CapitalBop :: Sriram Gopal’s Swing District

Jazz and its many intersections


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


This weekend marks the close of INTERSECTIONS, an annual festival held at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Now in its fifth year, the always-compelling event features collaborations that break down boundaries between disparate genres and artistic media, while capturing the numerous perspectives that exist in an increasingly diverse and ever-evolving cultural landscape. Naturally, jazz always has a strong presence at the festival and this year’s lineup featured a host of musicians familiar to the area’s scene, including Amy K. Bormet, Sarah Hughes, Brad Linde, Akua Allrich and others.

Jazz is well suited for such cross-pollination because of its improvisational nature; by definition it frees musicians from the rigidity that would obstruct meaningful communication. I’ve written previously about how an important aspect of jazz’s evolution is its ability incorporate seemingly unrelated musics into its canon. This was the case when Dizzy Gillespie and the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo gave rise to Latin jazz, or when John Coltrane’s friendship with the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar influenced the saxophone legend’s more spiritual explorations. In the spirit of INTERSECTIONS, for this column I’d like to depart from that theoretical arena, and provide some concrete examples of jazz-related projects throughout the years that cross traditional creative classifications.

The first piece is The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse by Duke Ellington. This suite, written in eight parts, was recorded in 1971 and released in 1975. With titles like “Chinoserie”, “Afrique” and “Acht O’Clock Rock”, it’s clear that Ellington was feeling the pulse of a rapidly changing world, where globalization was taking root. The Cold War was still going strong, but the United States had opened its borders to immigrants from South Asia, East Asia and Africa. Nixon was on the verge of re-establishing relations with China. “World Music” was on its way to becoming recognized as a genre, and offering new sounds. The international influences that appear on the album might sound cliché and inauthentic today, especially to people who come from the cultures that Duke attempts to convey. In the context of the early ‘70s, seen through Ellington’s filter, it is one of his most intriguing later projects.

There are also many examples of jazz musicians collaborating with ensembles in their native setting; they find varying degrees of success. The Master Musicians of Jajouka* are a Moroccan group that comes out of the Berber community, and whose music is rooted in Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. In 1975, the saxophonist Ornette Coleman released the album Dancing In Your Head, which features the Master Musicians on two tracks, both called “Midnight Sunrise.” At first listen, these tracks sound cacophonous and unstructured, but further listening reveals that the Master Musicians are very much playing in their traditional style while Coleman is reacting to their textures with an avant-gardist’s mentality. The Master Musicians of Jajouka have entered the digital age with their most recent effort, The Road to Jajouka. Produced by Billy Martin, of Medeski Martin & Wood fame, the album includes collaborations with both jazz musicians and electronic artists.

Continue reading

Music schools for the enthusiastic amateur: What are my options?


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


There are plenty of passionate artists out there who simply don’t want to wade into the uncertainty that comes with a career in jazz. For those who see music as more than a hobby but less than a profession, there are few venues in which a musician can develop one’s own craft. There are jam sessions around town, but going to a club on a weeknight might not be an option if one has to be at the office early the next morning. The club scene is even less feasible if there is a family involved.

Fortunately, several programs have been established around the area that give semi-professional musicians and serious amateurs a venue to develop further. They range from one day clinics to open ended sessions that are run in a very similar manner to a college combo class. We spoke with the program directors to get their insights on running these programs and what they have to offer potential participants.

Jeff Antoniuk is a very experienced saxophonist and jazz educator who spent a decade touring and recording with the Unified Jazz Ensemble before starting his own band, Jazz Update. He serves on the faculty at Towson University and started his first workshop, the Jazz Band Masterclass, approximately 10 years ago (I participated in the masterclass from 2004 to 2006). Since then he’s launched Maryland Summer Jazz, an intensive, three-day immersion, and started inDepth Jazz, which offers subject-specific clinics six to eight times a year. All of these focus on instrumentalists, but Antoniuk also works with the pianist Wayne Wilentz in Capital City Voices, a performance-based educational program that assembles a 25-voice jazz choir. Currently, the masterclass has 89 regular participants while nearly 1,000 paid attendants have taken part in the clinics and summer workshops.

Jeff Antoniuk, center, leads the Jazz Workshop. Courtesy

I also interviewed Paul Pieper, a veteran guitarist who finished second at the 1995 Monk Competition. In 2007 he started The Jazz Workshop, which also initially served instrumentalists only. After receiving numerous requests from singers, Pieper invited the pianist Chris Grasso to start a vocal component to the effort. Grasso specializes in working with vocalists, and he has curated performance series throughout the District. The Jazz Workshop currently works with over 60 students, while the vocal program serves six students at a time through an eight-week course.

“The goal of The Jazz Workshop is to instill the skill set of a gigging professional jazz musician in our students,” Pieper said. “That has been our fundamental guiding principle for the seven years we’ve been in operation.”

All of these programs are centered around getting the students to learn through playing. Much like a college combo class, participants learn not only the theory behind the music but also how to translate that knowledge into a performance setting. In fact, nearly all of these sessions culminate with a performance at a local club, giving students a taste of what it’s really like to be a working musician.

“The one thing that is new for nearly all of them, regardless of background, is the idea that they are essentially leading the band when they’re singing jazz,” Grasso said of his vocal students. “In order to get comfortable with that, they need a place to learn the rules of the road.”

All of these instructors were keen on noting the variety of individuals who enroll into the programs. The students range from high schoolers who plan on entering conservatory to retirees who might have played in their younger days and now wish to reignite their passion for music. In addition to receiving instruction, the workshops offer networking opportunities for members who want to start their own bands, as well as a community setting in which they can share a common interest. Antoniuk, Grasso and Pieper all have students that have gone on to lead their own gigs at venues like Twins Jazz and the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. “We joke about the way we teachers are creating our own competition — but we’re also very proud of our students,” Antoniuk said.

Prospective students should consider a variety of factors when choosing among all of these options. There should be an honest accounting of the time commitment involved, and anyone who is not willing to put in that effort (which includes substantial practicing at home) should either choose a shorter workshop, say the three-day summer program, or re-prioritize. Obviously, price and location are also important variables, and all of this information is readily available on the various websites. All of these programs charge reasonable fees relative to the current rates for music instruction, but costs do differ. The best way to gather information is by speaking to current and former students. Grasso also advises potential candidates to attend one of his culminating performances for a workshop to see the results they are able to achieve.

“The faculty or teacher is of the utmost importance,” Antoniuk added. “Look for a strong and diverse business, with a proven track record and a depth of offerings.”

I was in graduate school when I was part of Antoniuk’s masterclass with limited individual practice time (a situation that hasn’t changed at all in the proceeding years). The cost was significant for someone who was living on a student budget, but the masterclass gave me structured time with my instrument and preserved my connection with this great art form. The rehearsals also provided a welcome release from the hours I spent with my head buried in textbooks. For what it’s worth, it was a wholly rewarding experience and judging by the growth of these businesses, students feel the same way about all of them.

Sriram Gopal is CapitalBop’s monthly columnist. He can be reached at His column appears on the first Thursday of every month.

Sounding out the world of jazz podcasts


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


When it comes to embracing the latest gadgetry, I tend to be on the back end of the curve. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a luddite, but trying to keep up with technology seems like a fool’s errand to me; I figure it’s more efficient to hang back a bit and see what actually sticks. I was among the last in my circle of friends to acquire a cell phone, and the pattern repeated itself as smart phones became commonplace. So my friends wouldn’t be surprised to hear I have been about 10 years late to the podcast party: Only in the past several months have I embraced the medium. Titles like This American Life, Radiolab and Hardcore History are now among many that accompany me during the daily commute; they keep me entertained and up-to-date in a convenient way.
Of course, being a lover of all things jazz, my next logical step is to see what podcasts are available that highlight this great art form. I hope the small digest below will give folks of a similar temperament and technological procrastination the lay of the land, so that you can start investigating on your own. As far as scope, I didn’t really distinguish between programs that have been created specifically for the web and those that are broadcast via other media like FM radio, and then put into podcast form. My one criterion was that the program be accessible via a mobile device. Here are the six jazz podcasts that I found most worth spotlighting.

As terrestrial jazz radio has declined, specialized podcasts are offering a different kind of listening experience. Courtesy

The Checkout

A weekly series, The Checkout is first broadcast on Newark, N.J.’s public jazz station WBGO 88.3 FM. Host Joshua Jackson is a veteran of jazz radio and each hourlong episode features some combination of music, interviews, reviews and performances. For those of you familiar with the Chicago-based rock/pop podcast Sound Opinions, the format of this show is quite similar, but obviously with a jazz focus. The episode I checked out featured a fascinating interview with bassist and self-described science geek Ben Allison, a tribute to the late Yusef Lateef and a segment with NPR’s Patrick Jarenwattananon listing notable releases from 2013. The Checkout had the highest production value of all the podcasts I reviewed, and will definitely be part of my subscription list. Continue reading

The best in all of us


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


For the past year or so, there has been a number floating around from the Recording Industry Association of America. It says that from 1999 to 2011, the number of people self-identifying as professional musicians dropped by over 40 percent. There is some controversy surrounding this figure – which the RIAA divined by comparing certain monthly data from Bureau of Labor Statistics employment surveys – mostly around the method that the RIAA used for its calculation. But no matter whether it’s really above 40 percent, a variety of sources suggests that the drop in people paying the bills with musical performance is quite significant.

There are many reasons why this is happening, and the foremost is the economic stagnation that has been occurring since the turn of the millennium, and which was exacerbated during the economic collapse of 2008. When it comes to economic trends the arts serve as a proverbial canary in the mine, often becoming one of the earliest sectors to lose out on disposable and public spending when money is tight. Clubs shutter and institutions trim their budgets.

Technology is also a culprit. DJs easily replace dance bands; while a drummer could once have made a living playing recording sessions, those opportunities have been outsourced to the microprocessor. (At this writing, eight of the songs on Billboard’s top 10 use drum machines instead of live drummers.) Blame is aimed in other directions too: globalization, intellectual property infringement and a host of other societal shifts.

The outlook can seem bleak for the working musician if viewed through a purely economic lens, but the individuals who follow this path are still deserving of our respect and admiration for other reasons. This being the final Swing District column of 2013, and with the holiday season being as good a time as any to reflect, let’s look beyond the dire and try to find the bright side of things. What is it we’re fighting for when we argue for increased access to creative music? And what can we do to acknowledge the contributions of bold artists? Continue reading

Top 10 List? Thank you, but no.


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


Around this time of year blogs, magazines, websites and the writers who work for them start putting together their obligatory “best of” lists. I won’t be joining them. Admittedly, I will be clicking on many a link come December to see what were judged to be the best albums, viral videos and who-knows-what-else of 2013, but when it comes to assembling my own such lists, I abstain. This leaves me in the minority of critics, but I have issues with end-of-year lists, some having to do with the practice in general, some having more to do with how I view myself. Here’s my attempt at parsing out the reasons why I’ve never jumped on the Top 10 bandwagon. And don’t worry, I appreciate the irony behind my writing a laundry list of arguments to underscore my point. Which is why I don’t really think of myself as a critic, as the term is often thought of today — I love all of my paragraphs equally.

First, there are just too many lists. For everything ranging from politics to pop culture, the media trend nowadays is to boil down even the most complex topic into a “Top 10 reasons why” or “Five best things about” presentation, often with a healthy dose of snark and sarcasm to transform the subject matter — no matter how serious — into a form of easily digestible entertainment. has exploded thanks to this click-baiting strategy, using a model of highlighting things that are trending on the web and presenting them in a punchy, distilled format. If that site that has taken the quick and dirty means of spreading information to its apogee, I have nothing more to add. Yes, it’s entertaining, and I often feel warm and fuzzy or amused by a Buzzfeed post, I rarely feel fulfilled. I feel the same way about end-of-year lists, I simply want more meat on the bones.

Furthermore, jazz ought to be entertaining, but this is music whose practitioners spend years honing their craft. Like the music itself, those of us who write about it should try to entertain our readers; providing thoughtful commentary in such a way takes a lot of effort, but that is what these musicians deserve. Critics that put together best-of lists no doubt put a lot of thought into them, but their rationale is rarely communicated to the reader because of the meal-in-a-pill style of presentation..

The DownBeat Critics Poll is an annual tradition that holds sway in the jazz world. Courtesy

And there’s a reason why media outlets have gone from offering extended commentary to being increasingly bloggy, to now entering the list-iverse: pure commerce. The shorter the post, the quicker it can be digested and the more hits it will get. This is just economic reality, and there are systemic issues at hand, so I won’t place any blame at the feet of a publication that chooses to do year-end wrap-ups. Nor do I judge the upstart journalist who is trying to build a name and reputation. Still, the practice just isn’t for me. Continue reading

To musicians: Help me, help you


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


Not long ago I participated in a panel discussion at a literary arts festival. The objective was to give artists tips on how to establish connections with journalists and bloggers. The audience at this particular event was mostly comprised of spoken-word artists and dramatists, but the discussion’s content could be applied to any creative medium. I’d like to distill some of the ideas that emerged from that interaction into a set of suggestions, which I hope can be useful for the District’s jazz community.

First, let’s talk about why it’s important in the first place for musicians to make connections with writers covering the jazz scene. The answer is simple: It’s necessary for reaching an audience. This does not mean that press coverage alone can lead to a long and distinguished career, as much of that depends on the quality and consistency of the artist’s creative output — and I can’t help you there. However, engaged listeners often take the time to find writers whose sensibilities match their own, treating them as filters that will increase the signal-to-noise ratio when it comes to finding new gems in an increasingly oversaturated music ecosystem.

The most important first move a musician can make toward building a PR presence is to get a wealth of multimedia content online. As far as PR goes, a musician’s goal should be to make the writer’s job easier; all other factors being equal, we journalists will likely give coverage to artists who require less digging, so establishing a web presence is the most important step an artist can take to help get the word out. These days, it’s not even necessary to establish one’s own web site; a Facebook page will suffice. Whether it’s on a registered domain or on a social media site, there are certain elements that the page should definitely contain: At a minimum, anyone visiting the site should be able to easily access an artist bio, publicity photos, sound clips and a schedule of upcoming performances.

Obviously, the most important among these are the sound clips because they represent the product that is being promoted. Fancy studio recordings aren’t necessary, but the quality should be high enough that it reflects the skills of the musician or ensemble. Luckily, we live in a digital age where relatively inexpensive devices can deliver the necessary fidelity. Live recordings from a gig that are posted on SoundCloud or some similar service will be enough. Similarly, the photos you post don’t require a $2,000 SLR camera, but they should be good enough that a blogger can post them on a web site. It’s worthwhile to post a few sharply shot, high-resolution photographs that can be used in print publications, should the need arise. Continue reading

And we hope you like jammin’ too…


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


The jam session is a time-honored tradition, as old as jazz itself, extending back to the days when slaves would gather in New Orleans’ Congo Square to begin planting the seeds for what would become a global art form. The legendary sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem during the 1940s brought together the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, giving rise to bebop. Jam sessions have always been an opportunity for musical development — for both musicians who want to stretch themselves and listeners looking to refine their tastes by hearing cutting-edge music.

There are many variables that go into a solid jam session. Common to all of them is the fact that they present musicians an opportunity to hone their craft, learn new material and exchange ideas with one another. They can, however, vary greatly in tone, ranging from inclusive environments to “cutting sessions,” where musicians are actively trying to outdo one another. Sometimes the line is blurry; these informal gatherings will always be rites of passage for young musicians striving to achieve a better understanding of the music, but they can quickly turn into baptisms by fire. Here, we’ll look at how jam sessions work, what makes a good session leader, and how they fit into the young jazz musician’s quest for growth.

The leader of the session is the person most responsible for setting its atmosphere. “A good jam session should be a good hang for musicians and audiences where, if the music is good, people will be compelled to listen,” said Peter Fraize, a veteran saxophonist and director of the jazz program at George Washington University. Fraize spent many years running jam sessions around the District, first at the State of the Union on U Street and later the One Step Down in Foggy Bottom (both venues are unfortunately now defunct).

Jam session at HR-57. Courtesy

For my money, Fraize ran the best jam sessions in the city, and I say that having attended or participated in them for the better part of 20 years. This is because he often was able to balance the many elements that go into creating a positive experience for both the audience and those on stage. The house band was always comprised of top-notch local musicians, who would play the opening set before people began to join. From the listeners’ perspective, at the very least, they heard a great set of music played by D.C.’s finest. They could also rely upon a consistent level of performance for the remainder of the night because of how tightly Fraize conducted the proceedings – while also getting a look behind the curtain to see how young jazzers learn to do what they do. Continue reading

Dude, am I a jazzbro?


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


The droplets of sweat congeal on my forehead. Nervous chuckles spill out with every uncomfortably spot-on observation. With Linnean precision and Dowdian snark, the column before me, written by Nate Chinen of JazzTimes, is characterizing, or perhaps rather caricaturing, a particular type of music fan — a new species, if you will. His subject is the “jazzbro,” what Chinen describes as “a self-styled jazz aficionado, overwhelmingly male and usually a musician in training himself, who expresses a handful of determinative social behaviors.”

“Oh God,” I think to myself. “I’m not one of those, am I?”

First, am I jazz aficionado? Look above this column, which is published on a website devoted to jazz coverage, and you’ll see a pencil sketch of my face. So the answer is probably yes. I also possess a Y chromosome and pursue music in a more-than-a-hobby-but-less-than-a-career sort of way. Things aren’t looking good at first glance.

Maybe a saving grace lies among the “determinative social behaviors” that identify the jazzbro. First, let’s talk about how Chinen reports that surveyed specimens vocalize their appreciation in a live jazz setting. Apparently, the jazzbro’s distinctive call is an enthusiastic cry of “Wooooo!,” made at certain climactic moments during a performance. Overuse of the word “killing” is also a readily detected trait. In my defense, I tend to drop the “g” when I use “killing” in a jazz context, but I don’t think the jury would find that to be a persuasive argument. Sigh. Guilty as charged on both counts, your honor.

Herbie Hancock, far right, and Wayne Shorter, bottom left, pose with UCLA’s current class of Monk Fellows. All jazzbros? Courtesy

There are other behavioral traits that are associated with the jazzbro, of which complicated handshakes are one. My question for Chinen is whether my guy greeting of choice, the “bro hug,” falls into this rubric. Probably so, if for no other reason than reoccurrence of the term “bro” in the classification. Chinen says that other activities may include — but are apparently not limited to — drinking beer, attending parties, occasional social awkwardness and sometimes displaying elitist qualities. Check. Check. Check. And there are few things more bourgie than arts commentary or criticism, so check. Continue reading

Blues people in a so-called ‘post-racial’ America


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


Last Thursday marked the 237th anniversary of this nation’s founding, when a group of men announced a set of “self-evident” principles, whereby “all men are created equal” and endowed with the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As President Obama said in his second inaugural address, “While these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.” The country’s history is rife with examples of how reality often falls fall short of the Founding Fathers’ ideals. That the Founders declared a universal equality at a time when the original sin of slavery suppressed 20 percent of the population is a contradiction that haunts everyone in the country to this day.

As a quintessentially American art form, and one invented by African-Americans, jazz has long reflected the battles that have been fought in order to form “a more perfect Union,” most notably with respect to race. In his seminal 1963 book, Blues People, writer Amiri Baraka traces the history of jazz from the African perspective, placing a particular emphasis on the music’s blues roots. Beginning with slavery, continuing through Reconstruction and the Great Migration to northern cities, and concluding with his then-contemporaries, Baraka traces the influence of jazz and blues on American culture. In this book and his scathing assessment of jazz criticism, “Jazz and the White Critic” (1960), Baraka argues that jazz music cannot be separated from the socio-historical context in which it is created. He says that its context has been, and continues to be, that of a people whose roots were cut from underneath them, and who therefore invent modes of expression in order to maintain spiritual and social connections – to the past, a brighter future, each other – in the face of an oppressive authority.

Charles Mingus was an unabashed critic of American racial structures. Courtesy

The facts of jazz’s evolution bear out Baraka’s argument. In 19th century New Orleans, when jazz’s roots were taking hold, Creoles – or African Americans of some white extraction – were not initially subject to Jim Crow laws. They embraced European musical traditions and many aspects of its culture, trying to distance themselves from other African Americans. When Jim Crow settled into the Crescent City, Creoles were relegated to lower-class status. The more they worked alongside Black musicians, the more they infused Western classical techniques into “jass,” helping to inject a new type of anti-authoritarian energy into the form. Continue reading

Do festivals grow the jazz audience?


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


The DC Jazz Festival, currently in full swing, is now in its ninth year. This time around, it once again boasts a lineup of world-class talent with performances taking place across all four quadrants of our nation’s capital. Many values to staging a jazz festival are obvious. The concentration of talent allows for creative programming options, and also permits attendees to experience many events in a compressed time span. And there is the intangible benefit of consuming art and entertainment in a shared setting, with thousands of others.

This column, however, focuses on a broader quandary: whether jazz festivals really serve to grow the jazz audience, or if they are simply places for the already converted to congregate. As it turns out, this is not an easy thing to answer. First, for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll break out major festivals into two categories – those that focus exclusively on jazz, and those that feature “crossover” acts or even major pop and rock acts. The primary question here is whether either one of these models serves to bring people to jazz; identifying which model is more effective is secondary.

Our hometown festival has largely remained in the first category, limiting its scope to artists that would be categorized as jazz by any music vendor (although this year’s DC Jazz Festival performance by the Roots represents something of a departure). Charlie Fishman, the DC Jazz Festival’s executive producer, looks to his own history to explain why this is the case. Fishman spent several years as Dizzy Gillespie’s manager toward the end of that jazz icon’s life, and he sees the festival as a means to further Gillespie’s ethos. Fishman also points to a compliment given to him by piano great Ellis Marsalis: After receiving an award from the festival, Marsalis made a point of thanking Fishman for keeping the festival 100 percent jazz. Continue reading