All that (new) jazz 

People who occasionally read this column know that I like to hear jazz and sometimes write about it. With a group whose age and taste are like mine, I drove to Fayetteville last week to hear a small band with two of the finest jazz players — Herbie Hancock on piano and Michael Brecker on saxophone. The performance was in the Walton Arts Center, which was crammed with a sell-out of 1,200 persons at $35 a seat. Most of them were probably University of Arkansas students, but there also were some 40- and 50-year-olds and even a few as old as we are. Now I am very defensive about American jazz. After all, it was really America’s first and only original art form that spread throughout the world. It started in New Orleans at the end of the 1800s — a mixture of rhythms from west Africa, Mexico and the Caribbean. It was the start of improvisation, which was certainly what we experienced that night. Hancock, rated sixth in one ranking among the 100 greatest jazz pianists, took his seat at the piano and a computer just to the left of the keyboard. He turned it on with his left hand and started the band by playing the piano with his right. Once during the program he almost fell off the piano bench trying to operate the computer and play the piano at the same time. The first tune lasted 25 minutes. To me, the music coming from the computer sounded ghostly, but the musicians obviously liked the sounds and entered them in unison. Many in the audience liked the effect and jumped to their feet to applaud and even shout. And the musicians deserved it. Brecker played the saxophone brilliantly, and the young trumpet player, Roy Hargrove, was excellent, as were the bass player and drummer. But what they produced was like running the scales — no melody, no lyrics. I didn’t even think much of the sound of the EWI (Electronic Woodwind Instrument) that Brecker played once. It looked like a big jar and sounded hollow. The band played for about two and one-half hours. Leaving the auditorium, a man I didn’t even know told me that we had just witnessed “an acoustic jazz revival.” To me, however, it was just a disappointment. But I’m admittedly outdated, so I called up someone who knows much more about popular music than I do — Robert Ginsburg who has had a weekly jazz radio program in Fayetteville for 26 years. He’s the president of the North Arkansas Jazz Society and is the Walton Arts Center’s consultant for jazz programming. He told me that music is one of his greatest passions. “I was happy with the music,” he told me. “I didn’t like everything, but I enjoyed a great deal of it, and I was happy to see at least four generations of people there.” The computer didn’t bother him because he sees it as just another technological advance. While he confesses that he doesn’t like all music — “hip hop does nothing but annoy me” — Ginsburg believes that music, especially jazz, must go through changes in order to stay alive. “Music is like food; it’s very personal and it sometimes requires our palates to be exposed to it before we appreciate it. That’s why ‘popular music’ is popular.” But I told Ginsburg that I was afraid that music like this was going to kill our melodic music and jazz bands. His response: “This was not another signal for the end of jazz in the U.S. I think perhaps it was just a performance you didn’t enjoy.” I hope he’s right. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both Democrats, voted last week to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 in 26 months. Unfortunately, it failed to pass by only four votes even though the nation’s minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 1997. Note, please, that in that same length of time, the members of Congress have had a $28,500 raise. Speaking for the Republicans, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, explained that the minimum wage was not an effective way to improve living standards of the working poor. In Arkansas, Rep. Pamela Adcock, D-Little Rock, led some other state legislators to introduce a bill that would increase the state minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour. A nice touch in the bill is that if it becomes state law it would bypass the federal wage-and-hour-laws so that low-wage workers in big companies and manufacturers in Arkansas would also get another $1 for each hour of work. It’s really not a surprise that women are trying hard to improve the minimum wage. In 1933, Elsie Parrish, a determined hotel chambermaid at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee, Wash., was fired and didn’t get her back pay, which was 22 cents an hour. Even though the Supreme Court had ruled that setting a minimum wage for females was unconstitutional, Elsie and her lawyer kept trying. In 1936 the court reversed itself, and Elsie got her back pay. The women in the Congress and legislature ought to think about Elsie when it comes time to vote.

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