Out of the 83 GRAMMY Award categories this year, only five are devoted specifically to jazz.
The the uniquely American music rich in improvisation and imbued with soul is largely overshadowed at the glitzy star-studded event by more mainstream music such as pop, rap, rock, rhythm and blues and even country.
But while many of today’s teens may load up their iPods with Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus tunes, there is also a new generation of jazz enthusiasts who are grooving to greats like trumpeter Miles Davis and bassist Ron Carter, while adding their own touches to the music and as they influence its evolution into the future.
Paul Contos, a music educator who directs the SFJAZZ and national Next Generation jazz orchestras, said many of the same musicians who go to GRAMMY Camp are also accepted into the Next Generation group.
“We know the majority of kids are into rap and stuff like that, but these kids are definitely into jazz,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of tours with these all-star groups and on the bus they’re listening to classic jazz recordings of all the greats, but they’re also coming up with the new stuff. And it’s an exciting process to see.”
Some Bay Area teens selected to participate in GRAMMY Camp this year had varying views about how to honor the history of jazz and keep it alive, while also making the music relevant to their generation.
For example, the two bass players selected for GRAMMY Camp — who are also both in the SFJAZZ orchestra — play very differently, in part due to their tastes, influences, experiences and personalities, Contos said. He described Kanoa Mendenhall, a Richmond resident who attends the NOVA Independent School in Novato, as “a wonderful person,” “precocious,” “quiet,” and “very mature.”
Mendenhall was selected as last year’s GRAMMY Combo bassist and is this year’s bass player for the GRAMMY Camp band. Contos described Max Schwartz, a Berkeley High student who is the GRAMMY Combo bassist this year, as “a treat.”
“He’s an energetic, focused, demonstrative young man,” Contos said. “He’s just got a great spirit.”
Mendenhall and Schwartz agreed that they come from different schools of bass.
“He comes more from a Ray Brown style and I come more from a Ron Carter style,” said Mendenhall, 17. “I pretty much accept all different areas of jazz, but I really like the old type of jazz as well. That’s what I’m really working on right now, just to get my foundation. I think it’s really important to learn all the masters because that’s where jazz came from and I think it’s better to focus on that rather than delving into today’s music.”
Mendenhall said she’s listening to “post-50s bee-boppish piano trios,” but not so much to Dixieland or swing big bands. Schwartz, who also plays bluegrass music, said most people his age are into more contemporary music.
“They’re more obsessed with modern music, with modern musicians, with everybody new,” he said. “So to me, it’s a dying breed of musicians who strive for authenticity.”
Schwartz said he tries to learn as much as he can from the masters who pioneered the music, but is most interested in what was “game-changing.”
Trombonist Lindsay Dobbs, 17, of San Mateo, said she wants to incorporate different kinds of music into jazz, such as R&B, funk and neo-soul, which she described as a gospel soul sound with a jazz influence. Dobbs said she likes neo-jazz from Los Angeles and contemporary jazz groups such as Snarky Puppy.
“I think contemporary jazz is really interesting because it’s so complex,” Dobbs said. “I think a lot of people would hear it and they wouldn’t know what to call it because it doesn’t sound like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.”
Jazz vocalist Joshua Tazman, 16, of San Francisco, said he’s a fan of “crossover jazz pop” music by artists such as Stevie Wonder. Tazman said he wants to help bring jazz to his generation by transforming it from what it has been in the past into something new.
“I feel like my contribution to jazz is going to be to move it forward into a new era,” Tazman said. “It’s clear that jazz is losing popularity, but I think it means we need to innovate.”
How do you think jazz will evolve?