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Jazz and the Passion Crisis

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Next week marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock--the festival that all but doomed whatever hope jazz had of reviving its popularity with the young masses. So what better time for many jazz writers to insist that jazz today is wildly popular with kids--and to beat up on one of our own for saying that's not the case.

Last Saturday, jazz writer, author and drama critic Terry Teachout wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal entitled: Can Jazz Be Saved? The Audience for America's Great Art Form Is Withering Away. After it was published, you could hear the metaphoric sound of glass shattering. Many web-based jazz writers leapt at the chance to take a swing at Terry. One blogger went so far as to say, “Mr. Teachout has stumbled into a very old trap, forecasting the death of jazz."

The problem is Terry didn't say that.

For those of you who missed Terry's column, let me briefly bring you up to speed. Terry's point was that despite efforts by government to encourage jazz appreciation among young listeners, kids today aren't digging the jazz scene in growing numbers. To support his point, Terry held up data from the National Endowment for the Arts' latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.

Long story short, jazz-performance attendance by adults is shrinking fast, according to the NEA. The data shows that this falloff is occurring even among college-educated adults--a big shocker since in the 1950s campus fans single-handedly made jazz an intellectual art form. Terry also noted that the median age of jazz-performance attendees is inching north and now rivals that of opera (yikes!).

Most troubling of all, Terry observed that young people aren't listening to jazz in strong enough numbers and that something should be done by jazz musicians and jazz powers to change this if the music is to survive. The response? Many jazz writers came crashing down on Terry--in some cases taking him to task for things he never actually said in his column.

I don't know much about studies and who attends what. But I know a few things about music and kids today. As the father of one, I know that kids consume music very differently than people over age 40. Most older jazz fans grew up listening to jazz to the exclusion of virtually everything else. Many jazz fans of a certain age also have not forgiven rock and soul for undermining jazz's pre-1965 popularity. And most older jazz listeners I know harbor a Shangri-La vision of a world in which jazz stages a comeback and dominates our culture again.

We all know that's not going to happen, just as nylons and Checker cabs aren't coming back either. There simply isn't a street market for the kind of jazz that older fans have in their heads. Jazz, as I wrote nearly a year ago, is high art, not mass culture. The shift to high art was a natural progression and a choice as jazz artists became more sophisticated and performance trumped dance. Miles and Sonny aren't supposed to be understood by everyone. No true art is.

Which leaves us with the big question: Why aren't more kids moved by jazz? Part of the answer is that young people don't listen to music the way older listeners did or do. Thanks to the computer, iTunes, the iPod and iPhone, most kids jump from genre to genre and from track to track in any given time period, rarely listening to any song all the way through. For better or worse, the computer has taught them to multitask everything.

This leads us to the second big hurdle: There's a passion crisis among young people today. In an ADD age, many kids have trouble falling passionately in love with anything, let alone jazz. By passion, I mean really getting into a form of music, exploring all of its facets, and tracing its roots and stories so you have a better understanding of what you're listening to.

To be fair, this passion deficiency isn't really their fault. There simply are too many choices for every decision today, and each looks more appealing than the next. The upshot? It's harder than ever for kids to stay focused on jazz or anything else to the exclusion of the broad mix of choices before them.

So when Terry writes that young people aren't listening to jazz en masse, we know deep down that he's right--with or without the data. As for adults, is it really a surprise that fewer of them are attending jazz concerts and that the median age is climbing? With less time for pastimes and more demands on adults to make ends meet, a jazz concert isn't everyone's idea of relaxing or stimulating way to spend downtime. I wish that weren't the case, but it's true.

What's the solution? There may not be one. For jazz to make up a larger slice of young people's iPod listening time, jazz musicians and jazz labels will have to start pitching the music so it makes sense in our new world of multitasking and job anxiety. My suggestion is shorter tracks, for starters, and fewer solos that drag on forever by instruments that aren't appealing. Or if you object to this, keep things just as they are. But then don't whine when jazz's popularity declines.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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