Some Thoughts on Jazz in Tallahassee
Tallahassee, Florida – 2/4/11
Barry Stephenson’s rambling, joyful performance at B-Sharp’s Jazz Café last Saturday got me thinking about the state of jazz in Tallahassee, and about why the jazz community here is so unique.
The jazz scene in Tallahassee is like the national scene in the early to mid-1940s, when many working musicians were drafted, forcing bandleaders to replace them with younger, inexperienced players. The fact that there are so few adult professional musicians around the city means that jazz students (mainly from Florida State, but also from Florida A&M) are hired for high-profile gigs. Thus, Tallahassee is one of the last bastions of “learning on the bandstand”, an old rite of passage that has disappeared from the jazz world at large.
Jazz musicians have used performance as an educational tool since the earliest days of the music. It’s a hard way to learn, one that has destroyed as many young artists as it has produced. Experienced band mates often shout harsh adviceduring performances, and consistency is instilled in young musicians by repeated embarrassment⎯a person can only do something incorrectly in public a limited number of times before they either improve or quit. “Learning on the bandstand” as a method of vocational training has been dying out for a few decades, and is beginning to look like a dusty relic of jazz’s folk music past.
Today’s professional jazz musicians have good reason not to take chances with inexperienced younger players: why hire a kid when there are so many seasoned professionals languishing in underemployment? The high-end performance opportunities that do appear in today’s competitive jazz market are given to the extremely precocious⎯think Roy Hargrove or Esperanza Spaulding. Promising but gradual talents like Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon, both of whom were touring with legendary artists before their own skills had fully developed, would go unnoticed and jobless today.
Modern jazz students, rather than going on tour, go to college. After four or five years, they emerge as faceless practice-room virtuosos, fit only for studio work. The young musicians who produce the majority of Tallahassee’s improvised music have managed to avoid the assembly line mentality that has stifled the creativity of so many of their peers. Instead, they’re trained by means of an intense and relatively personalized curriculum that includes regular doses of public performance. The best of them begin to develop personalities on their instruments.
Students in Tallahassee gig frequently partly because of local jazz educators’ unusual generosity⎯professors at FSU and FAMU frequently use their students on their own gigs⎯and partly because there’s no one else around. Tallahassee is unusual among cities in that it lacks freelance jazz musicians, and is isolated enough from hubs like Atlanta and Miami to prevent regular visits by artists looking for work. All of this means that the city is wide open to young musicians, and it’s not unusual for a twenty year old to have top billing at B Sharp’s Jazz Café, Tallahassee’s premiere jazz club. It’s heartening to hear so much new jazz performed by young people, all of whom are struggling to find their voices in the glare of the spotlight.