Jazz Doesn't Need to be Saved -- It's Doing Fine


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Cultural critic Terry Teachout recently wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal titled 'Can Jazz Be Saved?' It caused a stir among jazz musicians, critics, cognoscenti and fans. There's even Twitter campaign to prove Teachout wrong (use #jazzlives if you want to Tweet live). The thrust of the early part of the piece quotes jazz audience statistics collected by the National Endowment of the Arts and the U.S. Census Bureau about the median age of the jazz audience getting older and the number of people actually going to concerts is shrinking. Teachout continues by pointing out that jazz has fallen into the high art trap -- which snared classical music, ballet and nonmusical theater -- where the music has now become good for you rather than fun, which is why younger audiences have gone away.

While my idea of a fun on Tuesday night is catching Cecil Taylor at the Highline Ballroom here in New York (as I did a few days ago), Cecil isn't for everyone and neither is jazz. It isn't, for the most part, the dance music that it was almost a century ago, but things change and did so a long time ago. Moreover, I think what Teachout fails to take into account is that the music industry in general is in tatters as it figures out what to do next, and whether major labels are even a useful way to get your music out to the people. This is to say nothing of the fact that the economy is in tatters and discretionary income is at a low.

This brings us to my own revelation that I had sometime back when I was opening mail and it seemed like every CD that came across my desk (actually I don't really use a desk; I'm sitting on a comfy couch with my feet propped up as I write this on my laptop) was released by the artist themselves or an independent label: i.e., not Sony-BMG, Warner Brothers, Universal or Island-Def Jam Music Group. As someone who grew up listening to classic rock and then in the '80s found a variety of alternatives, most notably jazz and underground alternative/punk music, I can dig through my vinyl and find many classic albums released on indies or by the artist themselves, and I like the parallel. Just because punk icons like Black Flag and Fugazi put out their own records, it didn't make them less amazing or seminal -- in fact, it made these bands better, in a way, because they didn't like the major-label system and were willing to work outside it.

I've talked to a lot of jazz musicians during my 15 years as a professional journalist and they've changed their tune on the concept of labels. While most used to bemoan the fact that a major hadn't signed them or they'd been dropped, now musicians tend to look at things with a more indie-rock perspective where it's a good thing to own your master tapes and have creative control over the music you release as well as how often you do so. This means there is less quality control than in days past when A&R guys functioned as gatekeepers for breaking new artists, but now artists don't need to wait around for someone to sign them. The glut of indie CDs makes my job harder as a music critic, but so what. Great musicians do still break through.

Along with its indie style, jazz now seems to fit into Chris Anderson's much discussed Long Tail Theory. We do have a lot more choices now of how to spend our free time. In this day, there is cable and satellite TV, the Internet, DVDs, Wii, Netflix, online poker and a galaxy of other entertainment options as well as simply taking an electronics sabbatical and perhaps enjoying a nice meal, walk, run or swim.<

Teachout admits that he doesn't know how to get kids to listen to jazz again and I agree that telling them it's good for them isn't the answer. It's no way to present art to an audience. But the audiences I see out in the smaller underground jazz clubs in New York (i.e., rooms without $30 covers and drink minimums) are filled with people in their 20s and early 30s.<

If I really want to be inspired, I'll go catch a Sunday brunch set by the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra. It features kids in their teens of varying abilities playing for friends, family and the general public. At one recent gig, the audience's most active members were three preschoolers dancing up front next to the stage. There was also a birthday for an 18-year-old girl that included about 20 friends, none of whom knew the kids onstage.

You want to see the future of jazz -- there it is: living and breathing in the loose atmosphere of a Sunday brunch and a hip underground club. It's not on the magnitude of Hugh Masekela's 1968 No. 1 single 'Grazing in the Grass,' but that kind of mass movement toward a ubiquitous hit song isn't part of the music equation these days. The smaller scale doesn't diminish the fact that jazz is beautiful, inspiring, artistic and fun.

It would seem that some of us need to readjust our thinking about how jazz (and music in general) is to carry on. I'll be writing this weekly 'All That Jazz' column about the music form's ongoing journey. In it I'll profile jazz legends, rave about new artists, write essays on the jazz issues of today, post live reviews, and I'll poke into just everything else that falls under the heading of jazz as it continues to morph along with the rest of us.<

Each week I'll also post links to items posted by our friends at All About Jazz:

Here's a recap of the CareFusion 55 Jazz Festival that George Wein pulled together this year.

If you want to hear about the changes afoot during Newport Jazz Festival's transition year from the main man himself, here's an interview with George Wein.

Here's a chance to check in with guitar slinger Wayne Krantz, whose day job formerly was playing with Steely Dan. He talks about his new album, his first in 15 years.

Luciana Souza is an amazing singer who originally hails from Brazil. After a number of acclaimed albums, she returns one with one of the best jazz vocal albums of the year. Read a review here.

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This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz @ Spinner.
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