There have been some losses in the past decade -- the death of violinist/educator Joe Kennedy Jr.; the departure of strong local voices such as Howard Curtis, Rene Marie, Glenn Wilson and Daniel Clarke; the disappearance of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' jazz-rich Fast/Forward series and the more adventurous summer jazz festivals; the closing of the Carpenter Center and any number of jazz venues (most recently announced, the venerable Bogart's Back Room).
Kathy Panoff's Modlin Center series at the University of Richmond has picked up much of the slack, even if quirky/cool artists such as the Fort Apache Band and Dave Douglas are increasingly supplanted by more conventional, commercially savvy choices (Chick Corea, Regina Carter). The Richmond Jazz Society (performance meetings the second Tuesday of every month) and Doc Branch's Friday night gigs at Emilio's still are going strong, and new venues like Toad's Place and The National offer the potential, at least, to bring in interesting players.
Committed outsiders such as the Patchwork Collective, Ayman Fanous and New Loft/Hotel X bring in great but less conventional players Ken Vandermark, Mark Feldman and Marshall Allen, to name a few. In all, we have a healthy scene.
Plays Well With Others: B-
Richmond is playing catch-up with Charlottesville in competing for touring acts, but for its size, the city is strong in local talent. The reason is Virginia Commonwealth University, the elephant in the room if the elephant were likely to buy a building, tear it down and build a new dorm. The jazz program supported by the slow drip of the Singleton endowment attracts talent from around the state and country, and four years later pumps out degreed artists into an increasingly rich and crowded local market. The upside is that there is a ready audience here; the downside is that competition makes it difficult to earn a living as a musician. We're doing well with local talent but having a hard time keeping up with the Cavaliers.
Potential for Development: B
For all its faults, the city is an oasis, because outside is a desert. The music industry is in digital free fall, the market flooded with iPods and other MP3 players that hold more music than can be played in a year. It's an absurdly overbuilt capacity unless rampant copyright-infringement is factored in. With revenues dropping, major labels are releasing established artists into a market flooded with amateur products every mook with a computer can produce his or her own CD. (An admirably democratic development that would be an advance if the arts were egalitarian and talent was equitably distributed.) Meanwhile, university programs are preparing young artists as if aspiration were destiny and the law of supply and demand had been suspended. Fortunately we are grading on a curve.
If the market for music outside of Richmond is bleak, the problem is financial, not artistic. The pre-digital model of distribution and compensation may be failing, but as the local success of bands like Fight the Big Bull, No BS Brass Band, The Big Payback and others proves, there is still a hunger for music. Something new will take its place, and when it does, it is likely to crystallize out of a community supersaturated with talent and ambition, like Richmond. So the final grade is a 12-tone chord: every possibility present, none resolved.
Peter McElhinney, a Style Weekly critic for more than eight years, is chief operations officer for the Hard Rock Hotel, Panama project. He also participates in the Downbeat Jazz Critics poll.