I recently posted this piece on my blog on Fastcompany.com.

That the New York indie theater scene is drawing forced breaths and the gap between Broadway and off is more pronounced than ever is no news to arts-inclined locals. Sure, performers and writers are still everywhere, but Manhattan’s astronomical rents are quickly molding its culture from gritty bohemia to hipster chic. Actors continue to flock to the city that historically belongs to them, and collective frustration builds. Besides an endless audition circuit and off-hours unpaid readings, a performer’s most viable option is to partake in a theater festival or find a self-made audience online.

Title of Show, a meta-musical that will open on Broadway on July 17, found a fan base through both avenues. And it couldn’t be more fitting that the show, written by its cast members Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, is about the thing itself: Writing a musical, against the pervasive forces of self-doubt, and submitting it to a theater festival.

After a successful run at the New York Musical Theater Fest in 2004 and Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theater in 2006, Title of Show has recently connected with a fresh following through eight ‘webisodes’ on its home page. In the spirit of the musical, these YouTube videos document its cast’s efforts to get a Broadway contract. To date, the viewership of each episode ranges from 6,000 to over 17,000.

The idea for this method of self-promotion, writer/cast member Jeff Bowen says, sparked from the cast’s shared antsiness about the future of their creation. A move from Off-Broadway to on was in the talks, but very much up on the air. “We were at a place where we didn’t really know what was going on with the show,” Bowen says, ” and we thought, is there a way that we can set this ball in motion without having to wait for anybody to make a decision for us? So we just came up with the idea to go on Youtube, for the fans who had been asking what was going on.”

The first episode sparked a multitude of fan emails, in which viewers wondered if a Broadway stint was truly a reality.

“We didn’t know; we knew as much as we were telling our viewers,” Bowen says.

As the cast added episodes, its fan base began to include viewers who didn’t know of the musical but had caught on to the web series. Fan letters continued to drop in larger and larger volumes, and the show’s soundtrack sales peaked. The large-scale interest, Bowen says, woke producers up to the show’s marketability.

“[The web series] had everything to do with us going to Broadway,” he says. “It definitely worked, it got the producers much more fired up about this new demographic who were coming in and didn’t know anything about the show.”

During the musical’s 2006 run, some critics appreciated its earnestness and sass but found it too much of a theater geek’s inside joke to resonate with the average patron.

What the creators would have said to the critics requires little guessing, “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing,” Title of Show‘s autobiographical characters sing near the end of the musical.

As another self-made success story of the internet age comes true, the cast may have just done what even their most inspired lyrics didn’t count on: Their creation, in a matter of months, has become a hundred people’s favorite thing.

Herbie Hancock just took home the Album of the Year Grammy, beating itunes favorites like Amy Winehouse and Kanye West to the honor.As Hancock reached into his jacket pocket for a prewritten speech, he said that this was the first time a jazz album had been given this honor. He then thanked the Academy for thinking outside of the box and added that the Grammy would be a tribute to other historical jazz artists who had been unnoticed by the glitz-and glam ceremony in the past.“This is a new day that proves the impossible can be made possible,” he read. Some news outlets are already calling his win “a steal,” but it seems unlikely that any top-of the charts musicians (even Kanye West) will be gutsy enough to diss the Hancock-Joni Michell-collaboration. 

The MTA subway system–that claustrophobia-inducing web beneath our sidewalks– certainly encapsulates the grimiest, frenziest and the most democratic aspects of New York City living. Students, mothers, homeless snoozers and Morgan Stanley commuters are all crammed into the same steel tubes, often literally arm against arm, Birkenstock against patent leather. It’s also one place in the city where the performing arts, both sloppy and skillful, maintain a place, no matter how many regulations are tossed their way.

Browsing through Google News today, I came across a slice of life-story by Denis Murphy from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Reading about New York’s notorious and endlessly described rush hour from a visitor’s perspective is always fascinating, because although the observations might be nearly identical from one writer to the next, they are always remarked upon with the same joy of discovery. Murphy notes contrasts between the young and the old, between the rich and the poor, and, like others, notes both the unique coexistence of classes and the oddly thriving artistic spirit.

Murphy writes:

“Does the subway influence the New Yorker character? Does it not only make people cockier, but also more tolerant of human weakness, less tolerant of arrogance; does it somehow put people on the side of the underdog? Do the long, silent hours in the subway drive people to write, paint, play an instrument, draw graffiti, compose?”

I’m not sure if it’s the silence–I only seem to notice the cacophony of noises–but the inspiration is perennial.

(Image from Wikipedia)

If you happen to be in Los Angeles next week, this cultural event should provide a nice addition to your itinerary. 16 currently striking writers have put together a lineup of short plays, ranging from eight to 15 minutes, that will feature several recognizable faces from TV and film, Variety reports. Look for Cashmere Mafia‘s Bonnie Summerville, ER‘s Troy Evans and Kari Matchett, Reid Scott from My Boys, Melissa Sagemiller from Sleeper Cell and Ben Feldman from last weekend’s box office idol, Cloverfield. Proceeds from the event, straightforwardly titled “TV Takes the Stage”, will go to the Motion Picture and TV Fund that helps non-writers affected by the strike.

Besides the appeal of an affordable ticket price ($20-30) and a worthy cause, the short run gives audience members a rare chance to check out whether camera-trained actors can hold their own on stage. For an industry that’s facing canceled red carpet events and endless reruns, the event seems to carry a symbolic value: Cue your stars, without the glitz. You decide for yourself.

Ever since my high school years, when I drove from Los Angeles to Anaheim to catch a Matchbox Twenty show one night and to the Sunset Strip a week later to bop my head to an unknown band, I’ve been faced with a dilemma that I hope most culture lovers can relate to. When it comes to music, theater, literature or cinema, is smaller always better? When an artistic endeavor is surrounded by a larger machine that guarantees more exposure and box office gain, is it necessarily hollow in creativity?

Despite my love for independently financed projects that exist due to sheer willpower, I’ve always held an inherent discomfort with the term ‘sellout.’ The box office success of Garden State shouldn’t immediately warrant sessions of Zach Braff-bashing, and Billy Collins’ popularity and public fame shouldn’t make him unworthy of the poetry crowd’s attention.

And, as much as I understand the frustration of New York’s indie theater crowd, Disney’s blockbuster musicals aren’t necessarily void of real creative steam.

That Richard Zoglin’s article, The Little Mermaid: In Defense of Disney appeared in Time Magazine rather than New York Press is no surprise–after all, the piece was an example of one big dog defending the honor of another. It’s also hardly a shock that Leonard Jacobs of the Press posted a rebuttal to Zoglin’s article today.

Both critics make valid points: Zoglin wonders whether the journalists who dismissed Broadway’s Mermaid as “sparkly garishness” even saw the visually subtle show. On his end, Jacobs alleges that the problem with Disney Musicals isn’t their carefully orchestrated staging, but “spectacle at the total expense of a well-textured narrative.”

Zoglin “[wishes,] just once, that Disney might get a little credit for recruiting some of the most adventurous theater artists in the world to bring new ideas in staging and storytelling to a mass theater audience, kids and adults alike.”

“OK, nice, so Zoglin likes all the pretty pictures and he’s angrily that the critics call out crap as crap, if they think it’s crap,” Jacobs continues.

While I see Mr. Jacobs’ point–after all, the animated version of Beauty and the Beast felt more three-dimensional than the live-action show–I’m still not convinced that the entertainment giant’s spectacles are all that bad. There are worse things than envisioning beautifully staged and stunningly sung musical experiences for young crowds, and like all other theatrical productions, Disney musicals are a hit-or miss in their cultural value (even Jacobs takes his hat off to Julie Taymor’s The Lion King).

Perhaps Disney’s biggest crime is not the content of its musicals, but its tendency to hog the spotlight from the other side of the theatrical spectrum. Transformers might have been the target of my frustration this past summer when it occupied far too many of Manhattan’s screens, but there was nothing wrong with the film’s content. As an action flick, it succeeded on almost all counts, and comparing it to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would be both childish and impossible.

(image from Playbill.com)

Say what you want about Wynton Marsalis’ impact on jazz, but as many professional musicians have pointed out to me, he has certainly done his part in returning this genre to the mainstream. Jazz at Lincoln Center is synonymous with luxury, talent, and–perhaps most importantly–a New York Landmark. Those who couldn’t direct you to the Village Vanguard or The Standard are likely to recall Lincoln Center’s logo, and the word ‘jazz’, on Columbus Circle.

The center has pumped a lot of money and effort into educational programs–including the WeBop! initiative for young children. Most recently it has added recordings of the center’s educational events onto its site, Jazz Times reported today. The five available videos include, for example, a master class with the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble, a jazz 101 session and a bebop overview, and a segment of Marsalis addressing the National Press Club about the importance of arts education.

The length of the segments (the videos range between an hour and two hours) might be a bit excessive for many attention spans, but one can only hope that the name of Marsalis and Lincoln Center will encourage music enthusiasts to tune in.

Links:

Jazz Times article: http://jazztimes.com/columns_and_features/news/detail.cfm?article=11302

Lincoln Center’s Educational Events Online: http://jalc.org/jazzED/streamin/index.asp

Believe it or not, grassroots student activism may still be yielding results.

Last year, Northwestern University suspended its famed jazz studies major, instigating a group of its students to organize a public protest. Participants released a statement voicing their disapproval, and launched a web site, called Friends of NU Jazz, to gain public support. Recent alumnus Mike Lebrun serves as the spokesperson for the effort.

Part of the reason for the degree program’s suspension was a lack of eligible candidates to head it. School of Music Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery had been searching for a new director since 2005, when previous coordinator Don Owens retired. Suitable replacements weren’t turning up in the applicant pool, and the administration allegedly resorted to program suspension as its only option.

Lebrun’s and his fellow music students’ efforts to revive Northwestern’s jazz tradition might be paying off, The Chicago Tribune reported on Sunday. The university recently appointed Victor Goines, a famed saxophonist, clarinetist and jazz educator as the director of jazz studies. Some of the most recent lines on his CV include membership in the Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Wynton Marsalis Septet since 1993, as well as directorship of the Juilliard School jazz program. Appointed in 2000, Goines was the program’s first artistic director.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better candidate,” Lebrun told the Tribune.

“There are really very few places in the United States that have such a strong history in jazz,” Goines said in the same article. “New Orleans does, New York always has been, and Chicago has a very strong tradition in it.”

It’s certainly nice to know that organized groups of young people are still fighting tooth and nail for the survival of jazz education. I’m nevertheless disturbed that such a famed music school was unable to find a qualified jazz director for nearly three years. Let’s hope that Goines will make it his mission to speed things up to where they should be. Known for the strength of its music programs, Northwestern serves as a model for other universities–for better or for worse.

Links:

Friends of NU Jazz: http://www.friendsofnujazz.com

Link to the Chicago Tribune article: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/chi-1202_star_dec02,1,926965.story?page=1

Bio of Victor Goines: http://www.juilliard.edu/press/goines.html

Many of today’s artists praise jazz festivals like Monterey, Telluride and JVC for the performance opportunities they create. One of the leaders of the festival legacy, socialite Elaine Lorillard, passed away Monday, The New York Times reported.

Lorillard, 93 at the time of her death, had conceived the Newport Jazz Festival (or Rhode Island’s JVC) in the mid-1950s.

According to Dennis Hevesi of The Times, Lorillard and her husband, Louis, created “the model for what became a worldwide circuit of outdoor jazz festivals.”

The festival was allegedly born from a simple remark: During a 1953 classical concert in Newport, John Maxon (head of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum) had turned to Lorillard and said what a shame it was that jazz didn’t yet have its own large-scale festival. The Lorillards held the first Newport Festival a year later, in 1954: Over 7000 people attended.

Music festivals define the summer season in my home country of Finland, and the Pori Jazz festival is one of the country’s most talked-about public happenings each year. The festival culture is thus particularly close to my heart. Although music is protected and developed by government funding differently in Europe than in the States, it’s hard to imagine some older genres surviving anywhere in the world without these outdoor concert gatherings; while they serve as places for music enthusiasts to flock to, they also lure in non-aficionados for their ambience alone. I’m thus happy to see the Times pay fitting tribute to one of the founders of the modern festival culture.

Links:

New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/28/arts/music/28lorillard.html?_r=1&ref=arts&oref=slogin

Newport Jazz Festival home page: http://www.festivalproductions.net/jvcjazz/newport/sched.php?ID=19

Pori Jazz: http://www.porijazz.fi/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/lang,eng

Today’s Slate included an unedited transcript of a live chat that music critics Ben Ratliff (The New York Times) and Alex Ross (The New Yorker) participated in with Washingtonpost.com readers. The possibility of a live chat shows another way, in my opinion, in which newspapers can flourish in the future.

Readers who logged on both praised and criticized Ratliff’s and Ross’s work, and asked for their expertise in the state of today’s music.

I was naturally drawn to the questions and dilemmas I’ve encountered this fall while taking to New York’s musicians: whether the internet is helping jazz, whether audiences in other countries are more drawn to jazz, and whether the elitist position of jazz its limiting its own growth. Both critics addressed these questions to the best of their ability, but made it all the more obvious that if a clear answer existed, jazz would already have repaired itself.

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Jazzy Starbucks

November 7, 2007

Every so often, the sounds of jazz hit me in the face in the most unexpected places. Just a couple of days ago, as I was waiting my turn to order a Grande nonfat latte at Starbucks, Ella Fitzgerald’s Don’t Fence Me In sounded blissfully from an in-store sound system. I hadn’t given the coffee chain’s new monitor system much thought yet, but suddenly felt very appreciative that everyone in line was informed which song and artist was serenading them at that given moment. At the counter, I was handed a free download for a Herbie Hancock tune.

Starbucks’s jazz offerings may mostly consist of recycled and overplayed standards, but I appreciate that millions of latte drinkers can now put an album and an artist to each classic.

Yes, there might be a degree of sadness to the fact that classic American sounds now live on as itunes giveaway cards and background music to morning commuters. But I nevertheless appreciate this corporate giant’s efforts to keep names like Hancock part of the everyday dialogue of this country.

Besides, Sign On San Diego recently informed me that the coffee chain has also invested its funds to promote the work of eclectic, lesser-known new artists. Brazilian Ceu, who sings a mixture of reggae, jazz, Brazilian and pop, is one recent name to be brought to mainstream consciousness through Starbucks.

It’s a bold choice, and I’ll gladly have my coffee with that.

Links:

Sign on San Diego article