Jazz Ghosts and Yellowjackets

Jazz is truly a unique form of music, the hallmark of which is improvisation. But this article is not about what sets jazz apart from other forms of popular music. Instead, we focus on what it has in common with all popular music.

No, it is not melody, harmony and rhythm; it is the need for an audience. Yes, many musicians play music for the love of it, but let’s face it, if you are going to dedicate your life to making music, you need an audience. You can be a virtuoso and possess a compelling stage presence, but for better or worse, you need to have an audience, and they better dig what you do, so you can have a career, or you need a back-up plan, usually a day job.

Ah, the commercial side of things. How mundane and disappointing, but so important! In the 18th century, Franz Joseph Haydn was fortunate to connect with the wealthy royal Esterhazy family; he found patrons that provided him lifetime employment as a composer. Today, you need loyal (not royal) support — an audience that sticks with you.

FINDING AN AUDIENCE

So how do dedicated, talented musicians find and keep their audience? If you Google “finding your audience music,” you will get more than 19,000,000 entries of sure-fire, can’t-miss self-help guides and advice. Let’s say you are one of the fortuitous ones: You have the talent and perseverance to succeed, and you connect with like-minded, great musicians to form a band that rises to the top. Long odds, but doable, right?

Every day new names and faces, playing “new and old” music, enter our consciousness and vie for our attention in the hyper-competitive world of music. We marvel at their talent as they entertain us, and if they are truly special, they can have more than 15 minutes of fame, but it is extremely hard to stay at the top.

And yet for graying audiences, nostalgia is a powerful emotion and the number of bands that have lived off the glory of their past is testament to the powerful desire to reconnect with our youth. But to live off the past, you first need to have been very successful at building an audience — no past, no future.

In jazz, there are the “ghost bands” — the leader is deceased, but the band carries on in his name. Glen Miller went missing more than 70 years ago, but the band plays on. So, too, for the Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Harry James ghost bands and many, many more. And, of course, there are the innumerable tribute bands that play the music of (insert the name of your favorite deceased jazz musician).

But we live in the here and now, and the question is: How does a successful jazz band keep its audience?

YELLOWJACKETS KEEP EVOLVING

For the answer we turn our attention to the Yellowjackets, the iconic, multiple Grammy Award-winning jazz quartet that has flourished over a 35-year period, recording 22 albums, while successfully touring the world and enjoying unparalleled critical acclaim — quite a run for a band, jazz or otherwise.

Founding member Russell Ferrante on piano and keys anchors the band. Bob Mintzer is on saxophone and joined the band 25 years ago. William “Will” Kennedy holds down the drum and percussion throne, having had two stints with the band — 1987 to 1999 and 2010 to present. And the newest addition is Australian bass player Dane Alderson, who joined the band in 2015.

So how have the Yellowjackets been able to stay on top all these years? By combining extraordinary musicianship with superb new compositions, while performing music that spans the worlds of jazz — straight ahead and smooth, R&B, funk, fusion and more — the band has continued to successfully reinvent itself, thereby staying connected to its fan base while continuously attracting new fans. Quite a feat!

As for the band’s name: Pressed to come up with a catchy name during the band’s first recording session, Russell Ferrante recalls being presented with a list of “just awful” names. Forced to pick one, the band members agreed upon Yellowjackets since it seemed to communicate “something lively, energetic and something with a ‘sting.’ That’s really about as deep as it went. Once you choose a name, you’re stuck with it.”

While the name has stayed the same for 35 years, the music keeps on evolving, allowing the Yellowjackets the opportunity to take their audience to new and compelling musical places. The Yellowjackets will appear at the Vilar Performing Arts Center on Wednesday at 7:30 pm. You won’t want to miss this opportunity to be part of the audience to see and hear this great band!

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which is partnering with the Vilar Performing Arts Center to present the Yellowjackets in concert.