Is Richmond the new New York, or is it Neverland? Does the bloom of improvisational bands mark the transformation of a provincial backwater into a cutting-edge center of sustained innovation, or is it just an artifact of the economic meltdown, a sign of diminished career prospects in a decaying music industry, a safe haven with a built-in audience and low cost of living?
Or are these just the shiny and tarnished sides of the same coin?
If there's never been a better time to hear creative live music in Richmond, a good part of the credit goes to the Patchwork Collective, a mostly ad hoc organization started by recent jazz studies graduates from Virginia Commonwealth University with the idealistic goal to make Richmond a sustainable artistic and musical community. The original collective has mostly faded away, but its influence is still reflected in Dean Christesen's RVAjazz blog, in the ongoing experimental improvisatory recombination of players and instruments, and in particularly the breakthrough nonet Fight the Big Bull, led by one of Patchwork's founders, Matt White.
The band's accomplishments and collaborations with respected musicians, a profile on NPR's “Fresh Air,” a Downbeat review of the band's debut, “Dying Will Be Easy,” and its inclusion on a few high-profile “10 Best of the Year” lists, makes it Exhibit A in the case for Richmond as a nexus for new music. The Bull itself is at the center of an overlapping swarm of adventurous bands, including Ombak, No BS Brass Band, Glows in the Dark, the Great White Jenkins, Amazing Ghost, and Ilad. And at most, it's a single degree of separation from such long-established area ensembles as Bio Ritmo, the DJ Williams Projekt, Modern Groove Syndicate, the Oregon Hill Funk All Stars, Beast Wellington, and an inspiration for a rising tide of student bands.
Richmond's musical ferment is not an entirely new phenomenon. The Devil's Workshop Big Band blazed a similar path in 2002 and 2003, and Brian Jones has been composing and producing great projects for years. But compared with the past, fewer people are moving on to try their luck in New York. Whether this is because the Patchwork Collective was wildly successful or because New York, with cutthroat competition and shrinking opportunities, is no longer what it used to be, Richmond has achieved a graceful balance. Even if no one's getting rich, a lot of people are getting to play and it's a friendly and intersupporting market. In many ways it's a golden age.
There is, inevitably, a flaw in this semiparadise. VCU, the musician magnet and pump that is the source of most of the players and a fair portion of the audience, is still running full-bore. Every year brings a new class, every four years a new generation. They are fresh and ambitious, willing to play for the door or less to get experience and, with a welcoming local market, they might not be planning to go anywhere after graduation either.
It's an open secret that, for most, a fine-arts education is akin to rumspringa — Amish teenagers' adolescence — a parent-funded idyll for middle-class kids to stretch their shiny wings before an earthbound career in the economic hive. Until the world starts clamoring for more artists — or French, history or philosophy majors, for that matter — it's not so much vocational training as space camp.
Success in an artistic career is unpredictable; the brilliant or lucky make it big. Others find a way to make ends meet, often as the hard-working, underpaid adjunct faculty who are the heart and soul of the university. For the majority, creative expression becomes a life-enriching avocation.
Recently, on the RVAjazz blog, Fight the Big Bull saxophonist Jason Scott suggests the key reason that musical creativity has recently flourished in Richmond is because of the loss of Doug Richards as the head of the VCU Jazz studies program. While praising Richards' extraordinary, inspirational talent, Scott, says his demanding teaching style, which stresses developing musical vocabulary through mastery of fundamentals and tradition, left little time for a player to find his own voice. His replacement, Antonio Garcia, is courtly, cheerful and politically adept — the diametric opposite of his predecessor's dictatorial brilliance — and has shifted the program's center of gravity from Richards' perfectionist, finely honed student ensembles to the freer expression of extracurricular bands.
The new creativity comes at a price. Funk may be the new swing, but its complexity of syncopated patterns could gain something from the dancing ambiguity of the old-school pulse. There's visceral power in blistering solos that build to full-band blowouts that simultaneously evoke Charles Mingus and Black Sabbath, but the slower, quieter parts of the music tend toward the tentative and fragmented. Ballads, requiting sustained, lyrical control of tone and timbre, are rare. The music is crafted to fit the strengths of individual players, which is the same as saying it's written around their weaknesses.
Virtuosity is a virtue, but the real challenge is making a living. The best a university can do is document your academic qualifications for a creative life. Then, like the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” you're on your own. It doesn't matter if you've developed your own voice, or whether you've developed the vocabulary to have something to say. What matters is whether people will pay to listen.
At the Camel on April 5 the whole local scene seemed to come together. The club was filled with musicians, teachers, students, fans and families. Richards led a select group of students through demanding Ellington and Miles Davis charts with subtlety and verve. Then most of the members of this jewel box ensemble merged into the far larger, looser and louder student-led Richmond Jazz Collective.
The former and current VCU Jazz Studies students charged into their parts with conviction and passionate intensity. It is a brave thing to commit to such an ephemeral art. Music fills the air, and then it's gone. Every second matters — and nothing lasts. S
Peter McElhinney has been a music critic for Style Weekly since 1998. He has an extensive professional background in marketing and technology, and is chief operating officer for the planned Hard Rock Hotel Panama.