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Josh Grossman, dressed in a black suit and shirt and brown shoes, sits with his legs crossed in a metal chair, holding a trumpet. Sheets of music scores are scattered on the floor by his feet.
Josh Grossman. Photo by Diane Aubie

Can Radiohead Be Jazz?

Toronto Jazz Festival’s Josh Grossman wants audiences to open their ears to something new

My wife calls me a music snob. She’s probably right.

Music is my life: it’s what I studied, it’s what I do, it’s one of my great loves. I think there is such a thing as “good” music and “bad” music. And, in my role as artistic director for Toronto Downtown Jazz (which produces the annual TD Toronto Jazz Festival), it’s my job to weed out the “good” from the “bad,” and decide what will work best in the festival context. This sometimes gets me into trouble. At times I’ve booked acts, thinking they sound great, without paying attention to how the music might resonate with the audience. I often feel that musicians who push artistic boundaries – and who challenge their audience are more exciting than those whose chief goal is to entertain. If artists don’t push, art cannot progress. So how do we keep audience members interested if their comfort levels are being stretched?

In my mind, entertaining an audience means ensuring that they enjoy themselves. (“You’ll laugh, you’ll cry” – that sort of thing.) Engaging an audience, on the other hand, means drawing them in – guaranteeing that they’ll like the experience itself, if not what they experience. As part of my job, I sometimes book, present and produce concerts featuring music that may not entertain me – I may not choose to listen to it at home, for example. But the music I book always engages me in some way: it’s expertly performed, the musicians take a minute to explain what’s going on, or they simply seem to be enjoying themselves.

Challenging an audience is one thing, but I don’t expect a musician to reinvent the form. At last year’s jazz festival, I figured I had hit a home run with a show featuring a soloist playing interesting original compositions in front of a standing- room-only crowd. I was therefore a bit deflated when a colleague suggested he hadn’t liked the show because some other musician has been doing the same thing for many years and, in my colleague’s opinion, did it better.

Can you imagine if Vincent van Gogh had been told, “Vince, your work is nice, but people have been painting for years . . . ” In music, all of the notes have already been composed, played and heard – there are, after all, only so many notes to go around. So if a musician is playing interesting music and drawing in a new audience, why should it matter

In the jazz world, there is an ongoing debate about what is or isn’t jazz. As a music insider, I get some sick stimulation from it all. But, I’m pretty sure outsiders are turned off by all the navel-gazing.

Last December, my big band – the Toronto Jazz Orchestra – presented an evening of Radiohead music arranged for big band. If I had tried to sell the evening to a big band purist, I might have had a hard time. But the arrangements were top notch, the soloists were on fire, the band sounded great, and the club was packed (a lineup out the door!) with people who would have been unlikely to attend an evening of Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman. Would Ken Burns call it jazz? Who cares! It met all of the criteria for a great night of music.

If I’m moved by art, I don’t care if “it’s not really jazz,” or “it’s not really post-modernism” or “it’s not really eroticism.” (Wait, what?) The point is, I’ve been moved. For the love of art, let’s get away from the nitpicking and concentrate on engaging the people who come to see what we do, and who may want to see what we do.

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” I’m fairly certain he was kidding. To me, art performed alone is just notes on a page (or paint on a canvas). It takes an engaged audience to bring it to life.

Listen to the Toronto Jazz Orchestra perform two original compositions by Josh Grossman. The tracks are from the TJO’s most recent CD, The Path (2009), available at CD Baby or iTunes.

“Chazz” by Josh Grossman

“The Path” by Josh Grossman

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