Reports of Jazz’s Death Greatly Exaggerated
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.”
“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.