PresidentS' letters


by Todd Stoll

Let’s talk about “community.” Google defines community as a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. Additionally, it is a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

When I was young, about 11 or 12 years old, my father regularly took me to hear the local symphony orchestra in my hometown of Springfield, OH. He loved it so much he eventually became a volunteer and then a board member. I joined the youth orchestra and began studying privately with the principal trumpet player, who is still a friend 45 years later. What was most memorable about all of those evenings was not the music itself, which was glorious, but the experience of going backstage after a concert. There was something palpable I could feel – something was swirling between the musicians and other the adults. I knew I didn’t have access to whatever it was, but I knew I wanted to be part of that thing that was happening.

Nearly a decade later as a 20 year-old music student driving to my gig as a sub in a faculty brass quintet, I remember having that same feeling as I interacted with the older faculty members. They talked, teased, argued about recordings and conductors, and generally had a boisterous good time for the two-hour drive. It has dawned on me that “thing” I could not define, that I longed for, that was so compelling was community.

Last month in New Orleans, our jazz community was on full and glorious display. For those few days in early January, thousands of members of our community — the jazz community — came together from all corners of our nation and the world in the spirit of our music. There were performances, presentations, workshops, inspirational moments, exhibits, horns being tested, colleges recruiting, bands representing, many late nights (and just as many early mornings), crowded rooms, great food, and fellowship. Sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals, even considering our philosophical and stylistic differences and after much rhetorical debate, our commonalities were more apparent than our differences.

Dave Brubeck and Charlie Parker stood side-by-side with a brass band second line which was filled with high school kids from Utah as a big band from New Zealand warmed up and an educator from Lima, Peru presented about jazz and early-childhood. A jazz legend from Cuba made kids from Houston smile and dance while a room full of trumpet players spilled into the hallway and the “tips for touring artists” presentation ran into an all-women’s trad band which inspired a high school band from New England. It was swinging, stomping, funky, high minded and lowbrow all at once, or as Duke Ellington once said, it encompassed “all levels of human discourse.

Tough topics were addressed — equity and inclusion, implicit bias, racial tension at jazz festivals, jazz and social justice, gender, race, and our own privilege. And it was not perfect. At times it was messy and uncomfortable, with a hint of dysfunction. “How does the sound work on this projector?” “Why is this room so small?” “Why is my shower cold?” But it was glorious. It was the community of jazz, with all of our scrapes and scars, triumphs and tragedies, together in a sacred place. And that place — the cradle of our music — brings to light some of the best of our aspirations about diversity, celebration, legacy, and our future, all in one place.

With all that, here is the 2020 JEN Conference by the numbers, motivation for the next 11 months until January 2021 in Louisville. We welcomed:

• 3500 attendees
• 20 countries represented
• 150 exhibitors
• 135 clinic sessions and research presentations
• 80 school group performances
• 40 national acts

This was the largest conference in our 11-year history and perhaps our most widely shared, documented, and discussed. Why? It was an alluring and mercurial mix of location, diversity, content, and timing.

It is time for our community to claim the birthright of our music, the excellence and sophistication therein, redefine our national mythology, embrace the ascension of our cultural legacy, and address the issues of our modern society. In these divided times, our arts call us home to a better understanding of ourselves, each other, and our place in relation to all.

Thank you all for coming. And for those of you who stayed home, don’t miss the next one!