When bassist Christian McBride, host of the new National Public Radio show “Jazz Night in America,” was 9, his father played him the musically challenging John Coltrane album “Live in Seattle,” recorded in 1965 at the Penthouse, a long-gone Pioneer Square jazz club.
“Did I like it?” McBride asked rhetorically during his keynote address at the Jazz Connect conference in New York last week. “No. But when I was 11, I went back to listen again. By the time I was 14, I was in.”
If jazz lovers want the music to flourish and endure, McBride averred, they need to actively pass it on.
“Take a young person out to hear jazz,” he counseled. “Somebody probably did that for you.”
McBride’s pep talk typified the refreshing optimism of the third annual edition of the two-day conference, presented Jan. 8-9 by JazzTimes magazine and the networking group Jazz Forward Coalition.
Held on the Upper East Side at St. Peter’s Church, which makes jazz a part of its mission, Jazz Connect attracted 700-plus industry types and musicians. That’s not the kind of gathering we’re used to seeing in Seattle — the one time a big international jazz conference was scheduled here, in 2008, the thing went bankrupt before it started — but it’s still a good idea from time to time to check out what’s going on in the bellybutton of the jazz world, even if you live at its extremities.
One of the most enthusiastically embraced presentations came from NPR executive producer of music programming Anya Grundman, who talked about “Jazz Night in America,” a cooperative venture between NPR, New Jersey jazz station WBGO and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Now airing on more than 150 stations (likely including Tacoma NPR affiliate KPLU sometime this year, says general manager Joey Cohn) the weekly, hourlong show presents live recordings interspersed with artist interviews. On the Detroit segment, Motor City musicians Regina Carter (violin) and Rodney Whitaker (bass) perform at the Detroit Jazz Festival, but Carter also takes listeners on a tour of her old neighborhood.
“Jazz is all about stories,” said Grundman. “That’s how the heritage is passed on. That’s what (musicians) do in the dressing room. We’re going to the dressing room.”
A multiplatform project, “Jazz Night in America” airs on radio 52 times a year, but also offers 26 webcasts, HD video segments and links to NPR’s news stories. Everything can be accessed online, at npr.org/music.
McBride, a three-time Grammy winner who has played with everyone from Pat Metheny to Diana Krall, is a good choice as host. A warm bear of a man, he has a voice and smile as deep and capacious as his string bass.
He also has a sense of humor, a quality often lacking in the jazz world. At his keynote, he advised fans to “lighten up” about such thorns in their sides as the Twitter feed @jazzistheworst. (“If jazz sounds so good,” said one post, “why do we have to spend so much time explaining it?”)
“We can’t get mad, because we know some if it is true,” said the 42-year-old bassist. “So laugh!”
The theme of Jazz Connect was “Strength Through Community,” but the musical eruption that followed at the 11-year-old Winter Jazzfest Jan. 9-10 suggested that its real strength is diversity and fearless disrespect for boundaries.
More than 6,500 people swarmed into the little festival, often spilling into the streets in long lines, waiting — in 25 degree weather! — to hear one of 100 acts playing in 10 Greenwich Village venues.
At Judson Church, Northwest favorite Ingrid Jensen, on trumpet, conspired with electric keyboardist Jason Miles to create deep, soulful grooves burbling up from the stew Miles Davis boiled on “Bitches Brew.”
Over at Le Poisson Rouge, the mischievously iconoclastic Dutch Instant Composers Pool (ICP) traversed whimsically improvised art music, a theatrical “conduction” involving cellist Tristan Honsinger “playing” the back of his neck with his bow and a joyously swinging closer on the Kansas City classic “Moten Swing.”
A full mile divided the east perimeter of Jazz Winterfest from the west, where the Greenwich Village Music School hosted the diminutive powder keg of a vocalist Catherine Russell, who drew a through line from ’20s black Broadway to ’60s R&B.
At the Minetta Lane Theatre, precisely passionate drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and rumbling pianist Geri Allen whipped up probing, mysterious grooves with reed man David Murray, followed by Murray’s old compatriot from the World Saxophone Quartet, alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, who turned in a bright-toned, ceremoniously intense set with Trio Three, aided by pianist Vijay Iyer.
As satisfied fans dispersed into the icy Manhattan night, it was clear a lot of them were in their 20s and 30s. Had some uncle taken these “kids” out to hear jazz years ago? Or was it Winter Jazzfest itself, or the inviting new optimism broadcast by the jazz community that had drawn them in?
Hard to say, but McBride would have been pleased.