows Allow Us the Opportunity To Show Our Personality

It’s obvious that playing our own material allows us to show our personality. But playing other people’s music does as well. To take a well-worn standard or pop tune and put our own stamp on it is a very effective way to show the audience who we are using a familiar vehicle. And it’s a big part of the jazz tradition. Even musicians we think of primarily as composers used other people’s songs as vehicles for their own improvisations and personal expression. Ellington, Coltrane, Monk, Davis, Iyer – they’ve all expressed their personalities through other people’s music in the most beautiful and effective ways.

Let me close by reiterating that I’m not advocating for All Tributes All the Time. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to present my own music most of the time. But I believe that the bad rap that tributes have been getting recently is a bit short-sighted and leaves out the many benefits these shows afford us, some of which I’ve mentioned above.

What do you think? Do the benefits I’ve pointed out ring true to you? Do you feel the negatives outweigh the positives? I’d love to hear your thoughts, both musicians and fans alike! Leave me a comment and let me know.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

tim carey February 2, 2010 at 12:53 pm

In all seriousness, arent all jam sessions tribute shows in a way? isn’t learning jazz through the real book and recordings paying homage to the greats? Jazz is a tribute, I would arguge that 99.9% of all jazz being played on any given night was written by someone other than who’s playing it.

I like tribute shows, mostly because of the reasons you mentioned above, I don’t think it’s a cop-out in any way. Not only do they hold the potential to bring more people into the jazz community and raise awareness of the greats to non-jazzers, but they are a great way to work hard on a musical project, get somthing together, and get paid… dolla bill yall.

Roger Palmeri
Twitter: rogerpalmeri
February 2, 2010 at 3:11 pm

My wife and I were at the gig on Friday night and had a great time. Regarding tributes, my feelings are a little mixed. I much prefer seeing a band play their original music, but when done well tributes can be a real treat. That’s how I felt about JPQ’s performance. I’d heard their original music and loved it, but was excited to hear such a great band play Miles Davis’ music. Jason was very clear from the beginning that they would be putting their own spin on the music, which I think is the way to go. And it was obvious they have a true love and respect for the music, which they played beautifully.

The argument that original music suffers when bands do tributes doesn’t apply here. A band like JPQ already have their own repertoire. By playing a tribute show they are honoring the music that came before them without losing their own identity. When it’s done that way, I think it can only be a good thing.

Twitter: playjazzblog
February 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Hmm, mixed feelings on this one. When a ‘tribute’ album or show is conceived because it’s an easy sell or done under the assumption that ‘that’s what people want’ then I’m totally against them.

However, if a tribute is conceived because the musicians have a new take or fresh approach to bring to the music then great. E.S.T plays Monk was an album that not only blew me away but brought that group critical acclaim and let them make a name for themselves and it was a lot more interesting than 99% of the Monk tributes I hear.

I sympathise with the perception that festival bookers may constantly want tribute shows, but this is because they ARE easy to market. Our challenge, as jazz musicians is to make our original music as well defined, explained and attractive as these shows.

We need to pay attention to our whole package, not just the music so that we have something to talk about to promoters, bookers and journalists:

‘Do you want to book our band for you festival Mr Promoter, we play original stuff, it’s much more interesting than those boring tributes. What does it sound like? Who’ll come and hear it? Well, we don’t really sound like anyone else, it’s kind of hard to explain, you’ve just got to hear it…but anyone who likes good jazz will like it.’

That’s not exactly going to have them fighting for tickets is it?

On the other hand, a group like the Bad Plus, who describe themselves as ‘The loudest piano trio in the world’ have an angle that will get people talking. You may not like the sentiment, or even the music but you can’t deny that it’s more intriguing than the statement above.

There ARE far too many lame tribute projects around, there’s no doubt about that. From barely competent girl singers doing a tribute to ‘The Great American Songbook’ to the endlessly boring and predictable ‘Tribute to Charlie Parker’ sets – which usually consists of three alto players blowing in the normal way on standards, the ‘tribute’ concept is indeed overused.

Nevertheless, instead of putting all the blame on the promoters, maybe we should also be looking at the way we market our original music and trying to think about what would get people’s attention.

How many times do you do a gig of original material and think ‘What would make a journalist want to write about this show? What would make somebody who has never heard of me decide to come and see it? How can I make this interesting enough for local radio to want to interview me about it?

Until we start answering these questions, you can’t really blame venues and festivals for playing it safe with tribute shows because they are guaranteed to put bums on seats. If you believe your original music is more interesting than a tired tribute show then start shouting about it, make people want to come and see it and prove you can pull the same numbers as a tribute.

Otherwise, you’d better go and work up a set full of Monk tunes.

Alexa Weber Morales
Twitter: AlexaMorales
February 2, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Hey Barry, you had me until “barely competent girl singers” — what do you play, little boy? Yeah, there are just as many sax players as there are female singers out there, you’re right, and both groups often lack originality. Just as you lack the vocabulary of the 21st century. Get with the program.

Jason Miles February 2, 2010 at 4:19 pm

I have been doing what I feel interesting tribute shows for many years. I’ve paid tribute to Marvin Gaye, Grover Washington Jr. Soul Music. it all depends on the sincerity that you put out there and the artists that you have performing with you. I have been fortunate that many top artists have bought into my concept. I’ve also been able to follow it up with product.
It’s a viable way to introduce and pay homage to masters if done right. I performed my project Miles To Miles InThe Spirit of Miles davis in Brazil last June-The loved it and had a new appreciation for Miles
Peace, jason

Jacob Stickney
Twitter: jstick86
February 2, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Personally, I connect more to tribute shows that are more of a “tip of the hat” gesture than “down on two hands and two knees and will never interpret this flawless music.” Surely, the music that the legends wrote are filled with more wisdom than I will probably ever attain, and my writing and playing always pays homage in some way to other composers and players (unintentionally or otherwise). However, I feel it’s important to just be honest about the sounds that you like outside of standards and throw it in to whoever you are paying tribute to.

Glasper, on his new album Double Booked, covers a Monk tune. Yet, he would every now and then quote “The Stakes is High”. It doesn’t sound like a hip-hopized jazz standard, but just the meshing of two important musical influences into one sound.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, playing “tribute” music (i.e. Miles, Coltrane, etc.) without putting your two cents into it isn’t what the cats would have wanted. Innovation, by the jazz tradition, is where it’s at. Learning some of the jazz repertoire is very important for growth, but I feel it’s important to not mix up the “practice” mindset with the “playing from the heart” mindset.

Twitter: playjazzblog
February 3, 2010 at 1:48 am

Hey Alexa,

The comment was not meant to offend all female singers – just the rubbish ones! Over here (in the UK), bad singers are one of the worst offenders for the thoughtless ‘tribute’ show. I’m a piano player and work with some great female singers who get equally irritated with the types of people I’m talking about.

There are many great singers out there doing interesting and exciting things with standards and original music but, unfortunately there are also very poor ones getting gigs their ‘talent’ doesn’t merit because they do ‘tributes’ to the Great Amercian Songbook. You know the kinds of things – they’re normally call them ‘All That Jazz’ or something equally asinine.

Please don’t mistake my dislike of poor musicians churning out clichéd and unimaginative claptrap with misogyny simply because I highlighted female singers along with sax players as two of the most common offenders in this case.

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