WARNING – READER DISCRETION ADVISED – MAY CONTAIN RANT, COARSE LANGUAGE and ILL-CONSIDERED HUMOUR
So, the other day a friend sent me a link to the latest Toronto brainwave in generic jazz promotion, or Jazz-McMarketing, which could be summed up as, “Let’s bring so-called jazz to people who never listen to it, while making sure to present it at unimaginably stupid venues”. In this case, believe it or not, “Jazz at the Ripley’s Aquarium” on the second Friday of every month. Sorry, I couldn’t resist the “believe it or not” gag because the joint is run by Ripley’s, but just in case you don’t believe me, go to the Ripley’s Aquarium website. I’d link it here, but I might get into trouble and besides I don’t actually want to have even the slightest hand in promoting this howlingly vulgar idea.
For those of you not from Toronto, the Ripley’s Aquarium is a huge, relatively new tourist attraction that’s been promoted to the point of saturation – massive, retina-burning digital billboards depicting sharks, eels, rays and other exotic fish, posters in the subway with clever slogans like “Come to the Aquarium, where staring isn’t creepy”. I’m sure it’s doing quite well and it’s the kind of place I would like to take my grandsons, who are both crazy about fish and other wildlife. Of course, it’s nestled in among a bunch of similar high-traffic venues in the busiest part of the city – the CN Tower, the Rogers Centre, the Metro Convention Centre, etc. – none of which are all that near to the subway, so parking and easy access are a nightmare. I can only imagine the joys of schlepping a double bass and an amp or a drum kit 1,000 yards through the crowds to play a gig there – I say only imagine because I sure as hell won’t be doing that, I’d rather set my bass on fire.
Anyway, seeing the on-line promotion for the “jazz sleeps with the fishes” concept sent my mind racing down two conflicting paths – hardly a new thing for me – one of dark, world-weary outrage, and the other of satirical humour possibilities. It wound me up for about a minute, my inner-purist jazz curmudgeon going into overdrive with, “Oh fuck, great, here we go again, more McJazz in another stupid-ass, bad sounding venue, another co-opting of the word jazz to lend a veneer of sophistication to I-don’t-even-know-what, or to sucker more people into buying tickets on an otherwise slow night, all the while giving jazz another black eye by dumbing it down and presenting it in a wildly inappropriate setting, just what we needed.”
But then I pulled back and realized I’m too old to take this seriously or get really upset, instead I began to see the (admittedly unintentional) comic possibilities in this inherently absurd idea. I’ll try to combine these serious and comic threads in this piece and will probably fail as usual.
First of all, I love the “second Friday of every month” bit – like, whoa, let’s not go crazy here people, let’s “test the waters” and try it on for size before we fully commit ourselves. Let’s make it hard for people to figure out when the music is going to be appearing, so the whole idea won’t succeed – not that I want it to.
Then there’s the obvious question: why? When I think fish, I think lemon wedges, capers, maybe a bottle of Chablis or two and if I want some jazz with that, then I’ll throw on any one of a thousand CDs. But otherwise, what the hell do fish in huge tanks and jazz have in common? Why not have a stand-up comedian named Dory Sprat? – “So, a grouper walks into a bar…….”. Or maybe clog-dancers in fish-scale outfits, or a guy juggling live lobsters? Why not show some appropriately marine-themed movies, like The Day of the Dolphin, Jaws, or Moby Dick? Why jazz? Who are they trying to attract here – the surprisingly massive crowd of oceanographic jazz-lovers? People who like some John Coltrane with their Jacques Cousteau? Are they hoping to make jazz converts out of the tourists and families with their kids who come here? No, of course not, because predictably, the music on offer here will have nothing to do with John Coltrane or any other jazz, it’s jazz in name only. That’s clear from the most cursory look at the website and its coming attractions.
Before any of this occurred to me though, the first funny thing that came to mind was the old tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, which I’ll admit sounds weird so I’ll explain. Way back, Bud recorded a couple of signature tunes called “The Eel” and “Margo’s Seal”, and it was a short, “three-hour cruise” from these to other fish-song titles. The straight ones, like “Gone Fishin'”, “Dolphin Dance”, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin'”, “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Good Bait” – but of course, I’m more interested in the fishier ones, such as:
“Salmon Chanted Evening” “The Moray I See You” “Golden Herrings”
“Slap That Bass” “Any Plaice I Hang My Hat Is Home” “Pike Yourself Up”
“Love For Scales” “I Haddock Anyone Till You” “Halibut Not For Me”
“Darn That Bream” “The Brill Is Gone” “Trout of Nowhere” “For Heaven’s Hake”
“Some Ling To Live For” “Ray Down Yonder in New Orleans” “Body & Sole”
“Roe, Look At Me Now” “Abalone Together” “I Only Have Walleyes For You”
“Trawl the Things You Are” “Until the Creel Thing Comes Along” “Gill Wind”
“I’ve Got A Shad, and That Ain’t Good” “Cod Bless the Child” “Hello, Molly”
And my personal favourite: “I Wish I Could Sashimi Like My Sister Skate”.
As amusing as these are (at least to me), they pale in comparison to the laughs provided by the deliciously clumsy copy-writing of the ad itself, which borders on genius. To wit:
“Introducing our Friday Night Jazz, taking place on the second Friday of each month. Join us for an unforgettable evening of live jazz, music, and refreshments available at our cash bars, while you wander through the aquarium at your leisure.
It’s Friday night and you’re looking forward to spending the evening out of the house. After a long day at work you feel like relaxing with live music somewhere in downtown Toronto.”
Wow, they’re offering live jazz and music here. And just so there’s no misunderstanding, the booze will cost ya, not like at all those other joints “somewhere in downtown Toronto” where they give it away. I love the “out of the house” turn of phrase – why not just say “out”? They make it sound as if everyone’s house is so infested with rats, cockroaches or dysfunctional families that nobody could stand to be there a second longer, so why not forget your troubles, come on down and “get tanked” with us! And the “somewhere in downtown Toronto” is so vague and self-effacing, it’s as though they’re admitting this venue is not such a hot idea, which it isn’t.
But the fun really starts when you see the coming musical attractions, oh Christ. One of the bands is called “Lady Be Good” – never, ever trust a young band named after an old song. Their logo is one of those big, retro Telefunken-style microphones from the ’40s – as in “Telefunken sound man to turn it down” – or even better, off. They’re proclaimed as “one of Toronto’s most charming and fun jazz bands” – honest – and their style is a mixture of “modern pop, classic jazz and soulful RnB.” Awesome, can’t wait to hear them. Then there’s their publicity photo, which screams “peppy, entrepreneurial kid-band”. A perky thrush with a retro-bob hairdo and party dress, the all-important Telefunken on a stand in front of her, flanked by the bassist (who at least has a string bass), the drummer holding his sticks and the “piano” player leaning in a casually geeky pose against his vertical electric keyboard, which tells you all you need to know. “Hey folks, we’ve got the retro-lounge-swing thing together, but we’re also with it and contemporary, we love our electric keyboard so much we’ve put in our promo shot just to show how eager to please we are!”
Out of curiosity I checked them out on Google and they’re about what I expected, only worse. There are three clips from their “Rehearsin’ in the Kitchen” series, where they’re literally playing in the kitchen of somebody’s house and smiling so keenly it’s like one of those old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland flicks – “I know kids, we’ll put on a show! – Grandma will bake some cookies! – We could use dad’s barn! – It’s so crazy, it might work!” – but minus the talent and swing. The singer absolutely destroys Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” with off-key cheerfulness, I had to listen to Al Hibbler’s version twice just to get the taste of sugar out of my mouth.
There’s a photo of another band that’s either going to, or has already played the aquarium – it’s not clear which – and they’re a treat too: “Parkside Drive”. While bands named after tunes are almost guaranteed to suck, bands named after thoroughfares are really from hunger. They’re a little older and their style is not summarized, but by the looks of their photo it’s no doubt something like “A captivating stew of smooth Latin, hot funk and fusion-jazz that will stir your soul”, or some such breathless dreck. Their promo shot is a riot, four guys in matching tan suits with vests, lounging around and glaring out like a squad of gay Russian Mafia hit-men. They’re protectively encircling their singer, who doesn’t look like she needs any protection – she has quite the sultry, pouting Lucretia Borgia thing going on – “Caro, bring your weenie any closer and I’ll lop it off with my stiletto.”
I may sound a little harsh and elitist here, like I’m dumping on these young musicians as a grumpy old guy, after all they’re just trying to make a buck. Well, I was young once too, and yes, I played some low-paying gigs at iffy places because that’s all that was available in the very early going, but it wasn’t quite the same. None of the bands I played in worked big corporate or public venues like this, we didn’t have glossy publicity photos or matching suits and the music we played was out-and-out jazz, not this harmless please-everybody twaddle. That’s the difference, there’s something very contrived about these bands and their slick demographic approach to marketing and presentation, a lack of sincerity, a lack of realness. And, as a working musician, I’m not a jazz purist either, appearances to the contrary. I’ve done thousands of gigs providing incidental background music for functions – weddings, corporate events, all manner of parties, you name it. I don’t get offended when people don’t listen to the bands at these affairs even if we’re playing good music, which we generally are – they’re one-off parties, nobody expects anyone to pay attention to the music. That’s why these gigs pay well, you put the suit on and do them to keep the wolf from the door, I have no problem with it. But this is different – it’s a series run by a big outfit with deep pockets and, perhaps taking their cue from the Toronto Jazz Festival, they’re selling something – the “jazz experience” – which they’re not providing. This is like McDonald’s suddenly marketing their fast-food as haut cuisine when it’s the same old greasy slop.
So okay, you get the picture, they’re hiring young cookie-cutter bands with girl singers playing some sort of corpo-Hallmark music and given all this, I’d love to know what these monthly gigs are paying for a seven-to-midnight, five-hour call. I’ve been around the block a few times and my instincts tell me that the pay for these gigs is either, a) – shitty, or, b) – really shitty. There’s a third, more sinister option though – that the bands may be playing for free. You know, for the experience and the exposure, so maybe they can pass out some business cards and cop a few wedding gigs. This is probably not the case, but on the other hand it wouldn’t surprise me in the least, considering how few gigs there are and how “internship” has blossomed as a way to avoid paying young people.
As to these jazz-inappropriate venues, I wonder what’s next? Maybe hiring jazz bands to play near the most popular rides at amusement parks like the CNE or Canada’s Wonderland, so people standing in line for the Zoomer or the Wild Plunge could be entertained while they wait, by bands with names like “Carousel” or “The Rollercoasters”. They’d be a little hard to hear with all the noise going on, but who really cares? – they’re pleasant and functional enough.
Or maybe jazz at Tim Horton’s – you know, “Coffee ‘N’ Doughnut Jazz” with Frankie Latte and The Crullers. Next week, the exotic Latin-jazz blend of Dark Roast, featuring the alluring vocal stylings of Mocha.
Perhaps solo keyboard players outside drive-thru fast-food outlets, to provide a diversion while people are deciding if they want fries with that. You laugh, but if we’re not at that level yet, we’re close. As the writer Quentin Crisp once said, “Those who write things as they really are, are satirists.”
In that the generic brand of music being offered at the aquarium and other such dopey venues sure as shit ain’t jazz, maybe it’s time that we came up with some new terminology for it. Like maybe “plazz” – poppy-lite-jazz, good for shopping malls and plazas. Or “spazzm” – smooth-pop-jazz-muzak – we could have “spazzm bands” like in the good old days, but offering far more bloodless music. Or “splazz” – smooth-pop-lounge jazz – I like the sound of that one, it works just about everywhere. Ripley’s and other similar presenters have come up with a cynical, self-fulfilling prophecy model here – offering music that’s not very interesting to listen to in a setting where people won’t listen to it except in a walk-by fashion. I mean, why bother? And please….for fuck’s sake, don’t call it jazz, okay?
For the life of me, I just don’t get the allure of the word “jazz” as a promotional tool because, as music, jazz is failing more and more at the cash register. This has been amply demonstrated by an increasingly smaller percentage of “units sold” – CDs, downloads, etc. – in the music industry at large. And yet, companies are falling all over themselves to use jazz in their marketing – there are Jazz crackers, Jazz apples, a Jazz basketball team (in Utah of all places), even a Jazz airline. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a car, like maybe the Buick Jazz, with its innovative Rhythm-Shift transmission. So, even while the music struggles, the word “jazz” seems to have a cachet of elegance, of being hip and cool. Outfits like Ripley’s see this and decide to jump on the bandwagon, so to speak, and promote their dreary little music series as being jazz. The maddening thing is that when this inevitably fails, because it wasn’t handled very well and was a bad idea in the first place, jazz gets blamed. They say, “Well, we tried jazz and it just didn’t work, people don’t like it.” And we wonder why next year there’s even less jazz at the festival; it’s a vicious cycle, not unlike sharks circling a bleeding man.
But, when the real thing is presented properly in a setting conducive to listening, people like it, they really do. Time and time again, jazz has shown that it’s adaptable and self-sufficient enough to thrive in any number of settings that weren’t designed or originally intended for its presentation – churches, community halls, parks and other outdoor venues, art galleries and museums, small-town theatres, people’s homes. But jazz is not a walk-by music, it’s a concert music. When I say “concert”, I don’t mean that it has to be presented in a swanky concert hall, not at all, even sets in a club can be like mini-concerts. I mean concert in the “concerted effort” sense of two or more groups working together – the presenters, who promote the music in a workable venue, the artists, who try their best to provide interesting, quality music, and the audience, who sit and listen to it, enjoy it. Apart from a few bare-minimum requirements – a decent, in-tune piano, maybe some sound equipment run by someone who knows what jazz is supposed to sound like, some sort of makeshift stage with a focal point – this unspoken relationship between the players and their listeners is the key ingredient in any serious jazz presentation.
Encouragingly, there are all sorts of people or little groups out there who are interested in jazz, who “get” this and are presenting the music respectfully – not just in Toronto, but in lots of smaller towns, where the response from audiences is enthusiastic and appreciative. As in, “If you build it, we will come”. My sister is but one of many examples, for several years she’s wanted to start a jazz series at the church in her hometown, which is so small it’s technically a hamlet. Late last year she asked me about it and I advised her to hire a good, small band with a track record and a following – in this case, the Mike Murley Trio. I checked out the church, which had some soul and good acoustics that would only be improved with bums in seats. To attract these, she went to work at promoting it like crazy, which can be done quite cheaply if you’re resourceful and persistent. I helped her with this and she wisely got some local people involved – an artist chipped in a great poster, the county newspaper did an interview with me and wrote a nice advance article, other local presenters offered her their email lists, Murley and I mentioned it on our websites – and voila, come concert time in early April, it was a sell-out. The sound was perfect, you could hear a pin drop in the place, everybody loved the music. Jazz is intimate, it’s chamber music and small is good, quiet is good.
On the break and after the concert, many people expressed a shocked gratitude that such a good band would come so far to play in their little town – but hell, it’s less than an hour from Toronto – so our response was, “Not at all, thank you for coming and for listening.” I was very proud of my sister and happy for her and the community, the band was well-paid and there was more money than expected left over for the church. A small profit is still a profit and people were asking when the next concert was going to be, saying they wouldn’t miss it for anything. And the band was equally happy – all jazz musicians want is to be treated fairly and to be heard, for people to listen. This is what I meant earlier by “the jazz experience” – bringing real music to real people who actually want to hear it. It doesn’t matter that we’re not looking at Woodstockian numbers, or that nobody’s getting rich, what matters is that the experience is fulfilling for all and the music stays alive by growing fresh audiences. We don’t need outfits like Ripley’s doing us any favours, tossing jazz a bone by deigning to present a fast-food version of it at a fishy venue – fuck them and their misguided arrogance.
The fish-jazz business reminded me of one other funny thing and I’d like to close on a humorous note. It’s both a visual and aural joke that was a favourite of my ex-father-in law. He liked to use it at family gatherings, especially with “proper” older ladies. He would write out these words on a piece of paper, spaced out like this: WHALE OIL BEEF HOOKED
He’d instruct the victim to read them slowly and separately at first, them run them together more quickly until they sounded like an astonished Barry Fitzgerald – “Whale oil beef hooked”. Try it, it’s fun.
Well I’ll be fucked, “Jazz at the Aquarium” – what’ll they think of next? Don’t tell me, I don’t wanna know.
© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.