Hitting the Mark

Official genius Ken Vandermark wants to reach people who don't know they like jazz

First pressings of past V5 recordings have included bonus CDs with live versions of tunes written by such adventurous musicians as Coleman, Archie Shepp, Julius Hemphill and Anthony Braxton. With the new CD, the V5 offers early buyers another bonus disc, this time reinterpreting work from a musician usually identified with the jazz mainstream. "Sonny Rollins is incredibly overlooked as a member of the avant-garde," Vandermark says. "In the '50s and '60s, he was definitely as adventurous as Coltrane. If you really look at Rollins' work, he's as cutting-edge as anybody playing at that time. I thought, 'Why don't we reinvestigate this guy, take a look at these pieces that he wrote and see what they mean now?'"

Although Vandermark obviously knows and respects jazz history, he doesn't have much interest in musicians who simply recycle older styles. "I see things like the Lincoln Center jazz ensemble as being like the Dixieland revival of the '50s, going back and investigating music of the past. I kind of ignore that stuff, because I don't see that as connected to what jazz is supposed to be: playing the music of your time."

Eschewing the traditional circuit of jazz clubs and festivals, the V5 instead has found sympathetic ears among young listeners weaned on underground rock, free improvisation and electronic music. "There's a lot of cross-pollination going on in these scenes below the mass media radar," Vandermark notes. "When we go out on tour, a lot of the audience is in their twenties and thirties. I hear things like 'I hate jazz, but this stuff is really cool.' The perception they have is that jazz music is dead -- it's like going to a museum you don't want to go to. That perception is compounded by the way the media presents it.

Saxophonist, composer and official genius Ken Vandermark
Saxophonist, composer and official genius Ken Vandermark

"The Ken Burns series [of PBS documentaries] is a perfect example," he continues. "I can't imagine anybody who's not already interested in the music watching that and then wanting to go out and hear jazz."

Using a booking agency that usually works with rock bands, Vandermark is determined to take his music to venues frequented by open-minded younger listeners. The V5's current tour includes rock clubs and alternative performance spaces in Toronto; Montreal; Boston; New York; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Washington, D.C.; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Atlanta; Lexington, Kentucky; and Indianapolis. (Alas, a tour-ending St. Louis show scheduled for the Way Out Club has been canceled because of "problems with the local promoter," in Vandermark's words.)

"Anybody who is actively curious about music can get to what I'm doing, because it's music that has something to say in a passionate way," Vandermark concludes. "They may not understand the history of it, but it speaks to them."

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