Saturday, May 30, 2009

The State of Jazz Today.

There has been a lot written about the health (or lack thereof) jazz in this country and around the world. This concern was heightened because of the news out of New York that The JVC New York Jazz Festival was canceled this year for the first time in 37 years. Coupled with the recent demise of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE), the cause for concern among jazz fans was understandably heightened.

Yes, the health of jazz should be questioned. it really a bad thing that the major festival in New York was canceled?
It is clear the current approach for jazz marketing/ promotion has caused the demise of the music. Unfortunately artists, critics, and promoters became very comfortable with the state of affairs; they were very comfortable with the idea that the "big names" could go to one or two major festivals a year either here or in Europe and be paid handsomely. They no longer needed to take road trips through all the smaller cities here in this country. The problem is that once the musicians stopped visiting all the smaller towns, interest overall in the music waned.

Radio stations started to change with the lack of exposure to live jazz locally; and there was no inherent fan base to protest. The festivals had become the major way for the "name" artists to disseminate their music. The problem with all festivals (and as was stated previously), is that it gave the artists and audience a false sense of security. The artists were paid exorbitant fees, and the fans saw the artists at reduced prices or free because of sponsorships. Well lo and behold, the sponsors controlled the music.
NYC just found out about that when the major sponsors pulled out of the JVC festival in NY; the first time NY will be without a major festival in 37 years. The fans will not pay the actual ticket price needed to pay the artist's fees. So the music cannot be supported in its current form and structure. The ticket fees paid must be able to support the artist. If 200 people are willing to pay $50 per ticket for a certain artist, then a $10,000 fee is justified. Unfortunately, with the lack of radio airplay, and lack of local media interest (for example, the Los Angeles Times recently dropped any coverage of jazz music or jazz musicians), there is a huge educational curve for the public in regards to the jazz artists that marketing techniques cannot overcome. Finding 200 people in a small market to pay $50 for an artist, no matter how heralded, is not feasible with the current state of the music.

The jazz musicians will state that the market in Europe is strong, and indeed there appears to be larger groups of fans in Europe. But let's examine the reason for this. It is clear that the arts in general and jazz in particular benefit from governmental subsidies; much more so than can be depended on in the US. If there were no subsidies, then the opportunities found in Europe would be much less. Concurrently, the opportunities to hear the music would be less, and the music there would be in the same shape as here. The same economic factors playing out here in this country are operating all over Europe and the world.

I submit there are still great numbers of jazz fans, only an increasingly smaller number willing to pay for the privilege to listen. What is the solution? Exposure. If this music is exposed to the young people, they will listen and appreciate it. It is a misnomer to think that the music is too complicated for the young people to understand; there is essentially no difference between the youth of the early 30's and today. (or of the 50's for that matter). Kids will listen if they are exposed to it. Bottom line, we have to develop a new market for the music.

Kids that most of America wrote off in this last election cycle propelled Obama to victory. The same thing can and must happen in jazz. Now before you consider me naive and out of touch with "the real jazz world", it is quite clear the current approach is not working. No one is too big to fail; not General Motors, Chrysler, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, David Sanborn on anyone else. There must be a fundamental restructuring of how jazz is funded; the days of $40,000 artists and festival money is over. The artists might still be able to command those fees individually, but if they are really about the music surviving, they would realize how important it is to perform in smaller venues for lesser fees. This will insure the music begins to become popular again. There is no overnight fix for this. But unless we continue to reach out to the youth, and show them that this music is vibrant, not ancient, we will lose this battle for good. Then you will have the proverbial "greatest solo never heard".

There is also a movement among some to provide alternative forms of Jazz in order to boost the popularity. There is inherently nothing wrong with that approach, as long as the music maintains the essential elements of jazz. Improvisation is a must, and the energy levels and "soul" must be preserved. The contemporary efforts of artists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Kirk Whalum, Gerald Albright, and others have maintained the essential elements of jazz. Unfortunately so-called "Smooth Jazz", depending on the artist, fails in this fundamental test of the music.
In my opinion, jazz music in all of its valid forms can and will be embraced by new fans around the world.

Bottom line: the "stars" and other representatives of the music must make their music more accessible to fans around the country. Yes, this will result in smaller performance fees initially, but as the audiences rebuild for jazz in general, all of jazz will benefit from the increasing exposure and popularity.
The $40,000 question is:
Will the current "stars" of the music be willing to contribute to the overall health of the music by touring in venues that fans can afford?

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