Thursday, 1 December 2016

Jazz as the new fad in Trinidad or All That Jazz...Or Is It?

"Dancing in the Tropics," an illustration by Bernie Fuchs. A metaphor for adult music, "jazz" is the new signifier of how we dance and how we listen to music once we are over 35 years old.

Last year, I blogged about the plethora of jazz events in T&T making it the new “after-carnival music.” In less that two months, there were at least ten events that were themed as “jazz.” Now, truth be told, the definition of jazz in the Caribbean is fluid, and the emphasis is more on the ambience than on the music. A lot of instrumental music is considered “jazz” here in these islands, but a closer inspection would show that despite definitions, what we are seeing is the faddishness of jazz being used as a tool to market music and the experience of music to a more mature crowd.

Full disclosure: I am a director of Production One Ltd, the producer of the annual Jazz Artists on the Greens held annually on the Greens at Farm Road in St Joseph. (You may know it as WASA grounds.) The show will be celebrating the fifteenth anniversary next year on April 1, 2017. (No, it's not an April Fools joke!) Over those fifteen years, the event moved from the grounds of UWI Department of Creative and Festival Arts in St Augustine to the larger Greens space in St Joseph building a loyal audience in search of this thing we call jazz here.

The Tobago Jazz Experience annually in April boasts a jazz title, but follows the template of the many jazz festivals held in the Caribbean for the last 25 years of a showcase for popular pop and R&B artists as a magnet for tourists to enhance the small economies. VS Naipaul said in his book, The Writer and The World, “small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies.” That observation, whether we like it or not, defines a standard for how we engage with music. The idea of the local jazz festival was a kind of aping of a middlebrow leisure culture from abroad that segued and filtered down to an indigenous reflection of “what jazz is supposed to be.” Simple destinies indeed.

What was observed last year in the prolific marketing of events that traded on the subliminal connection of the word "jazz" and the perceived “grown folks classy vibe” has morphed into a new aesthetic. There were a couple clubs or event spaces that advertised jazz nights, and a number of artists are selling themselves as jazz singers and artists to cash in on the growing trend for adult entertainment outside of the Carnival season. For example, popular Port of Spain nightspot Kaiso Blues CafĂ© features an increasing number of “jazz” performers who ply their craft to a less discerning audience than would apply in the US.

Trends and fads come and go, but there can be a deleterious effect of naming any instrumental music as jazz as it has repercussions for the future. One observes over the last couple years a deification of mediocrity, a simplifying of standards. Jazz, in its original context as improvised music that came to the Caribbean and blended with our native rhythms in an effort of indigenizing, was about adroit musicianship, superior knowledge of music and a willingness to engage at a level that may have been above the heads of many, but represented a kind of ownership that comes from knowledge: “It's our own, because we know it better than anyone else.”

In recent months, jazz has again flourished as a kind of metaphor for adult music. With calypso no longer dance music and fading into obscurity in the tent, and soca being young persons' music—it does not help that older people have forgotten how to wine!—this thing called jazz is the new signifier of how we dance and how we listen to music once we are over 35 years old.

Naipaul's observation about small people and simple destinies should not be a touchstone by which Caribbean music and art is regarded. The majesty of music and the majesty of jazz deserves a better destiny than being a signifier for native and tourist alike of a mature music that is a respite from the annual ritual of Carnival music. Fads can be reversed by engaging beyond a superficial level to understand the origin and to take ownership of the idea. Are we at that point yet? Here's hoping we don't destroy a cultural holdover and vision for the convenience of an adult vibe. Jazz is more than a setting for fine wine and finger food.

* Originally published in the October 2016 issue of Curepe Roundabout magazine.

© 2106, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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