This is an excellent conversation that I got from Latin Jazz group in Yahoo. Musician Ricky Gonzalez, a master pianist, wrote this insightful commentary regarding the state of Latin Jazz.
It touches on the Latin Jazz popularity, or lack thereof, the music from an musician’s perspective, and playing in different types of Latin Music genres, including Latin pop.
I couldn’t reach Ricky Gonzalez to get his permission to re-publish his comments. He has performed with artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Ray Barretto, Juan Luis Guerra, Spyro Gyra, and many others. However, I’m providing full credit and a link to Ricky’s My Space site.
In response to Steve’s question about why Latin Jazz hasn’t reached the “mainstream” despite being such diverse, challenging and fun music… I’d like to share an opinion. As musicians, we tend to “think like musicians” and not like the audience we’d like to attract. Because we’ve dedicated countless years of our time learning, practicing and perfecting our craft, we are impressed by “musicianship and virtuosity”, often forgetting how to communicate our art to an audience that doesn’t necessarily speak that language.
We can high-five each other all we want after playing a complex arrangement, or feel (rightfully) proud of our ability to cover a myriad of musical styles all on the same night… that’s a testament to the hard work we’ve put into it. But in the end, I view music as a communicative art form – and not just communication between the musicians, but with their audience as well.
I’m not suggesting that artists “dumb down” their music. On the contrary, I think we have a duty to educate as well as entertain. I simply suggest that musicians figure out ways to engage and bring their audience along with them for the ride. If you go back, examine the differences between swing music of Goodman and Miller (which was widely popular) and the more experimental and edgy Bebop, which had a much smaller audience (and decidedly no mainstream appeal). What happened there? Well, for one thing, you lost TWO major elements that connected people to the music: WORDS (in bop, that came later) and DANCE. What did an audience have left? Melodies they couldn’t understand, harmonies and changes that went way over their heads and tempos you couldn’t jog to, let alone dance to.
As a musician, I’m eternally thankful for Bebop and the subsequent developments in music – they informed and nourished my playing, writing and musicianship, after all. By the same token, I have to acknowledge and understand why the popularity of jazz began to wane in the process (we can’t blame everything on rock and roll and Elvis).
Another thing that hurts musicians is an attitude of elitism – that they’re too good for their audience. Due to frustration from the lack of work or recognition, or maybe simply too much time indoors shedding on their instrument and not enough social skills – many musicians approach their performance environment as if what they have to offer is “better than this place deserves” or “the best music the world will ever hear!!!” (that may actually be the case, but you shouldn’t act like it). Audiences should never feel as though they’re being talked down to…
This also applies to the way we view the music that we play. ALL music has value, not just the genres we happen to enjoy. There is a tendency for musicians to denigrate other music (especially if it happens to be popular). From my personal experience, I’ve had just as much fun playing with Machito, Mongo, Celia, Barretto or Dizzy as I have playing with Marc Anthony, Aventura, Jennifer Lopez or Willie Colon. I also held the SAME respect for the music we played and for the audiences we played for.
I remember there was a time that both Herbie Hancock and George Benson were branded “sell-outs” by many in the jazz community (some were famous players themselves). The fact that both these gentlemen were monster jazz musicians became irrelevant to some. But you know what? They found a way to connect with that elusive “mainstream audience” that other jazz players didn’t – by thinking not like “musicians” but like the audiences they wanted to gain. And BTW, don’t knock “Mambo Italiano”, because something about it must’ve connected with people at the time. We should always remind ourselves of what a privilege it is to create music, actually earn a living with it and have people gather together and give it a listen.
How does all this apply to Latin Jazz? Aside from the aforementioned, we also have TWO additional challenges in connecting to a mainstream audience (by “mainstream” I mean that last gig in Omaha, Nebraska or opening for Lady Gaga in Seattle). Lyrics in a LANGUAGE that is not universally spoken and RHYTHMS that are way more complex than the average “2-and-4 backbeat”). I’ll repeat, that it is a source of pride for those of us who perform this music and have the ability to play and understand those rhythms. But at the same time we shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed that not everybody “gets it”.
Mind you, that’s not to say that one should curb their means of expression. If you want to write and perform complex music because that’s what feels right, that’s wonderful… that’s being an artist and true to oneself. But if the intent is to communicate that art to others, musicians and audience alike, we must be pro-active in finding those methods. We can’t just expect people will one day magically discover how great this genre is through wishing for it.
Maybe if artists and musicians looked for ways to connect with an audience thru things that are primal and universally shared (hint: “dance” is one) our music can find new territory and gain new fans.