Night Lights Classic Jazz

Jazz Death? V. 59

Terry Teachout's column about an NEA survey sets off another discussion about the health of jazz. Whatever its size, the jazz audience's passion remains keen.

News From The Rumors-Of-Demise Department

Last week jazz writer and blogger Terry Teachout wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal that cited some rather depressing numbers concerning jazz audiences. According to a recent National Endowment for the Arts survey, over the past 25 years the jazz audience has gotten older and smaller. And what does that lead to? Severe crankiness!

There are a number of recurring topics in the jazz world that kick up a fair amount of dust every year or two. We have the recurring topic of “best jazz albums ever,” for example (more on that in another post). “Jazz death,” to invoke the late, great Lester Bowie, is certainly another.

The Enthusiasts Respond

Yet whatever the size of the jazz audience, it has managed to retain its passion, and Teachout’s piece has incited a great response from that enthusiastic bunch, not only on the Wall Street Journal site but across the jazz blogosphere. A few:

Ironically enough, the latest Arbitron public radio ratings show that the jazz format gained ground with 18-24 year-olds last year. Possibly this is an outlier, but it’s worth mentioning in light of the NEA study’s alarm bells about declining interest among youth.

At any rate, the topic of “jazz death” often sets off a quest to provide The Answer, some overlooked problem or solution that could send things swinging again. It can also inspire some to rise in defense of the music’s status and proclaim its steadfast well-being. (There’s also the ever-present, anecdotal “Hey, I was at a Dixieland/neo-bop/free-jazz gig last week, and man was the joint jumpin’,” etc.) All of the writers listed above make valid, worthwhile points in their takes on Teachout and the NEA survey. Ramsey, for example, concludes by saying he doesn’t have an answer; As the Arbitron ratings show, young people are still getting hip to it somehow, evidently.

What Is ‘Success’?

But here’s one question: what will be jazz’s definition of success when it comes to music sales, concert attendance, and so on? The genre has been suffering from comparisons to pop music ever since the Beatles hit. Furthermore, CD sales for artists of all genres are in free-fall right now. I’ve sometimes thought (undoubtedly with some company) that the demise of jazz at major labels may ultimately be a good thing: What with the preponderance of self-released titles now coming out, with so much interesting music being made, one of the biggest challenges for a music-lover is finding the time to listen to it all. The jazz blogosphere has changed things for the better as well, making music, criticism and publicity much easier to access for jazz listeners all over the world. It’s not all gloom and darkness out there.

My advice, my answer: We should give up on ever bringing the big bands back. Let’s not set our expectations of jazz’s future by what it was in the past. I love the music of 1945-1990, the era that Night Lights covers; it was an age of wonders in jazz. But life and music will keep moving on in ways that won’t conform with our own personal wishes.

Jazz as we know it today will survive, I think, to a large degree in much the same way that it has for the past 25 years – that is, with occasional surges and blips of popularity and decline, operating at a marginal level, commercially speaking. But jazz as a creative force will move in ways which we may find hard to anticipate. Or, as my friend Jim Sangrey noted, “Maybe jazz has to die in order to live.”

So, with that in mind, I’ll close with something I posted in response to this topic over at the Organissimo jazz discussion forum.

More Thoughts On “Jazz Death”

Much as I love the 1920-1990 era of jazz (and a quite a lot after), I get bummed when I see intense/reflexively negative reactions to things like the “Re-mixed” projects. Granted, a lot of those aren’t successful for one reason or another, and I’m not saying they’re the salvation of the music or anything like that; it’s just that often there’s such a “How dare they!” response to such things. A bassist who used to play with a local group I like quite a lot here in Bloomington was visiting a couple of weeks ago, and we joked about the attitude that “Everything must sound like 1963! (or insert some other year) Jazz is all about FREEDOM and IMPROVISATION, so everything must sound like 1963!” He also talked about how the younger musicians (this includes him–he’s 31) in his current city just don’t pay much attention to hard boundary lines when it comes to music. For one thing, they can’t afford to, or they’ll be shutting themselves out of gigs.

I think that from the historical perspective musicians, educators, writers, and DJs can all make a better effort to hip people to what’s happening in the music and how to listen to and better enjoy it. (Two DJs I really admire in this regard are Lazaro Vega and Jae Sinnett.) And to do that in a way that’s fun and enthusiastic (which can simply be playing music that’s alive and having a good time doing it, a la Organissimo). People WANT to like jazz, but they also want to know more about it–what makes it work, what makes it succeed… how to listen to it, basically. Jae Sinnett thinks public-radio DJs have gone way too far in backing away from the “educational” model of earlier times and have overcompensated, for fear or seeming like pedantic bores. And nobody wants to be a pedantic bore (except maybe a pedantic bore). But it is possible to impart the joy and pleasure of this music without being a stuffy snooze.

I’ll also do my broken-record routine and say yet again that any “jazz future” that extends beyond the classical/museum/traditional model is likely to be in different instrumental configurations than we’ve been used to–not to mention different aesthetic configurations. (And some people are going to argue that it’s not “jazz.”) Quartets/quintets, piano trios and all that will continue, to be sure. Players like Josh Berman will come along and extend the sound in interesting, compelling ways, while others will pay tribute to it in a lively manner. But I think the most creative and intriguing developments will allude to the tradition and bounce off it and around it without being prisoners of it at the same time. And they’ll also reflect everything that’s gone on in music and the wider world over the past 5, 10, 15-30 years.

Some of this is already happening, but it’s under the middle-brow radar–a place where I can all too often find myself gravitating towards as I get older… it’s too damn easy, for one thing. OTOH the Internet makes it much easier to investigate new scenes and sounds if you get hip to them (and makes it easier to get hip to them in the first place as well). For me, the future ends up being more murky than gloomy… I know I’ll never get tired of listening to Ellington, Coltrane, Bird, Bud Powell, etc. I could probably live with just that music for the rest of my life! But I know my life would be a richer one if I also kept my ears open and listened for new sounds, albeit ones that might not give me the same immediate pleasure/comfort that Ellington et al do. And in fact, new sounds tend to rejuvenate my appreciation for the older players, whether I find myself liking said new sounds or not.

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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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  • http://oneworkingmusician.com Jason Parker

    Nice piece, David! Welcome to the ever-growing list of folks taking on this topic (see my take at http://oneworkingmusician.com). I think the best thing about the Teachout article is the fact that it’s gotten us jazz musicians and fans talking about the subject, which is only a good thing.

    You make a great point with this:

    “Don’t set the expectations of jazz’s future by what it was in the past. I love the music of 1945-1990, the era that Night Lights covers; it was an age of wonders in jazz. But life and music are going to keep moving on, in ways that won’t conform with our own personal wishes. Jazz as we know it today will survive, I think, to a large degree in much the same way that it has for the past 25 years–with occasional surges and blips of popularity and decline, operating at a marginal level, commercially speaking. But jazz as a creative force will move in ways which we may find hard to anticipate.”

    Jazz has always moved forward in ways that make the current new-guard uncomfortable. The dixieland cats hated swing. The swing cats hated bebop. The bebop cats hated fusion, etc… And that’s OK. We shouldn’t be afraid of new streams of the music. Ultimately all they do is bring more people to the party. I think you touch on this here:

    “For me, the future ends up being more murky than gloomy… I know I’ll never get tired of listening to Ellington, Coltrane, Bird, Bud Powell, etc. I could probably live with just that music for the rest of my life! But I know my life would be a richer one if I also kept my ears open and listened for new sounds, albeit ones that might not give me the same immediate pleasure/comfort that Ellington et al do. And in fact, new sounds tend to rejuvenate my appreciation for the older players, whether I find myself liking said new sounds or not.”

    I say bring on the murk!

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