It's been a hard road for jazz since Miles Davis nodded off. After serving as America's sweetheart for half a century, the mortality rate of jazz fans has dwarfed the birth rate.
Possibly it suffered from its own imagination. An art that prides itself on unpredictability would, eventually, out-imagine its audience. Or worse, as seen with commercial smooth jazz, fall into a bland, esoteric exercise.
“Jazz has been over-romanticized and turned into some lofty, weird smoothness that it isn't. It's just simple expression,” says Brian Haas, pianist/organist for the Tulsa, Okla. band, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.
JFJO is one of the many young bands leading a jazz resurgence. Guitarist Charlie Hunter, with whom JFJO often tours, was the first jazz star to win over a young, hip audience in the '90s. Then, groove jazz artists like Medeski, Martin and Wood, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, and Soulive-all of whom emphasize rhythm over experimentation-saw 20-something bohemes show up in droves. Jacob Fred is the wildcard of this movement-informed as much by Jimi Hendrix and the Tulsa punk scene as by Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus.
“It's just kind of the way the universe works... in cycles,” Haas suggests about a jazz comeback. It seems like people are waking up to their own artistic sides and waking up to their own creativity. So people are naturally hungry for creative, improvised, imaginative forms of expression.”
Haas, whose virtuosity on the Rhodes organ and acoustic piano has been hailed as JFJO's signature, also thanks radio. Not that jazz gets much radio play (San Diego has one economically-challenged FM station), but both adult alternative and rock stations have bored people into exploration.
“People are getting tired of hearing the same exact shit on the radio all the time-they're finally getting burned out,” he says. “I mean, dig what happened to rock music in the '90s-it just took on this homogenous, alternative rock kind of thing where you can't really tell one band from another.
“What do all high school kids crave?” he asks, answering his own question with “individuality”-a trait that's hard to find on commercial radio. Haas notes that their fastest growing fan base is from age 15 to 25.
“Young kids especially are craving something new and exciting that spins them out and disorients them,” he says. “They want their nervous system to be stimulated.”
When JFJO started eight years ago, Tulsa youths were getting their nervous systems stimulated by the punk scene. Having played classical piano since he was 4, Haas and his bassist, Reed Mathis, originally formed a seven-piece band. It featured a horn section, used electronics and even a few MCs, as heard on their 1999 album, Welcome Home. While the music was still influenced by Coltrane and Coleman, Haas says, “we had guys in the band getting drunk and running around in their underwear and shit. It had a juvenile quality.”
Haas and Mathis started playing occasionally as a trio with drummer Sean Layton-to great response. Slowly, members quit or were asked to leave. Finally, after switching to Jason Smart on drums, JFJO became the trio heard on this year's All is One: Live in New York City (recorded at the Knitting Factory). “As it moved from the funky kinda party thing into the spiritual, kinda psychedelic, chakra-oriented music, we watched our crowd change drastically,” Haas explains, noting that their audience is split between the jam band crowd and fans of jazz and experimental music. “[But] we've held some of the same people over the nation who just love the weirdness of it.”
As a trio, they're reaping the most accolades. They're nominated for a 2002 Jammy award in the “New Groove” category. US News and World Report recently rated the band the No. 1 New Jazz Stars in America.
Haas says it's not rocket science-it's just a little invention, crowd interaction and pure energy. “We challenge ourselves every single night to make up things onstage. We let the audience come up with a name of a tune and then we just improvise based on that theme,” he explains. “And it really helps people see what jazz is. We're really taking the mystery out of it.”
He tells of a night in Los Angeles, where a young kid yelled out, “Do something on prehistoric birds!”
“I said, ‘OK, this improvisation is called ‘Prehistoric Flying Birds' and the audience kinda chuckled, but they also hunkered down and gathered in close to the stage. They're like, ‘OK... How are they going to make some prehistoric birds for me now?' We just make the stuff up and actually take risks, which, to me, is what jazz is always about-primal, raw expression.”