Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Response To: Can Jazz Be Saved?

There have been many opinions over the past several months and years regarding the viability of today's Jazz. Just recently, in the Wall Street Journal (August 8, 2009 edition) the Journal's drama critic, Terry Teachout, asked that same question:
His conclusions were predictable; jazz needs to reach out to the youth, and it needs to be more accessible to the average listener.
All reasonable, but the $64,000 question is: How? Is it enough to have educational programs in schools, or making it more "palatable" to the general population by somehow "smoothing" it out, or making it more contemporary via rock or r&b beats?

The author makes a good point; in the days of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and even the hard bop era, there was more "feeling" the music rather "understanding" the music. Whether the audience understood the complexities of the music or not, they enjoyed the music because they "felt" it.

Case in point: This video clip is a cameo appearance of Duke Ellington in Jimmy Stewart's movie "Anatomy of a Murder:

OK, I know this is a movie. But the point is that in that era, there was a certain feeling that the music inspired. Fun.
I submit there is essentially no difference between the audiences of that era and now. The difference is in how the music is being marketed, and being performed.
There is a certain authenticity and feel to the music that the majority of today's artists, both straight ahead and contemporary, have lost. And even if the audience doesn't understand the complexities of the music, they respond to the difference.

How did today's music lose its relevance and "fun"? As I have stated in my previous blogs, there was a time-honored tradition of passing the music down from music generation to music generation, via the informal apprenticeship called the bandstand or stage. The musicians "learned" how to feel the music, not just play the music. There are literally hundreds of Jazz musicians who can play the notes, but don't feel the music; and thus have no individuality or originality. Audiences respond to that simple concept.
When the music lost the feeling, the music lost its audience.
To try to intellectualize Jazz is a noble and laudable concept; in the perceived world of "respect", the logical comparison was Classical music. In a sense, modern Classical music comparisons with Jazz makes political, and intellectual sense, but does not address the raison d'etre for the music from a historic standpoint: feeling.

In the 60's and 70's, in a certain sense, in response to the changing political and societal viewpoints of race relations in this country, respect was justifiably demanded and received for Jazz in this country. This respect was manifested by the positive comparisons with European-based elite music, Classical music. Jazz was subsequently taught in the major music schools in this country. Even today, it is a perceived badge of honor to graduate from Julliard, Berklee, or any number of institutions. The problem was and is to a certain extent, the respect for the older musicians who did not come out of the music schools was lacking by the younger established jazz musicians and public. Thus, the essential element of "feeling the music" has been lost on a whole generation of musicians. The audience has responded with their indifference.

Compounding the problem of the music's popularity, the current way of marketing the music is flawed. There was a time when the musicians would routinely tour the smaller towns and cities on a continual basis. The "Festival Concept", sponsorships, and free (no cover charge) jazz changed the dynamic for the music. The musicians routinely play in New York, Chicago, and in festivals, but rarely come to smaller venues. The economic realities are such that, buoyed by sponsorship dollars, the fees paid to artists do not accurately reflect the drawing power. Why? Well if the musicians were touring more for less money, there would be an opportunity to build an audience that would support local jazz stations. In turn, the local jazz stations would be able to play the music of these artists, so that the next time the artist tours, the demand, and therefore compensation would be better. This cannot happen in the current New York/Chicago/Europe/festival sponsorship cycle.

As a promoter, it is an extremely tough sell to convince an artist to play for less money in order for the system to work on a local level in smaller cities. Especially if there are festivals willing to pay higher fees not based on market forces, but sponsorship dollars. New York had a graphic example of this during the summer when the JVC Newport Jazz Festival was canceled. The audience by cover charges alone could not support the fees associated with the music.
It is clearly no accident that exasperated promoters of traditionally "Jazz" festivals have resorted to featuring Blues, Rock, Country, or any other musical genre other than Jazz. (Case in point, New Orleans Jazz and "Heritage" Festival).

OK, those are the problems as I see it. What are the solutions?
First of all, there has to be an acceptance that Jazz can be heard outside of a classroom. How do we do this? Those of us who love the music must take the time to expose everyone; kids and adults alike, to great Jazz music. Certainly not in an intellectually confrontational way (i.e school), but in a casual setting. There are many of today's Jazz fans who became fans by listening to their father's or mother's records that were playing in the house. No preaching about the intricacies or complexities of the music; just feeling the music. I always played Jazz in my car when my son was a passenger, (Lee Morgan, Miles, Trane) from early infancy. He is now a 15 year old Jazz fan.
When Jazz is played where people can hear it, there is a positive response. Invariably, when we have Jazz on the outdoor patio at The Cincinnati Grill, no matter who is playing, people who are walking by will invariably stop and listen. The variety of people stopping, if only for a moment, cuts across every age, and ethnic demographic. Surely the folks walking by are not all Jazz fans, but they respond to the music in their own way.
Secondly, the musicians themselves have to take an active role in preserving and nurturing the music. There has to be more to this than receiving the maximum sponsorship money per performance; in smaller cities the higher fees are not possible. The bottom line is that the musicians have to be more relevant than the latest CD. They have to appear live, at a price that is reasonable for all involved.
No one begrudges any musician for making as much as they can make, especially when compared with genres of lesser talented musicians making insane amounts of money. But there has to be a common ground; the music must be heard by a wider audience than it is now.
Third, the younger hot musicians from the established music schools need to take a page from the older musicians while they still can; they must be willing to learn how to "feel" the music, rather than just playing notes or reading charts. There must be a respect for the older musicians who have carried on the tradition outside of academia.

Bottom line: If Jazz is to continue to be a relevant musical form, it will take each one of us to make it so. Everyone, whether you are a musician or not, whether you are involved in the industry or not, can be an ambassador for the music. This will not be easy; but to chip away at the problem as outlined above will eventually lead to a solution, and new generations of Jazz fans.