School’s Out for These UNO-Educated Jazz Musicians

 

Will Thompson, Khris Royal, Cliff Hines, James Westfall, Sasha Masakowski

L-R: Will Thompson, Khris Royal (in back), Cliff Hines, James Westfall, Sasha Masakowski

“I’m just trying to connect with people my age because it’s dying. Jazz is dying. We have to find a way to connect with a younger audience,” says saxophonist Khris Royal (24) as he gulps down an iced coffee at the Fair Grinds coffeehouse one Saturday morning. The previous night, Royal’s funk-fusion outfit Dark Matter’s boundless improvisations and explosive grooves rocked a small but enthusiastic crowd at The Maison on Frenchmen Street. Throughout the night, Royal danced amongst the spectators, jamming on his EWI (basically an electronic sax), periodically passing around a tip jar.

Even in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, bastion of tradition, and home to a burgeoning new generation of jazz musicians led by the likes of Royal and his cohorts, the future of jazz lies in some measure of doubt.

Musicologists offer several explanations as to why and how jazz has evolved over the years. Explanations, hypotheses and theories aside, as jazz’s popularity waned, rock’s surged. As one ascended to a status of high art, the other spoke to the masses. Ultimately, as jazz became increasingly urbane and scholastic, rock became increasingly urbanized, suburbanized and commercialized with genres as diverse as punk and hip-hop resonating across the mainstream. Blame it on society, blame it on the record industry, stretch and blame it on the musicians, but jazz has fallen so far out of the public eye that it isn’t hard to fathom that most people born in the ’80s will never encounter what Rahsaan Roland Kirk dubbed America’s classical music. “So many people don’t experience jazz at a young age,” vibraphonist James Westfall (29) says. “For someone who doesn’t come to their first jazz concert until they’re in their 30s, it’s difficult for them to understand what’s going on. On the other hand, a lot of jazz musicians play for themselves, and others unknowingly close the audience off because they’re not used to playing in front of a crowd.”

This wasn’t the case at One Eyed Jacks recently when jazz guitarist Cliff Hines (21) hosted a David Bowie tribute show. Hardly a jazz concert, this gathering brought members of the local indie rock and jazz communities together. To the elation of an even more outrageously costumed crowd, the revolving cast of Bowie-clad performers played two sets spanning the Thin White Duke’s catalogue. Hines, whose genre-morphing quintet (which often includes Royal) released his debut album Like Mystics of Old in late 2009, describes his approach: “Because of the uniqueness of our sound, we felt that we might better appeal to the indie rock audience more so than to the quote-unquote jazz audience in the city,” he says. “Our plan is to try to blend in with the more progressive rock groups in New Orleans. It may mean less playing, but the audience tends to get into it more.”

Adding vocals to several songs at Hines’ Bowie tribute in a sparkled, spandex get-up and spiky pink wig was Sasha Masakowski (24). Her band, Musical Playground, includes Westfall on keyboards and blends an eclectic mix of sounds ranging from Latin and world music to contemporary pop into a mélange of modern jazz. It’s a far cry from the trad standards heard in Preservation Hall. A charismatic performer and one of the brightest young talents in the Big Easy, she is no stranger to her peers’ frustration as she vies to convert audiences often seeking the more established sounds of the city. “I don’t know if New Orleans really embraces modern jazz,” she says. “It’s good to preserve things, but that’s not the nature of jazz. The nature of jazz is to constantly push and grow and stretch and create new things.” She admits to grappling with the issue on a personal level, “On certain gigs I wonder if I should play what the audience wants me to play, or if I should I play what feels good?”

 

All up-and-coming bands struggle to establish a following and define a sound regardless of genre, but New Orleans’ young jazz musicians face imposing odds. “People generally come down here to see what made New Orleans famous,” says Hines. “Progressive jazz is not something that New Orleans is instinctively known for. We have to work twice as hard to prove to club owners that our music is half as profitable.” Despite a limited audience, little promotion and few open doors, these artists are presented with a unique opportunity, one that could only exist in a city where jazz still shapes culture and influences daily life. “I think for people like us in many ways it’s harder to get recognized, but it’s also easier because we can pave the way in a scene that’s saturated with so many different sounds,” Masakowski says.

This is something that both Royal and Westfall, two of the scene’s most accomplished musicians, realized only after attaining recognition and experiencing the shortcomings of success in larger markets. Royal grew up learning from local luminaries such as Clyde Kerr and Kidd Jordan, but he abandoned his studies at Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music to become a session man in Los Angeles. As a member of the Regiment horn section, he went on to record with R&B and hip- hop superstars Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Nelly and The Game. Of his time there, Royal says, “I missed playing for real. If I got a solo, it was a cheesy, Hollywood sax solo. Despite the commercial opportunities, there was little else compared to New Orleans. Just think about how many styles of music we have that come out of jazz. Here, we play small clubs, often without a guarantee, and to get people in the door we play things that in a lot of other cities you would never hear.”

Westfall came to the Big Easy from his native Houston in 2000 to study at the University of New Orleans. Mentored by Terrence Blanchard, he became the first vibraphonist to be accepted into the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute, then located in Los Angeles. While enrolled, he was afforded the opportunity to perform with legends such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Kenny Garrett. His career then took him to New York, where, despite receiving accolades, he found the atmosphere creatively stifling. “I think every young jazz musician has the desire to go to New York because of its aura and the music it’s produced. It’s like one of those things that you have to go out and experience for yourself before you see what it lacks. It took me a few years to realize that everything I wanted to do musically was in New Orleans.”

Perhaps no other musician’s journey has taken as many detours en route to the Crescent City as pianist Will Thompson’s. Thompson (30) grew up between north Mississippi and southeast Louisiana and chose to attend UNO so that he could entrench himself in the city that produced Professor Longhair and James Booker. Thompson, a member of the Louisiana National Guard, soon found himself entrenched in an entirely different set of circumstances when he was called into service in Iraq in 2004. There, using an iPod, a handheld recorder and a laptop computer, he compiled sequences of found sounds, ambient noises and electronic textures into a compelling musique concrète experiment titled Baghdad Music Journal, the first album ever recorded and released from a combat theater. “I knew there would be no pianos there, and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Thompson says. “There were times I thought I was going to lose my mind. I thought that I would never play music again. So I bought a computer, an iPod and some software and began recording conversations, prayer calls, air conditioner sounds, power generators—whatever I was around. It saved my life.”

Thompson’s current band, WATIV, is a heady, avant-garde quartet that blurs the lines between free jazz and freeform experimentation. “Jazz,” however, is a word Thompson hesitates to use, and “tradition” is a subject he approaches with caution. “I don’t like to think about categories. Mostly, what I do gets called jazz because I come from a jazz background. I think if I choose to call it that, then I can; although a lot of people in this city would say that my band is definitely not jazz. Ultimately, whether you like it or not, the tradition is here. It’s not something that you have to make a conscious decision to uphold. Some people would say that it’s something you need to foster, but I think that if you’re really playing, then it is upheld. Tradition is our greatest blessing, but it can also be a curse when misused.”

Within jazz circles, tradition is a fiercely debated topic; within most others, not so much. But in the city where tradition runs the deepest and looms the largest, this emerging group of jazz artists have been able to draw from it a new, liberating source of creativity, one which allows them to roam freely between the past and the present as they forge their own identity. Westfall explains, “We’ve assembled a group of like-minded musicians who are drawn to each other. Everyone shares the same vision. Our goal isn’t to play jazz the way it was recorded. We want to play things differently. I feel that the spirit of the city, the vibrancy of the city, and the emotions of the city are all interconnected. I believe when I play a keytar solo, it holds the same spirit as what’s played in Preservation Hall.”

 

Connecting the dots may seem like a stretch, but beneath the surface the connections are clear. Royal, Masakowski and Hines all passed through the curriculum at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), the same curriculum that bred modern masters Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. as well as contemporary climbers Christian Scott and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. All but Royal continued their education in UNO’s Jazz Studies program, taking their cues from professors including Irvin Mayfield and Roland Guerin. “At UNO, they really push you to be an individual and to find power in creativity and to break boundaries, musically and personally,” says Masakowski.

Hines has taken his commitment and craft one step further. While enrolled at UNO, Hines went on to assume the position of guitar instructor at NOCCA. “As a teacher now, I’d like to think that I’m a link in the chain,” he says. “I try to reflect the education I was given and the values my teachers instilled in me, the ways they taught and the ways they helped me find myself. That’s what jazz is. That’s what New Orleans is.”

Regardless of who they are—or aren’t—the way to define the next generation of New Orleans jazz musicians isn’t in terms of their merits as players or against the merits of the past. It is to look at them in terms of their connection to their city, their music and each other. “New Orleans is a city with a foundation unlike any other,” Westfall says. “People come here for the experience.”

“Once you embrace the diversity of music in New Orleans, it becomes easier to create your own path,” continues Masakowski.

“If you as a musician are moved by what you do, you can move an audience,” Thompson says.