A glorious weekend in New Orleans – Report from the JEN Conference
New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, what better place to celebrate 100 years of recorded jazz and the eighth annual gathering of the Jazz Education Network (JEN). Thousands of jazz students, teachers, professionals, supporters, and audiences gathered on Wednesday, January 4 in the Hyatt Regency in New Orleans in anticipation of a glorious weekend of non-stop performances, clinics, research sessions, a large exhibit hall, and of course excursions to the French Quarter and the many entertainment options in the city. Getting to perform and/or present at the conference is a highly competitive process with presenters chosen by expert committees from hundreds of submissions. In addition, the conference features a jazz festival component with school ensembles getting performance critiques from world-class musicians as well as various scholarships and awards and of course the late night jam sessions. Here is the complete schedule – of course this year’s line-up was heavy on New Orleans legacy artists, the Marsalis family, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Astral Project, and many more. This video recap provides some impressions.
For me, it’s usually a whirlwind of activities as I’m involved as a board member and head of the research committee as well as coordinator of the pro jam sessions. When the applications come in by March 31, my committee selects about 30 presentations and 20 poster presentations for the conference. This year we also added a Wikithon where participants created entries on Women in Jazz for Wikipedia. Then for the first week of January we have board meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, launch the conference on Wednesday afternoon and close with board meetings on Sunday morning. Even though there is very little time to sleep it’s a beautiful and uplifting week with old and new friends and inspiring new ideas and music.
Here are some of my highlights:
Tuesday, January 3 – New Orleans activist Eric Cager facilitated an event celebrating the legendary Chitlin Circuit for touring and the clubs associated with the circuit. This event celebrated the memories of the Dew Drop Inn at the Prime Example Jazz Club where I got to present conversations with legendary Blues artist Little Freddie King and R&B artist/ entrepreneur Henry Turner jr. Chris Parker was able to capture some special moments – especially my surprise reunion with vocalist Arlee Leonard.
Wednesday, January 4 – As I sit down for my first event, a panel discussion on the music industry, I realize that the tall lady next to me looks familiar. It’s Sabine Kuehlich, an incredible vocalist/ saxophonist from Germany – now professor at the University of Maastricht and previous winner of the Montreux Jazz Festival Vocal Competition. I had met her years ago at a different conference and had her previous release with Sheila Jordan. We get to chat, then go for a coffee together with her boss and Dean of the Jazz Department at the University of Maastricht, Sigrid Paans. The leadership of those two ladies is VERY inspiring and I enjoyed our conversations very much.
Thursday, January 5 – Many IU faculty, students, alumns, and friends came together to pay tribute to our own David Baker who we lost on March 26 this year. The gathering organized by African-American Caucus President Trineice Robinson featured a video tribute, three musical selections, and commentary by Jamey Aebersold and John Hasse. Lida Baker sat in the front row on the edge of her seat, fingers clenched, soaking in the music and the complimentary words and the room was packed with many who’s life was touched by David’s work. Even though it took five years of work, countless hours of writing grants and contacting people, and many collaborators, I’m forever grateful that I had the courage to say yes when the opportunity arose to put together a book on David Baker’s life and work. Even if I go tomorrow, I know that I was able to make a very important contribution.
Friday, January 6 – That day was absolutely jam-packed with activities and they all were special! The highlights were our panel on supporting women in jazz and the editathon for Wikipedia. The research poster sessions were also a huge success – here is a taste. During our panel discussion we created a list of options for supporting young female players in the classroom, such as having everyone take solos instead of taking volunteers, dimming the lights so the soloist is anonymous, including non-traditional jazz instruments in the ensembles, and similar. Hopefully this JEN committee will become a great resource – some exciting initiatives to come!
Saturday, January 7 – Professor of Music Education at Georgia State University, Martin Norgaard, presented on his research on brain activity during improvisation. His work and results are fascinating, one of the take-aways: we think less when we improvise and how about starting band rehearsals in the morning with some improvisational activities rather than the warm-ups and reading pieces while the brain is still waking up. The evening concerts closed with a set by trumpeter Sean Jones – what an amazing composer and what a tight band. It’s rare now to have groups work together for extended periods of time due to economics but he has managed to keep his group together for 10 years and it shows! And of course, it was a real privilege to get to play with his bassist on the very last song at the Pro Jam before the conference formally ended. Here are a few live moments from the set.
Sunday, January 8 – Instead of board meetings with exhausted members, our fantastic president Caleb Chapman organized a brunch and private concert for us at Preservation Hall. It was a great way to close the week with the super-swinging and entertaining Preservation Hall Jazz Band and exchanging thoughts with the crew throughout brunch. Of course, the ladies had to go for a shopping spree in the French Quarter – after all we’re in New Orleans! Let me know if you think I should get those glasses, everyone thought the frames are a perfect match. In any case, this yearly gathering is one of the most important community-building and educational tools in the jazz world. The next conference is January 3-6 at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas – if you never experienced a JEN conference, consider the option very soon – a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.