>Q: What do they have in Toronto, Rochester and even Syracuse that we no longer have in Western New York?
A: A major league jazz festival worthy of the name.
And thereby hangs a tale of woe we probably ought to call "The Nickel City Blues": The greatest living jazz musicians are passing through town at a rate that is a fraction of what it was once.
And yet despite the fact that all the hardest core jazz fans could sing "The Nickel City Blues" from deep in their innermost depths, we also have a great jazz series that is hardy and celebrating its 10th year of operations: The Albright-Knox Art of Jazz Series (which is currently sponsored by Hunt Real Estate in honor of WBFO-FM's late music director and tireless jazz supporter John Hunt).
This is not to be confused with the entirely separate and longer free jazz series on the steps of the gallery every summer that is mostly meant to honor and feature local jazz musicians and is sponsored by The News.
The only other indoor jazz venue of considerable consistency in bringing major jazz musicians to Buffalo is, not so oddly, Hallwalls, whose music curator Steve Baczkowski is a musician himself and is indefatigable about bringing avant-garde jazz musicians here (to surprising audience support, too).
The Art of Jazz Series at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is the heir to the greatest jazz festivals we have had, which were those at Artpark every Memorial Day weekend.
Both the Artpark festival and the Albright-Knox series are largely the results of the programming and persuasive gifts of one man: Bruce Eaton.
The Albright-Knox series has the solid backing of gallery director Louis Grachos, a man known to think of the gallery broadly as a cultural center rather than narrowly (if you can call its identity as one of the great American art museums narrow in any way).
>A history of variety
For those who know jazz at all, the list of 40 acts to perform at the gallery since 1999 is an absolute stunner. Among them: Randy Weston; Dave Holland; Jack DeJohnette; Jim Hall; Bill Frisell; Lee Konitz; Gary Bartz; Toots Thielmans and Kenny Werner; Barry Harris; Kurt Elling; The Campbell Brothers; Greg Osby and Jason Moran; Andrew Hill; The Bad Plus; Bill Charlap; The Maria Schneider Orchestra; Paul Shapiro; Lionel Loueke; Vijay Iyer; James "Blood" Ulmer; and Russell Malone.
You simply couldn't have more variety than you'll find on that list. There's everything from legendary jazz composers and players (Weston, Konitz, Thielmans, Hall, Hill) to the scruffiest and most extroverted downtown players (Shapiro) to players on the very lip of giant reputations (the Maria Schneider Orchestra, just before its Grammy) to blues and R&B rip-roarers (the Campbell Brothers, James "Blood" Ulmer).
What you have to understand, says Eaton, is the "per show budget" has remain unchanged since the series began. What has sold the series to the major performers who enjoy it so much year after year and perform for modest fees (compared to big-venue rock prices) is the series' reputation.
"People just want to play here," Eaton says. "That's because we take care of business. [Musicians] get what they want [out of a performance]."
Not only do they get a performing venue of truly rare beauty, they also get the same sound man who has been with the series for nine years. His name is Peter Durbin and, says Eaton, he is "unflappable and very professional."
In fact, the only time Eaton remembers any major sound problem at all had absolutely nothing to do with Durbin or the gallery but rather the particular pickup on James "Blood" Ulmer's guitar amp, which, unfortunately, brought in sound bleed from Buffalo State College's radio station broadcasting across the street.
When, in compensation, Ulmer tried to play louder, the result, says Eaton, was something less than ideal.
Eaton's memories of the series' musicians are otherwise almost unfailingly happy ones. Of the great 86-year-old Belgian harmonica maestro Toots Thielmans, Eaton says: "Personally, I think he is one of the greatest human beings ever." Eaton calls guitarist Russell Malone -- one of the rare musicians in the series not to sell out -- "one of the funniest guys I've ever met."
"He could have been a comedian," he says.
Guitarist Jim Hall, making an unprecedented musical visit to the city where he was born, made a point of going out for lunch with Eaton and permitted a dammed-up accumulation of fan questions. "He was very, very interesting to talk to," Eaton says.
Audience hits range all the way from Shapiro's Midnight Minyan to Kurt Elling. Schneider's orchestra, says Eaton, "was phenomenal" in the confines of the gallery auditorium, a very rare venue of such small size for that group. Schneider, herself, was a huge pleasure to deal with and know.
Opening this year's series on Saturday night is another female jazz musician of powerful reputation: Cindy Blackman (see accompanying story for this year's complete series lineup). With arms that look like those of an Olympic athlete, Blackman is a formidable jazz drummer who has, for a long time, played for Lenny Kravitz. What dedicated jazz people, though, know about Blackman is that she was an acolyte of the legendary drummer Tony Williams and was one of the earliest harbingers of a new post-feminist wave of female musicians now routinely changing the scope and purview of jazz.
>Spreading the word
About the "Nickel City Blues" -- to which his series is such wonderful counterpoint -- Eaton points out that there is just no substitute for jazz promoters of unquenchable passion and dynamism.
Also crucial are those venues that can help get the word out -- specifically print media (like this one) and, in Buffalo's case, WBFO-FM, which still devotes an enormous amount of its programming to jazz.
In both Buffalo cases, attention to major-name jazz has flagged compared to past years.
Eaton had his troubles with WBFO during his days at the Artpark festival but says that's "ancient history" now. But he also knows the situation in nearby cities with great jazz festivals; Rochester, for instance, has WGMC-FM, which "has some people there who are quite passionate" about jazz visiting their city. "They're more community minded" than management at WBFO about jazz coming to town, Eaton says.
Interviews with jazz musicians coming to town are sharply down from past years. When John Hunt put WBFO into the jazz radio business in the '70s, he was especially tireless about interviewing visiting musicians, often to hilarious effect.
WBFO program director David Benders finds "playing the music a greater [boon]." "We went far into" interviewing musicians coming to town, says Benders, "and then we came all the way out of it."
WBFO music director (and morning disc jockey) Bert Gambini freely admits that "Bruce [Eaton] is a brilliant programmer." He's especially impressed with the way Eaton has "married content with context" in picking jazz musicians to play at the Albright-Knox.
He also says that he'd welcome "any opportunity we'd have to build [more jazz programming] on something like the Art of Jazz series."
Among the major factors Gambini sees contributing to jazz's current state of "Nickel City Blues" is the moment "we lost Bobby [Militello]" as the proprietor of the Tralfamadore Cafe.
And too, says Gambini: "I wish Mark Goldman would do it again. He was so wonderfully casual [at his Calumet Cafe] about bringing the best players here."
"I want this music to succeed," Gambini says. "I want to do everything to help this music in this community. I am passionate about this music. It's what I love to listen to."
Goldman, for his part, got out of the jazz promotion business long ago. He says that the reason for jazz fans' current "Nickel City Blues" is that "people don't know jazz."
"People I know don't know the first thing about jazz," he says. "I'm just not sure why that is. Maybe it's because it's a taste that requires effort and discipline to learn about."
Which brings us back to the relative decline in local media coverage of the subject, even from those so active in presenting it before.
Maybe, says Goldman, "it doesn't work in the marketplace.
"Maybe it needs to be subsidized by the Federal Reserve," he says.
In the meantime we have, 10 years in, a program at the Albright-Knox that continues to show the city what sublimely beautiful music can be developed from the blues.