For those of us who go out to hear live jazz more than the average Joe or Janet, it's clear that jazz artists and venue owners throughout Rochester and its environs are having an increasingly difficult time getting audiences for gigs. While the recent and marked decrease of "bums in seats" at jazz gigs can be laid at the feet of an economy that is increasingly scaring the living sh*t out folks (or at least causing them to reduce spending disposable income), this is not really a recent phenomenon. I've heard artists and others time and again say that the jazz lovers all come out at the Rochester International Jazz Festival and the rest of the year, not so much. Let's face it, jazz and other improvised music is a hard sell. You have to really love it to make the effort and there's always the fear that it won't be "your kind of jazz" (you know how I feel about that, but it's the truth out there). The fact is that there are a lot more jazz lovers out there in Rochester than those who show up at live gigs around town. Without growth in the audiences for live music there will be an inevitable drop in the amount of live music and especially jazz available to hear. Sure, Eastman will always guarantee a certain level of highly talented jazz musicians around town and a certain number of folks dropping in who have a connection to the school or its faculty. However, if we're going to have a vibrant live jazz scene here in Rochester, NY, and keep attracting people from out of town, we have to turn out to hear them play. How many times do you think a world-renowned artists like Mulgrew Miller will return when only few hardy souls turn out to hear him? Same goes for local artists and groups. They have to feed themselves and/or their families.
Since I've been here, I've been thinking about how to bring a tradition from my former home town of Chicago—the jazz "pub crawl"—as one means to turn people on to the fantastic home-grown talent here and the venues that showcase that talent here in Rochester. I was reminded again of why when I read a recent post by jazz journalist Howard Mandel in his blog Jazz Beyond Jazz. As Mandel writes, "[t]he real signs of Chicago's jazz depth and diversity are evident in the unique 'club tour' (aka pub crawl), which the Jazz Institute of Chicago cleverly designs to introduce listeners to local musicians playing small venues way outside the downtown Loop." Typically, the "crawl" involves moving between different clubs throughout the city via bus (we used yellow school buses back in the day when I was hitting these every year, now they're using tourist trolleys) on a single pass over one night. Everywhere you go, there is live jazz, drink, sometimes food; everywhere you go there your (now $25) pass will get you on the bus and in the club. When you're ready to move on, you go out the door and a bus will take you to the next stop on the circuit or back to the central connection to take a different circuit. The JIC's jazz pub crawl was a fantastic way to discover the music and where it was being played around the city, showcasing local artists you might not know and venues where you might never have ventured if you hadn't been there before. Due to its proximity to the time of the jazz festival, it was possible that someone was already in town and might sit in somewhere.
Looking at the "scene" here, I think this could work in Rochester, providing people a chance to catch some of the rich and diverse local jazz artists (not all of them can be in the festival) and see where some of the local clubs and restaurants that at least try to bring in live jazz can be found in and around Rochester. Because of Rochester's well-known "in 20 minutes you can be anywhere" geography, they could in both the suburbs and in the City. Like Chicago, it might make sense to do this right before the RIJF itself or perhaps at several different times during the years.
You heard it here first....So what do you think? I'd welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the comments to this post. If we don't get more people out to hear the music, it's going to be increasingly difficult to find music to hear.