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Jazz festival leaves out young fans

TWO VIEWS • The first Portland Jazz Festival drew visitors from 19 states but sparked a debate about how best to keep the event viable in the future

Bill Royston complains that jazz is losing its connection with younger audiences (Jazz fest riffs on young fans, Portland Life, Jan. 30).

I appreciate what he's trying to do with the Portland Jazz Festival, but are high teas and wine tastings really the forum for establishing a link with the 17- to 30-year-old music fan?

It seems to me it's not the younger audience losing touch with jazz, it's jazz losing touch with the younger audiences.

Jazz is not defined by age, race or economic position. It is true art. It is the American experience expressed sonically.

Jazz is about improvisation, experimentation and creation. It is American culture, whether you get it or not.

Jazz mimics the sound of everything from the frantic urban jungle to a mountain rainstorm, and every human emotion along the way. The very nature of jazz is mutation, taking a melody or rhythm and using it as a foundation for new and unique forms of musical expression.

Artists such as Medeski Martin and Wood, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and Hairy Apes BMX are on the forefront of 'new jazz,' blending elements of traditional jazz, funk, hip-hop, club, reggae and rock.

And always, improvisation is key. In essence, these groups are expressing the American experience and jazz in its purest form, and if you've ever been to any of their shows, you know the audience primarily consists of 18- to 30-year-olds.

Bands like the Grateful Dead crossed over several generations of listeners throughout the last 30-something years. By blending traditional roots music with modern elements and improvisation, its members turned thousands of otherwise unaware young people on to bluegrass, and continue to do so today.

The same is true for jazz. Through new jazz, young people will find the roots of it by default.

I completely support the Portland Jazz Festival, and as a former concert and event promoter, I know how hard it is to please everyone, especially corporate sponsors. I also know that if you produce an annual event and don't embrace your up-and-coming, younger audience, you're dead in the water. Maybe not this year or the next, but it will happen.

My suggestion to Royston is to bring together the old and the new in future jazz festivals, and reach out to a younger and economically modest audience (like myself) as well as the older and affluent crowd.

The New Orleans Jazz Fest operates on this model, and it is one of the most successful events in the nation.

Open your mind to what jazz truly is, and embrace the younger audience, or you will lose it. Jazz won't die, but the Portland Jazz Festival will.

They can have their high teas and wine tastings. Give me booty-shakin' and cold beer, and I'll be back next year.

Jason Self is a marketing executive with Lost Coast Communications. He lives in Eureka, Calif., but is in the process of relocating to Portland.