Reports of Jazz’s Death Greatly Exaggerated

Litchfield Jazz Camp student performance. Photo by Antonio Monteiro.

Litchfield Jazz Camp student performance. Photo by Antonio Monteiro.

The music critic and blogger Terry Teachout wrote a curious article entitled “Can Jazz Be Saved” for the Wall Street Journal on August 9.

He says of jazz: “Nobody’s listening.”

“No, it’s not quite that bad — but it’s no longer possible for head-in-the-sand types to pretend that the great American art form is economically healthy or that its future looks anything other than bleak,” he proclaims.

He comes to this conclusion based on a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Not only is the audience for jazz shrinking, but it’s growing older—fast. The median age of adults in America who attended a live jazz performance in 2008 was 46. In 1982 it was 29,” says Teachout.

The best response I’ve seen to Teachout’s piece was from a 24-year-old blogger named Patrick Jarenwattananon
who wrote his own piece entitled: Can Jazz Be Saved? (Is That A Useful Question?)

“I try to monitor the state of affairs in jazz, and I know there are at very least still a lot of young people making improvised music. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that youthful interest may not be far behind,” says Jarenwattananon.

Teachout gets close to the heart of the matter, but misses:

“…the average American now sees jazz as a form of high art. Nor should this come as a surprise to anyone, since most of the jazz musicians I know feel pretty much the same way. They regard themselves as artists, not entertainers.”

Jarenwattananon’s response:

“Wait, what? Really? First of all, the heart of the problem isn’t that people see jazz as high art: it’s that people see it as boring or unapproachable art. We would do well to treat this problem, and not the imagined, increasingly meaningless distinction of low vs. high.”

Chuck Anderson, Music After 50′s Master Music Teacher Blogger, has been talking about this for years.

“I think the biggest problem lies squarely on the shoulders of jazz musicians and the jazz community. This community has never promoted or marketed their art and craft at the level or with the same intensity as other musical idioms,” says Anderson.

“As an example, country music has an enormously popular and important tradition called Fan Fair (now known as the CMA Music Festival). This is basically a big convention for the fans to meet, up close and personal, their country music idols. Autographs are given, merchandise is sold, pictures are taken. I have never seen a country artist resist this tradition or complain about it. They recognize that without the fans, they would have no career.”

Chuck once told me he started using the tagline: “Audience friendly, progressive jazz guitar” on his website and promotional materials after people would come up to him after concerts to tell him they had no idea how much they liked jazz!

As Chuck’s experiences attest, there’s a disconnect between what people perceive jazz to be, and what jazz actually is.

From what I have seen at jazz summer camps for young teens (listen to the kids at Litchfield Jazz Camp); high school jazz bands (watch the Roosevelt High School Jazz Band in Seattle and students at Camden Creative Arts High School in Camden N.J.); college jazz bands (watch the Temple University Jazz Band); and community bands for kids (watch the Little Jazz Giants’ self-made video) – jazz is alive and well.

If the disconnect between potential listeners and players lies solely in the marketing of jazz, the situation is far from dire. The young people coming up may turn out to be far better marketers of their music than older players. Unless they give up Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, texting, and IMs, jazz will survive.

The Little Jazz Giants of Camden, N.J.

The Little Jazz Giants of Camden, N.J.


1 Jeff Smith
Posted 08/19/09 at 4:11 pm

The average american doesn’t know squat about art and could care less. It’s part of our culture and who we are. All that matters are pursuits that provide instant gratification or money. If there was big money to be made in jazz, it would be crammed down our throats. We live in a McDonalds/Walmart society in mass decline. Only a small minority know this or care.
I’m glad that the simple advice to market jazz as intensely as pop or country music is going to help solve the problem. As far as listening to teenage jazz musicians, quality has never been an issue. The issue is that jazz programs in public schools are disappearing because they are deemed expendable when budgets are tight.

2 Leah R. Garnett
Posted 08/19/09 at 10:00 pm

Thx for taking the time to comment. I agree with your first sentence; it has always been that way, and always will be that way. The goal is not to get everyone to love or appreciate jazz, but to reach the people who can and will appreciate it. If I make hand-made pottery and sell it in a single shop that nets $300,000 a year, I would consider myself wildly successful. Would I be successful compared to WalMart? No. But I would be selling something unique that isn’t sold in WalMart. How many fans does a jazz artist need? Thirty thousand? 1 million? 100 million? The market for beautiful, handmade wares is never going away, just like the market for jazz is not going anywhere. There’s a select group for each. I can be a wildly successful seller of pottery if I market it to the people who will mostly likely buy it. Look at this beautiful site I’m not sure how this place found me, but I have purchased items there, thanks to their direct marketing efforts. They reached out, and they found me. Jazz can do this, too.

3 philly drummer-gal
Posted 08/20/09 at 11:03 am

Thank Goodness for Nate Chinen. His article, Doomsayers May Be Playing Taps but Jazz Isn’t Ready to Sing the Blues , (August 18) in the New York Times, is a welcome anecdote to Teachout’s somber pronouncement.

I share Chinen’s concern about the methods used for culling such vital information; Consider this, from the questionnaire: “With the exception of elementary or high school performances, did you go to a live jazz performance during the last 12 months?” However direct it sounds, it’s more nebulous than asking whether someone saw a play, attended the opera or visited a museum.

Chinen nails an important point about the survey, Along with “Yes” and “No,” the survey provides the option of “Don’t Know,” which in this case could actually have been a meaningful choice.

Artists who connect to jazz inevitably transform it. This is the house with improvisation actually “built” into its structure. Jazz is not only made to last, it’s made to change. No surprise, young musicians always “get” that. They’re getting it now. Young artists schooled in the jazz classics are mining the alternative, rock, heavy metal and punk sounds of their generation with compelling results. Hiromi, The Bad Plus, Melody Gardot, Brian Blade and Esperanza Spaulding are just a few examples of the latest transformations in Jazz.

As we explore they’re efforts we find wonderful reports on the “real” state of jazz as in this Radio Boston’s WGBH review (1/2/09): Hiromi’s Sonicblume: Explosive Jazz in Concert: With jazz taught in universities and conservatories more widely than ever, there’s no shortage of jazz chops in the world today. But pianist Hiromi Uehara has made an explosive art of her technical faculties.

The Bad Plus ”…mixes the sensibilities of post-60′s jazz and indie rock” (NYT).
“Audacious, rule-breaking jazz trio crunches and at times pulverizes swing to let improvisational freedom shine…Dynamics play a huge roll in the act’s music, as does humor, an element sorely lacking in most of contemporary jazz. But beauty is also key… jazz purists tremble while the vanguard flocks.”- (Billboard)

Jazz is so deeply written into our cultural bones that it’s just plain silly to carry on about it’s demise. Nationally syndicated magazines for drummers, Modern Drummer, Drum! include jazz artist profiles, jazz theory and technique studies as a matter of course. It’s just a fact of learning the instrument that you will inevitably soak up jazz. Not a week goes by when fresh resources for learning, connecting to artists, joining workshops and enjoying pop aren’t popping up.

I prefer the classic arrangements to the alt-punk-jazz –fusion coming up today. But thankfully, the jazz house was built with plenty of room for every possible occupant.

4 philly drummer-gal
Posted 08/20/09 at 4:32 pm

Awh! What happened to my paragraph spaces? Nothing like solid text to leave a reader cross eyed.

5 Patrick Jarenwattananon
Posted 08/23/09 at 2:32 pm

Hi Leah — glad you understood what I was getting at. After some further consideration, I do think that there may be a problem with both Teachout’s insistence that THE JAZZ AUDIENCE IS DYING and everybody else responding that JAZZ IS PLENTY ALIVE WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT. I fear that we aren’t seizing the moment to do what Chuck Anderson encourages: market the art better. It’s just not on speaking terms with all the other musics out there — largely for marketing reasons — and the kids who are not hopeless jazz nerds like me pick up on this uncoolness or lack of access. Going to a show still isn’t a THING TO DO when planning out your week for the average young person — figuring out why that is, and addressing it: that’s the problem.

6 Billy Shaw
Posted 09/02/09 at 3:22 pm

Check out this article written for the 2007 London Jazz Festival, “It’s about total freedom at all costs”, by Marcus o’Dair.

True, someone like Marsalis wouldn’t even begin to qualify certain forms of newer jazz as “jazz”, but he can deal with it in his own way in his own space. Me, I’m about celebrating today and prepping for tomorrow. Others can eulogize the past. Jazz ain’t dead. It just became Death Jazz.

7 Leah R. Garnett
Posted 09/02/09 at 10:08 pm

Very cool. I had no idea you were Mr. Death Jazz! I listened to some of your tracks, and I like them a lot, particularly In the Mood. It does kinda make the whole jazz is dying argument absurd. Everything changes – nothing stands still, including music. The academic writers’ horror about the death of jazz is really more nostalgia than anything else. Life goes on. People grow old and die, and music evolves and changes for better or worse, like everything else.

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