I'm a little late to respond to the latest controversy taking the jazzer internet by storm. I'm referring of course to the debate over whether or not jazz has died and what, if anything, can be done to save it. If you are new to this discussion, skip to the bottom of this post and go below the fold where I've mapped out the articles that instigated this discussion as well as the responses.
I haven't been able to stop think about it and after reading Dave Douglas's response, I felt inspired to throw in my 2 cents. Initially, upon reading Teachout's now infamous WSJ article I felt exasperated. While I agreed for the most part with his points that the jazz audience is dwindling and something needs to happen in relation to the audiences to bring the popularity back, I found the dismal and condescending tone of the article to be unhelpful and to be honest, a bit redundant. Didn't we already know this? Did we really need the NEA's latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts to tell us this. No and NO! Then again, perhaps the intended readership was the not the jazz community, but those who probably have no idea whats going on with jazz these days.
Nate Chinen's optimistic response was appreciated, but fell a little short as it seemed to exist purely to contradict the interpretations of the survey. His anecdotal evidence has value in that it proves that clubs are still getting attendance, but I'm not sure if using high profile shows of the top 1% of the jazz performers in a city where people, non-Americans especially, visit with the purpose of seeing a token jazz show is the best representation of the state of jazz audiences today. And perhaps that wasn't his point exactly, and I'm certainly not try to pick another fight, but the article, like Teachout's, did not seem to offer any course of action.
This is why I appreciated Dave Douglas's response on one of the newer jazz blogs to spring up, NPR's A Blog Supreme. The short article discusses the appointment of Rocco Landesman as the new chairman of the NEA and how this appointment can aid the ailing jazz community through its proposed individual artist grants, the very grant program that Douglas credits for helping him get started back in 1990. A few things Douglas said struck a chord with me:
So we're conflicted as a country about the arts, much the way we're conflicted about change in our not-so-effective health care system. We don't like the system the way it is, but we're also afraid our leaders won't get it right. We're caught between wanting to clean up the arts for communities, but still wanting to support vital, hot-blooded but potentially transgressive art.
We oughtn't to have overly strong opinions about this. We ought to respect those who disagree with us. We carry all the contradictions right within ourselves. The panelists and executive directors will make the best decisions they can, hopefully with our input, and then we'll move on and swing to the rhythm of the programs they've put on the stand. No doubt the free market will also kick in and play whatever role it has to play.
To me, this kind of thinking is more productive than discussions of whether jazz is dead or arguments about how programs should decide who gets funded. We should wish Rocco luck and work to make sure he can do the work that he wants to do.
While I might nit pick the part about not having strong opinions or trusting panelists, I very much appreciate his forward moving and non-complaining attitude. It's downright refreshing.
This morning on a gruelingly hot and sticky run, I found Douglas's attitude infectious and started thinking about how to articulate the thoughts I've had on this issue for some time now especially in regards to what steps could be taken to help jazz come out if its recession. Here's what I came up with.
A large chunk of jazz music is just not accessible to those who do not play jazz. You really have to be somewhat educated in the music to truly be able to understand, appreciate, and enjoy what is being played. I remember very clearly my first listen to Charlie Parker. My thoughts went like this: "Wow he plays fast!" "I love his sound!" "I have no idea what he's doing and all the songs sound the same." I put that tape away and did not take it back out for a couple of years after I had studied a few Abersolds!
Each artist makes a decision to write either for themselves or for their audience, and I respect either way, as long as the former is not complaining about the latter. If we want new audiences, we need to write/perform for them. READ THIS: I'm not at all saying we dumb down the music, we just give the audience a little something to grab onto. I refer to an experience I had last year listening to my boyfriend play his ass off on some originals and a few standards at a bar/restaurant. The crowd was decent, but only into it during conversational lulls. So out of the bag he pulled "Take the A Train," a song that for as much as I love Ellington, I could never hear again and be happy. But... the crowd, LOVED IT. They were actually hooting and hollering and they into the music for the rest of the night.
I think we often get so caught up in the art of our music that we forget that unlike many's life philosophy, with music, the song IS the destination, not the journey. In the end, to a listener, especially one that is not as educated in the music, the process isn't important, it doesn't matter the highly advanced chord structure, or intricate use of hemiola in the B section, or even the subtlety of the muted brass blending with the woodwinds. What matters it whether or not is sounds good. Bottom line. You like it or you don't. This is the make or break opinion of a new listener. There's a reason its called a "hook." Hook them in, educate them later. Because obviously all of the above does matter, and is very important, and contributes entirely to the overall sound experience. But where as a studied jazz listener can say, "Well I wasn't crazy about the melody (or lack there of) but the orchestration and use of alto flute was pure genius so sure, I'll spend$.99 to download that track." I can almost guarantee the new listener would simply say, "huh?"
I do think today's jazz is on the right track in this regard. I think both The Bad Plus and Darcy James Argue can appeal to an open minded indie rock fan. I've heard Jason Moran and The Bandwagon put on a show that was practically a straight up RnB/smooth jazz show, and Robert Glasper is hopefully gleaning some of the hip hop audience through his time with Mos Def. I don't think all jazz artists need to go this "fringe" route as I sometimes call it, but I think a little dipping into that pool, whether it be through today's popular music, or recalling the popular standards of yesteryear, can only help reel on the cusp listeners. And I believe we can do that without compromising our artistic integrity.
I truly believe most jazz is best heard live. There is nothing better than feeling the energy of the players, the audience (if its a good one) and knowing you are witnessing the creation of music through the improvisation. There's also the thrill of trying to catch everything happening on first listen. The problem is, it is almost impossible to go hear live music these days. Not because there aren't enough musicians to fill the stages, but because it is too damn expensive! I personally can't even afford to go hear my friend's gigs, let alongenew music! When clubs charge a $10 cover, PLUS $20 minimum, they instantly define their audience based on economics rather than the musical interest. How can that compete with the bars featuring the singer/songwriter de jour where the cover is $5 with no drink minimum? I can only assume these expensive jazz clubs charge what they do because they have to (at least I HOPE that's why) but until places start offering music at a cheaper cost, or more free festivals spring up, well meaning and respected initiatives such as Search and Restore can only do so much.
Not to mention the lack of jazz clubs in other cities. Every town has at least 1 bar with an open mic. Many towns have community orchestras or better. Seems there's always a local production of "Fiddler on the Roof" happening thanks to the many community theaters present in typical towns. Yet, few towns have anything resembling jazz. How can we expect those communities to get into the genre when they have no exposure to it?
While waiting on the clubs to make our music accessible, I think we have to rely on other media formats to get our music out. Social internet networking is slowly helping. Websites like ReverbNation are great because they offer a no risk (free downloads in most cases) scenario for trying new music and make it easy for the musicians to spread their music through widgets (as I have made great use of.) The first time I heard Darcy James Argue's music was through a free download off his blog/website. It was only after listening for while to those recordings that I decided to check him out live and I'm now a fan. Supporting each other and giving recommendations is crucial as well as I think we really need to rely on word of mouth to spread our music.
Really though, I think what would make the biggest difference in spreading jazz is the integration into mainstream media. This seems to be the new way of advertising the rock/pop/indie music these days. I'm not really in that scene any more, meaning that I don't listen to the radio, I was going to say or watch MTV... but I guess MTV doesn't really show videos anymore (shoot! Just showed my age there!). But the few pop artists that I have checked out in the pass few years have been from ones I've heard featured in TV shows and commercials. For the sake of this argument, I will admit to downloading the soundtracks to Grey's Anatomy seasons 2 AND 3. If they put out a season 4, I'd probably download it too. I don't even watch that show anymore but it has proved to be a reliable source of new music that fit my tastes when I'm in the mood for that sort of thing. New pop musicians, such as Kate Havnevik, Ingrid Michaelson, and Regina Spektor have made themselves known through this marketing method. Is there no music house out there willing to pitch some jazz track to these guys? I can certainly hear any of the aforementioned artists fitting into various scenes of most CW/ABC teen dramas. Are these music houses out there? Are they trying hard enough? Are we giving them music that can use? See again point 1.
3. Finally, and I guess this is 3 pennies now for my thoughts (which may be all they are worth!), I look to the educators to help out us. Speaking as someone who has taught general and instrumental music as well as theory, ear training, and basic composition to both private and public school kids grades K-12 in 3 different states, I can safely say, music teachers already have their hands full with scheduling conflicts, administrations, lack of funding, broken instruments, lack of resources, lack of rooms in some cases, marching band, national standards, and concerts scheduled simply to give principals bragging rights (never mind that the month leading up to concert date is consumed entirely with standardized testing, making it impossible for students to even attend band class!). Add that to their own personal teaching philosophy of what is important in music education. To ask them to accommodate one more aspect of music could be the straw that breaks the music teacher's sanity. But I'm gonna ask it anyway.
I think one way of truly building a new jazz audience is to start with the youngest generation possible... well, the youngest in education. The Kindergartners. No, they don't need to be schooled in the importance of Coltrane's Love Supreme, they just need a Good Musical Experience. That's it. And some general exposure to ANY kind of jazz music. If kids enjoy general music (and lots of them don't- please don't force them to sing!) they will be more likely to sign up for band. If they like band they will sign up for jazz band. If they have a Good Musical Experience in jazz band, well, you just may have hooked a new audience member. And having exposure to the way jazz music sounds from the beginning would be most helpful. When I play jazz for my students during listening exercises, I STILL to this day get the response "I don't like it because it's elevator music." It's what? Where did they even learn that term? Few elevators these days even have music in it, much less anything that resembles even bad jazz. Somewhere along the line they were taught that jazz music was elevator music. When they hear it sounds unfamiliar so they group it into the closest thing they can think of. Elevator music. I'm convinced that if kids where exposed to jazz on a regular basis and the words "elevator music" where never uttered, they would not have that opinion.
I'm further convinced that all it takes is a Good Musical Experience to open kids up to new music. This worked with me. I LOVED playing in my high school jazz band. Its entirely what prompted me to start studying jazz. Of course when I started learning more about jazz, I realized I wasn't actually playing jazz back in high school, but it didn't matter, because it hooked me in and now I was going to learn everything about it. Sure it would have been better if I had been playing "Take the A Train" than the "Shoop Shoop Song" and perhaps my first few years of undergrad would have been easier, but the point is, it was enough to hook me in.
So educators, you don't necessarily have to be jazzers to teach it. Just help us out and expose it a little here and there and continue to give these students Good Musical Experiences!
Jazzers... we can help by giving free clinics, workshops, and performances at these schools. Over this past summer I had a "listening day" with my theory classes where instead of me playing songs, they would get to share their own music. One student brought in a John Pizzarelli CD! I was so surprised! When asked how she had heard of him, she said he gave a presentation every year at her school. As a teacher, I have brought in my peers to do masterclasses and the kids treated them like celebrities. It may not have a direct payoff, but if the problem is that we can not get new listeners into jazz because they are not educated enough in the music to enjoy it, then lets educate them. And in addition to the growing amount of blogs out there and the few magazines we have, going into the classroom is just as vital.
And those are my 2, er I mean 3 cents.
It takes a ginormous amount of time, energy, and faith to create this music. Lets conserve our energy for the music and the audience and waste none on the naysayers. Though I must give Teachout some final credit, while his article may not have initially seemed helpful, it certainly spawned an internet outrage that can be used to our advantage if we chose to make it.
For those who want to follow the chronology of the controversy, see below the fold.