Home > General > Can Jazz Be Saved? (Does It Need to Be?)

Can Jazz Be Saved? (Does It Need to Be?)

August 25, 2009

Now, there’s a provocative title – and one that I stole in part from a recent Vancouver Jazz Forum thread which in turn lifted its title from an article by Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal that claims jazz may be in serious trouble if recent statistics are any indication of its declining popularity.

Teachout cites a number of statistics from a National Endowment of the Arts survey that he says point to a serious problem:

In 2002, the year of the last survey, 10.8% of adult Americans attended at least one jazz performance. In 2008, that figure fell to 7.8%.

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.

Older people are also much less likely to attend jazz performances today than they were a few years ago. The percentage of Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 who attended a live jazz performance in 2008 was 9.8%. In 2002, it was 13.9%. That’s a 30% drop in attendance.

Even among ­college-educated adults, the audience for live jazz has shrunk significantly, to 14.9% in 2008 from 19.4% in 1982.

Players and jazz advocates alike often lament the poor (or predominantly grey-haired) turnout at some local jazz events. On the other hand, we see events where audiences are large and younger people fully engaged in performing or enjoying this music.

Is the situation here as bad as the U.S. stats suggest? Has jazz, as Teachout claims, become such a sophisticated art form that, much like classical music, it’s now inaccessible or of little interest to the average listener? Will even more jazz clubs close? If so, what’s to be done?

You can read the forum thread at

http://vancouverjazz.com/forums/showthread.php?t=3334

and the original article at

http://sbk.online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204619004574320303103850572.html

Comments can be posted here by clicking on the “Leave a Comment” button found just under the title of this post.

– Rick Gibbs

Categories: General
  1. December 16, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Being a musician, I am, of course, biased but the good news is that I do believe jazz can be saved. The bad news is, I doubt that it will. The art of melodic improvisation flourished when it was part of the popular music of the ’20’s through the big band era. Kids who were buying records could relate to it physically through dancing. In order to awaken the public’s atrophied ears to our beloved art form, that connection would have to be reestablished. A golden opportunity was missed during the GAP commercial inspired mini swing craze of the mid to late ’90’s. It got young people swing dancing. The craze ended because, not suprisingly, people became bored with the music even though the players wore funny hats and twirled their instruments and made every effort to be visually entertaining. Why?
    Maybe we should be a little scientific about this. Not rocket science, mind you, because we are talking about entertainment here. Back in the ’70’s, when dance clubs still hired bands (before DJs took over completely) I had an epiphany of sorts while taking a guitar solo with my “funk” band. The dance floor was full but I realized that my solo could be good, bad, or mediocre and it really would not make much of a difference to the dancers. That was because they were dancing to the symmetrical back beats on 2 and 4 of the measure. As Dick Clark’s studio audiences on American Band Stand repeatedly informed us – it is a good beat and it is easy to dance to (sic).
    I once saw a film of the Benny Goodman band where the camera was looking down on a crowded dance floor from a balcony. As Goodman built his clarinet solo to a climax, you could see the dancers jumping higher into the air. They were driven by Gene Krupa’s quarter notes on the bass drum and loud, propulsive, asymmetrical hits on the snare, but people were essentially dancing to the improvised melody. The drumming of Joe Jones with the Basie band is another example of asymmetrical back beats. Unfortunately, none of the swing acts that achieved notoriety during the ’90’s (Big, Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brian Setzer et al…) picked up on this. The shuffle got old real fast. Strong back beats propel the dancers but a steady 2 and 4 disengages them from the melody.
    Forget jazz and history and zoot suits for a minute and break it down to the sonic essentials of what makes people dance and there may be a glimmer of hope for a fusion with melodic improvisation. Whether people are dancing to Rihanna or Basie, we know that they like it around 120 beats per minute. What they are dancing to is the quarter note pulse. You can easily take any contemporary dance track, strip away everything but the bass drum, and superimpose Satin Doll. The only difference is that the rhythm of the modern (unimprovised) melodic content is usually defined with straight eighths and sixteenth notes instead of swing eighths.
    At this point, you may ask – “who cares?” Well, we do, obviously and the marketing and promotional geniuses have not been able to prevent America’s only original art form from going down the tubes. Could it be that the music itself needs to be dealt with? It didn’t mean a thing without that swing because that was the feeling that connected the dancer and the melodic improvisor. New music can be created with that feeling that connects with today’s dancers but it won’t swing for long unless the crutch of the symmetrical back beat is avoided.

  2. Rick Gibbs
    August 27, 2009 at 1:54 am

    Toronto jazz pianist Chris Donnelly, who will be playing here in October, has a superb blog in which he considers a number of artistic and practical questions of concern to jazz artists and advocates.

    (He, by the way, is one who clearly has been thinking creatively about music and marketing for some time with a remarkable degree of success by any measure in both fields.)

    Here’s a quote from one of his entries that may have some relevance to this discussion:

    “I hear many artists talking about the arts in Europe. From a North American’s perspective, appreciation for the arts and culture seem to be more prevalent. There are more gigs, more fans and more opportunities. Why?”

    He goes on to ask

    “Is it all about habit forming? Europeans have had a thousand years to develop habits that support the arts. Which means, unfortunately, that if this is a major issue for North Americans, there is no quick fix.”

    and concludes with

    “What will a North American do when they’re free on Friday night? How often will they go to the opera? My guess: Very rarely. If we took every North American child to the opera every Friday night for twenty years, and they grew to appreciate it, discuss it and support it, what would the arts community look like after twenty years?”

    In another piece he cites a quote sent to him by a music educator friend:

    “Culture cannot be inherited. The culture of previous ages will vanish unless each new generation wins it for itself again and again. Only that for which we have worked, or even suffered, truly belongs to us. Music will only enter our souls, live within us, if we plow our souls with our own efforts, with our own music making.” Zoltán Kodály

    and in a third adds this thought:

    “If something moves us so deeply that we feel the duty to preserve its impact for later years and future generations, then we are responsible for making that contribution. The bottom line is that unless we do something about it, our generation is going to forget and worse, the next generations won’t know it ever existed! Write about it, speak about it, record it and perform it. And do it often!”

    In this sense perhaps even Mr. Teachout is doing the right thing by raising a question about the current state of jazz.

    Also, I’m not sure marketing should be cast aside too easily. Thinking creatively about marketing may actually feed the creative process in music by suggesting new musical territory for exploration and new modes of performing. Hugh Fraser’s revival of Gil Evans’ Jimi Hendrix charts last fall might be one example where music and marketing supported each other beautifully. Another is Ron Hadley’s upcoming Harvest of Music in Qualicum. Art (particularly musical art) must have an audience – otherwise what’s its point?

    By the way, you can read more of Chris Donnelly’s thoughts at

    http://www.chrisdonnellymusic.com/Blog

    He’s worth reading because he’s a young artist (25 or 26 years old) with a lot to say musically and intellectually. I’ll soon be doing a piece on him.

  3. Maurice Boucher
    August 26, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    When I try to decide how I REALLY feel about Mr. Teachout’s leading question disguised as a headline, “Can Jazz be Saved?”. Like others within this post, I feel I must respond to the article as a piece rather than simply reacting to the headline with either sad resignation or apoplectic indignation (depending on my mood that day).

    So I find it is helpful to pause and think about this article within the context of Mr. Teachout’s other writings as a culture critic, the larger editorial ambitions of the Wall Street Journal Arts and Culture beat (or lack of), and the economic implications of New York’s investment in jazz as a cultural institution and tourist draw.

    And I finally decide that I reject both the assumptions and assertions that form the basis of much of Teachout’s article to such a degree that the question that forms the headline of the piece, “Can Jazz be Saved?” takes on the lawyer-like dubious logic of other classic joke/questions such as “Answer yes or no. Have you stopped beating your wife?”

    It is a rhetorical trick – stock and trade of the drive-thru fast-food level of reporting/opinion-making that Murdoch owned publications use in lieu of actual analysis. The article could easily substitute the word “Jazz” for the name of some faceless corporate employee and it would resemble a human resources memo titled “So and So doesn’t seem to be pulling his own weight. How long before we give him the ax?”

    In other words, the question doesn’t deserve an answer. But it does deserve a response.

    This is it. The web, like television, is a useful tool to ‘push out’ the various agendas of Corporate Media as it attempts to make simplistic statements about complex cultural issues in the hopes that it can cumulatively confuse the course of public opinion.

    But the web is also a useful tool for those who wish to check the assumptions that lie behind such campaigns. That said, I am not a raving Chomskyite and this not so much a matter of exposing nefarious conspiracies. It is an attempt to simply better understand the context in which assertions such as this are made.

    I believe a few hours of sniffing internet “breadcrumbs” does not reveal any smoking gun, so much as narrows the context of discussion from a heated echo chamber to a tightly focused light on issues that lie beyond the issues that corporate media would like us to spend our time discussing.

    On the surface we could easily range over many, many valid points that amount to a complex stew of overlapping causes and effects whenever attempting to deconstruct cultural trends like forecasting the future/demise of jazz. But here is a more salient issue that the piece doesn’t seem to want us to even consider.

    Why does North America only value its indigenous culture for its ability to generate dollars?

    That is why I found Arnold van Klaveren’s response in Vancouver Jazz Forum and in this blog helpful.
    I think he is on to something in questioning Teachout’s assertion that the National Art’s council’s interpretation of U.S. census data concludes that the audience for jazz is in serious decline since 1983.

    Teachout’s response piece to similar fallout since his Wall Street Journal piece is here:
    http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/2009/08/tt_two_little_words.html

    To paraphrase Teachout’s response, the numbers don’t lie. Actually Mr. Teachout, the numbers often do lie. And what’s more, we often have to use other numbers to police them. Arnold van Klaveren has some enlightening things to say in that regard in the Vancouver Jazz Forum, but my beef with using studies like this to make assertions like the piece in the Wall Street Journal is not that I want to shoot the messenger in the guise of Mr. Teachout, nor do I want to do a forensic analysis of the study.

    Teachout reports the study’s conclusions but basically presents this information stripped from the context that is actually the journalistic meat of the story.

    The N.E.A. — a government cultural institution (with all the invariable political turf wars and biases that stem naturally from lots of culture and too little culture dollars to spend) populated a report with data collected by a completely separate government agency charged with collecting raw census data.

    That data, fortunate for us, was never-the-less specific enough in its interpretation of what constitutes “Jazz” (something ardent fans have been arguing about since Louis Armstrong bought a train ticket north) to glean hard numbers about attendance and public tastes that are worthy enough to use in the furtherance of public policy.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the N.E.A. gave it the old college try and did the study and I don’t disagree with the general sentiment that the audience for jazz is in decline.

    My objection to such articles is the implicit sentiment that the marketplace ( and therefore the final arbiter) has spoken and there is nothing more to say about it other than to roll up our sleeves and work harder to promote, package and publicize.

    Or alternatively, to throw up our hands and begin muttering about the musical tastes of the hoi polloi.

    I am concerned about the effect on creative artists of corporate media’s relentless promotion of the idea that commercial failure is artistic failure.

    I am concerned that musicians who read this article will continue to second guess themselves and their talent.

    I am concerned about artists who may spend less time thinking creatively about music and more time thinking creatively about marketing campaigns.

    I am concerned about talented marketing people and savvy artist managers only going where the big bucks are (check out the state of the pop marketplace – they’re not doing much better in that neck of the woods)

    I am concerned about jazz students who decide to chuck it.

    I’m concerned how the snap judgments and lazy assertions that go for reportage in Mr. Murdochs world also seem to coincidentally remake our culture into something more commensurate with his values.

  4. Rick Gibbs
    August 26, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    The point about promotion of music that Arnold mentions can be found in the original Vancouver Jazz Forum thread noted in the story.

  5. Arnold van Klaveren
    August 26, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Is Jazz Dead??
    It seems to me that the discussion around this topic raises it ugly head every few years.
    In my experience, that being this years JazzFest International, the shows that I attended where either sold out of nearly sold out. Those shows were at Hermann’s and featured 100% Canadian talent!! The other show that I attended was at the Royal theatre and was not sold out but about 2/3rd’s full. Was attendance down? I think with the economy being was it is, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the numbers down. Does this mean that “Jazz is Dead”? I think not.
    Rick Gibbs make a very good point about the promotion of music in Victoria, and elsewhere. I believe that this continues to be a problem. As Rick suggests in his comments, we need to do a better job of promoting the product and that includes involvement from a number of sources.
    Those include the clubs, musicians and media .
    I also believe that if we promote our own, make people aware of the talent in this town, get them out to the gigs to experience the level of playing, that jazz in Victoria will continue to prosper.

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