I come not to bury jazz, but to praise it

Jazz!I might as well offer my two cents on Terry Teachout’s recent editorial for the Wall Street Journal, “Can Jazz Be Saved?”, since so many others already have.  In it, Teachout beats the same funeral drum that countless other jazz pundits have for decades – namely that the already small audience for jazz is shrinking alarmingly fast.  He even offers as evidence some results from a recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The survey results Teachout extracts present a gloomy picture for jazz lovers indeed- not only is attendance down, but the median age for jazz fans is fast approaching AARP territory (from 29 in 1982 to 46 in 2008).  He makes the case that jazz, in terms of its audience, is becoming the next version of classical music.

This reminds me of the old joke about the two genres – classical is music by a bunch of dead white guys and jazz is music by a bunch of dead black guys.  And of course there’s the oft-quoted Zappa lyric, “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.”  But I digress.

Even with all his scary facts and figures, a few things about Teachout’s piece didn’t sit right with me.  First off, he’s being a little selective with how he presents those facts.  As the NEA’s summary points out, attendance for all forms of the arts (jazz, classical, opera, ballet, plays, etc.) is down since the last survey.   To me that says more about the audience for these things than the art forms themselves.

But why is attendance down?  Well for the last year or two we’ve had this little global economic meltdown going on, which might not be helping.  But beyond that, it’s not as if jazz is the only genre reporting a decline in attendance.  North American concert attendance in the first quarter of 2009 was brutal, while the trend over the previous few years is downward as well.  (Revenue continues to increase, but that is because a hardcore fan who pays $300 for a Celine Dion ticket cancels out three who didn’t pay $45 each; the net effect is that fewer people are showing up.)

And although Teachout didn’t mention sales of recorded jazz music, it’s worth noting that once again the problem of drastically declining album sales has plagued the entire music industry for years.  I’ve no doubt that jazz albums are included in that, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture.

That said, I don’t have a major issue with Teachout’s take on the NEA’s figures.  Where he starts to go off the rails is in his extrapolation of their meaning.  To wit:

What does this tell us? I suspect it means, among other things, that the average American now sees jazz as a form of high art. Nor should this come as a surprise to anyone, since most of the jazz musicians that I know feel pretty much the same way. They regard themselves as artists, not entertainers, masters of a musical language that is comparable in seriousness to classical music””and just as off-putting to pop-loving listeners who have no more use for Wynton Marsalis than they do for Felix Mendelssohn.

What a load of crap.  While I can’t speak to the second half of this statement (not having many jazz musician pals), the first sounds like so much projection. Patrick Jarenwattananon over at the NPR jazz blog called this one – “…the heart of the problem isn’t that people see jazz as high art: it’s that people see it as boring or unapproachable art. We would do well to treat this problem, and not the imagined, increasingly meaningless distinction of low vs. high.”

Robert Glasper

Robert Glasper

Speaking from personal experience, prior to my own jazz conversion I never viewed it as high art on par with ballet or opera.  I just didn’t get it, and had never heard any jazz that spoke to me like rock and metal had for so many years.  I truly believe that if you like music but don’t like jazz, you just haven’t heard the right kind.  Back in the so-called Golden Age of Jazz, your options were pretty limited.  If you didn’t like big band/swing in the ’30s or ’40s you were out of luck.  Jazz today is probably the most versatile form of music around.

So regardless of how jazz is viewed by young people (either as a museum artifact, “high” art, or just plain unlistenable), the important thing is to figure out why.  And I’ll state that the biggest source of trouble is the so-called professional caretakers of jazz, such as jazz radio stations, jazz record companies, jazz writers, and jazz publications.  They consistently underestimate and misunderstand the dire need to reach out beyond the little pocket of true believers they seem to exist for.  They also fail to promote newer, more exciting acts as much as they should.

One example – the local jazz station in the New York City area is WBGO.  I’ve listened to WBGO quite a bit, and discovered some excellent music through there.  But by and large, their playlists tend to be conservative and their on-air personalities are less than thrilling.  It’s a classy operation, for certain, but one that I doubt many twenty-somethings would have much patience for unless they already loved jazz.

Another example – take a look at the website of one of the biggest labels in jazz, Blue Note.  The news section hasn’t been updated in months, and there is precious little information or promotion for the upcoming release by Robert Glasper – one of the most exciting and talented jazz musicians out there.  How can a company like this do such a piss-poor job promoting their talent?  An absolute joke.  At least Verve seems to have a clue how to promote new music, as their front page is currently decked out for the new album by Ledisi.

I don’t pretend to be a musical tastemaker, but I’ve been approached a number of times by indie record labels and their publicists, asking me to listen to and maybe write about their music.  Not once have I been approached about any jazz music, despite having talked about it many times on this site.  Now I’m not saying that’s a problem in and of itself, but I have to wonder if labels or critics appreciate at all the power that a good internet grassroots campaign can bring for jazz.

I’ll end by saying that I think the idea that jazz even needs to be ‘saved’ is preposterous.  The music has been evolving for more than a century, and has had its moment in the sun commercially speaking.  Those days are long gone and they’re never coming back, but what’s so wrong with jazz being a niche market?  At least you can be sure that the people playing and listening to it are doing it because they want to, not because it’s easy money or makes them popular.

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