Members of the Pittsburgh jazz community represent at this year’s Jazz Connect Conference | Local Beat | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Members of the Pittsburgh jazz community represent at this year’s Jazz Connect Conference

“Expanding the audience for jazz, that’s always the true motif or theme.”

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Attracting a Younger Audience. The State of the Album in 2016. Adele. 

Two of those three topics were covered in panel discussions at the Jazz Connect Conference 2016 early last month in New York City. But even the British pop star’s name frequently popped up when discussing album sales and runaway hits, usually in the same breath as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that features several jazz musicians. 

While the music industry is supposedly dying, jazz is alive and well.

Taking place at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, Jazz Connect marked its fourth year, bringing together musicians, promoters and journalists for two days of discussions, key-note addresses and a screening of Jaco, the documentary on the late bassist Jaco Pastorius. 

Lee Mergner, publisher of JazzTimes magazine (full disclosure: I’m a contributing writer), co-organizes the conference, along with the Jazz Forward Coalition. It initially launched under the umbrella of a larger industry conference hosted by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP). Now Jazz Connect happens independently of the larger group. 

Mergner observes that some of these same panel topics have been part of the dialogue for years. All that’s changed is background. “Expanding the audience for jazz, that’s always the true motif or theme,” he says. “Since there’s seismic changes in this industry — like a lot of industries — it’s much more grassroots now because … there are whole parts that are [gone, such as] store chains, retail.”

Pittsburgh had representation at the conference. Janis Burley Wilson, of Pittsburgh Jazzlive and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, sat on the “Youth Movement” panel. MCG Jazz’s Marty Ashby moderated a panel on how artists can engage communities with education models. 

The directors of Kente Arts Alliance, which presents concerts locally, also attended, looking for ways to build their audience. Gail Austin, Kente’s managing director, enjoyed the event but observed that the conference attendees skewed more toward a white, middle-aged demographic. “On the business end, it’s a very non-African-American experience, and I find that very disappointing,” she says. “These are well-meaning people and they’re good at what they do. But the people whose music it came from are really underrepresented.”


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