By Rick Mitchell
Rick reading at Cactus Music, 8/9/2014
I began writing this book 15 years ago. I just didn’t know it until a few months ago.
In 2000, not long after I had left my post as the jazz and popular music critic for The Houston Chronicle to become a full-time teacher and a part-time programming consultant to the Houston International Festival, Da Camera of Houston asked if I would be interested in writing the program notes for the Da Camera Jazz Series. I had covered the series for the Chronicle from its inception in the early ‘90s, when De Camera artistic director Sergiu Luca – with advice and encouragement from the newly launched Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York – had the inspiration to try presenting jazz and classical chamber music on the same program.
That concept lasted only a couple of seasons – though long enough to include a memorable dinner party at which I shared a table with the late Houston arts patron and famously gracious Dominique de Menil and the famously contrary New York jazz writer and newspaper columnist Stanley Crouch. (They got along fine, by the way.)
Fortunately, the jazz series survived on its own, providing jazz listeners in Houston with a lifeline to the best and most buzzworthy music coming out of New York. The series took on added significance with the closing of Rockefeller’s in the late 1990s, leaving the fourth largest city in America without a showcase club regularly presenting touring jazz acts – a sad state of affairs that still exists.
I agreed to write the notes, joining a team of annotators that included former Houston Post classical music critic Carl Cunningham and University of Houston professor and author Howard Pollack. And, with a handful of exceptions, since 2000 I have interviewed and profiled all of the jazz artists Da Camera has brought in to play the series, which usually consists of six concerts spread over the months between September and April. The pieces are typically about 1500 words in length, and consist of me engaging in conversations with the artists about their art and careers while also filling in their biographical details and sometimes quoting what other writers and critics have said about them.
It is a testament to the programming of artistic director Sarah Rothenberg and Da Camera that since I began doing the notes, the jazz series has presented many living legends and major players of the music carrying over from the 20th Century, as well as nearly all of the most significant new artists to have emerged since 2000.
I suppose Da Camera could be criticized for not taking more chances with the jazz avant-garde, although what is now meant by avant-garde is typically music played in a context of free improvisation that is 50 years old. On the other hand, there is no vapid smooth jazz to be found on Da Camera’s schedule. Even non-profit arts organizations have to sell tickets. But the Da Camera Jazz Series is curated for the qualities that inform the best jazz of any era; innovation and integrity, timeliness and timelessness. If it were otherwise, I would not still be writing the notes.
These pieces were originally edited by Leo Boucher, Da Camera’s director of marketing and audience development. At some point not so long ago, Leo and I realized that while the pieces were written for a specific purpose – to give concert-goers and potential concert-goers an idea of what they might expect at a given show — when added together, the 60 or so profiles I’ve written for Da Camera constitute a remarkably comprehensive survey of what is taking place at the creative epicenter of mainstream jazz in the 21st Century.
And so the idea for this book was born: Jazz in the New Millennium: Live & Well. Our hope is that it will be of use to readers – students, teachers, musicians and the listeners who support the music — who wish to know more about jazz; where it came from, where it is going, and most importantly, where it is now 100 years after its birth. As of this writing, there is no other book providing such a broad overview of the current state of the art form, and with so many of our most important living musicians contributing to the discussion.