The City of Pittsburgh has played a vital role in the genre of Jazz since the 1930s and ’40s. It was so prevalent in the Golden Triangle that the Hill District became known as “Little Harlem” in the 1930s and 1940s. As a result, numerous clubs popped up in Pittsburgh that helped boost the emergence of Bebop.
“The Jazz scene changed from a few clubs and a few concerts and festivals to something big they became the life’s blood of the genre,” said Nathan Davis, renowned jazz musician and educator. The tenor and soprano saxophonist has been a professor of music and director of Jazz studies at The University of Pittsburgh since 1969.
“People back in the day toured and played songs for like six months. The songs were tight and the record they released was well received. There were so many good Jazz musicians,” Davis continued.
However, in recent years, the once-prominent music genre has lost some of its luster in the city and in the music world overall.
“In the 1930s Swing music was the pop music of the day,” Davis recalls. “In the 1940s we had Bebop and when that came in, it turned people off. That hurt Jazz because you eliminated half of your audience. I think that nowadays Jazz has a snobby appeal, which we have to get away from. Jazz artists today have to realize that they are only as good as your audience.”
Prior to his years as a Pitt Jazz professor, Davis traveled the world performing Jazz in such faraway places as Paris, France; Belgium and Germany.
Fusion Drummer Billy Cobham feels that a lack of support and venues are two problems that plague the genre.
“A lack of support as in sponsoring from public or private sectors is one problem. A lack of performance platforms in the guise of venues for American Jazz artists can physically present their ideas,” Cobham said. “This means that not only does a Jazz musician have no place to perform on a regular basis, there is very little interest in presenting the music on radio or any other media vehicle save for what the artist can organize for his or her self.”
Cobham, who has called Switzerland home for more than two decades, began playing drums at an early age. He came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s with fellow musician, trumpeter, Miles Davis. He then performed with the Mahavishru Orchestra. He started blending jazz, rock and punk and recorded with the Brecker Brothers before returning to record and tour exclusively with Miles Davis.
But times have changed in the world of jazz. Things have become more competitive.
“The Internet is the only way that I can see to make any head-way on the personal level for the individual artist, whether they express themselves through any other artistic platform,” Cobham said. “In other words, we, as artists have finally arrived at the point where WE must take the reins and promote ourselves by using our God-given talents to get us through,” Cobham said.
Davis agrees with his friend and colleague’s assessment of the individual artist.
“Artists have got to reach the people. A musician has to play music that people like; you have to play music for these kids and make them like your music. The musicians have to make an effort,” Davis said.
Both Davis and Cobham see uncertainty in jazz’s future.
“Musicians need greater opportunities for work! Europe is far more respectful of artists for their abilities in comparison to the USA. For confirmation of this one does not have to look very far, just compare the numbers for support when it comes to public funding both nationally and in local government,” Cobham said.
Davis said that selective advertising is another problem that saddles the genre.
“There is a certain kind of prejudice that happens in the advertising world. In Europe—Belgium and Germany—I’d make four-hour specials. The music had to be 50 percent live done in the studio and that gave the musician the chance to get their music out there. People would request it. But in America, it’s all controlled by the record company,” Davis said.
Despite the uphill battle, both musicians continue to press on for the love of the music.
Davis recently released an album on iTunes and Cobham splits his artistic and musical endeavors between Europe and the Middle East working with artists and musicians who hail from diverse parts of the world. He also works as a photographer and will be publishing his first book of images soon.
He will also be launching the Billy Cobham Drum School thorough ArtistWorks in early December.
The drum school is an online initiative that allows students to study with Cobham from a curriculum designed personally by Cobham.
(This is the first of a series of Courier articles on the plight of jazz in Pittsburgh and the country.)