My Turn

Some Media Events Are Best Lived Live

6/05/2007 4:42 AM

Last week in this space, Tom Steinert-Threlkeld laid out the case for the supremacy of the high-definition home theater. (“It’s Clear: HD Home Theater Will Rule.”) I agree most Hollywood movies are better seen on TV than on the big screen, where their flaws are overly exposed, and also agree the home experience is much more convenient and efficient than traveling to a mall-plex or local popcorn-and-Twizzlers emporium where you can’t switch channels or pop in a new DVD whenever you feel like it.

But I recently was swept up in a mass-media happening that lured me out of my comfy TV room and drew me uptown to an actual live performance, in the highest definition. It made me rethink the formula a little, especially as it was all in the pursuit of … Culture. Not commerce. Other than a $25 concert ticket.

It all started on May 18, when the Columbia University radio station, WKCR-FM, began a marathon broadcast of the music of Sam Rivers, a jazz musician, composer and bandleader. I didn’t know Rivers’s music at all, but kept listening after I heard the plan was to play his entire discography.

The man is 83 years old. He played in Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra. He’s made a lot of records over 60 plus years.

The festival – basically Rivers’s free-form jazz, along with occasional DJ commentary and a few interviews – ran a full week. A hundred seventy seven hours. Through trios, large ensembles and multiple instruments (saxophones, piano, flute, etc.) it went on and on. You could dip into and out of it from anywhere in the world, via broadband and Wkcr.org.

When cable networks program marathons, it’s often to get higher ratings over the weekend (think Monk on USA) or to fan the excitement over, say, a new season of Project Runway on Bravo. Radio stations will program hours that way to honor a musician’s birthday or his or her passing.

What was “Sam Rivers Radio” building toward?

A modest jazz concert.

On Friday, May 25, after Rivers did an on-air interview on WKCR with HOST NAME, Rivers performed. He played multiple instruments (see above) with former bandmates Dave Holland on bass and Barry Altschul on drums. The concert was held at Miller Theater on Columbia’s New York City campus, a 700-seat venue.

Given the weeklong radio promotion, and given that Rivers hadn’t worked with those well-known sidemen for years, and that Rivers himself lives in Florida, you’d think the performance would sell out.

But no, WKCR said some tickets would be for sale at the door, so uptown I went. There was a long line on the sidewalk, but there were tickets. So in I went and listened from the balcony. “It’s the most inspiring experience, that’s all I can say,” the slight, soft-spoken Rivers said on stage before beginning a performance Variety reviewer David Sprague called “a portrait of an artist whose restless streak still leads him to surprising vistas.”

If this were a more commercial enterprise, say a cable network, how might it have been handled differently?

The concert could have been endlessly plugged during the radio festival, instead of the low-key commentary handled by the station’s disk jockeys.

The concert could (and probably should) have been streamed live over the Internet, barring rights issues.

The concert could have been heavily sponsored, commercialized, filmed, merchandised.

Instead, it was recorded but not broadcast or streamed, though it’s likely to be heard on WCKR at some point. That has been the case with all of Rivers’s music, according to Phil Schaap, who hosts a morning jazz show on the station and who heard the same San Rivers trio perform in the 1970s.

The station has been doing such marathons – some much longer, involving much better known musicians – since 1970, Schaap said. Partly as listener training: “One [reason] is a realization from our educational bent that repeated listening from a closed time frame is useful for expanding enthusiasm and listening skill.” Also, the marathons can actually encourage record companies to keep (or resume) printing older recordings. That happened after a Charlie Parker marathon in 1993, he said. The station’s goals are not commercial, “but we have commercial value.”

The concert, reuniting musicians who hadn’t played together in 20 years, required the station to raise funds up front. Did it make money, assuming the concert was (as it appeared) almost a sellout? Schaap said he wasn’t sure but “it did better than we expected,” Schaap said.

It also got people out of their living rooms on a Friday night to see what was probably a once-in-a-lifetime performance of improvisational jazz. And that can’t be bad. Maybe next time the local cable operator will want to pitch in, as well.

September