“JAZZ IS DEAD,” REDUX

In the past two days, I’ve received several group emails on the gloomy present and worse future of jazz — its aging and shrinking audience, its diminishing sliver of the music market, the lack of recognition and awareness it is granted by the media, etc.  And those emails delve into the usual ruminations on HOW DID THIS HAPPEN and WHAT CAN BE DONE and IS IT TRUE? 

I would find it hard to disprove the grim assertions.  I grew up in a time and place where the local department store had a section for jazz records, where Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were on broadcast television and commercial radio, where there were people in their teens and twenties at jazz concerts and clubs.  A month ago, at Whitley Bay, for instance, I saw the Chicago Stompers — a swinging Italian big band with the right spirit whose eldest member was twenty-four.  Yet the audience was mostly nearing retirement age, and I wondered (as I always do) whether there would be jazz parties and jazz festivals offering the kind of music I love in twenty years.

Both sides of the debate were present in my email box. 

A “cultural critic” with a substantial reputation trotted out the familiar and even more depressing statistics: only a small percentage of Americans go to hear live jazz, and that percentage is getting older, apparently not being replaced by their children and grandchildren.  (Observe the grey-haired audience at a Schubert concert, by the way, and you might feel the same angst.)  Marty Grosz, who makes his living playing hot jazz, said to me a few years ago that the music was in the same position in this century as scrimshaw: an archaic art practiced by a few experts, appreciated by a very small number of people. 

But this rushing-to-embrace doom has a certain tired familiarity to it.  Jazz has never been an art form that enjoyed overwhelming popular success.  For every copy of the Goodman Carnegie Hall concert recordings sold in 1950, more were sold by Earl Grant and Johnnie Ray.  The Swing Era — that Edenic time that makes jazz fans misty-eyed — was also dominated by the Andrews Sisters, Sammy Kaye, Kay Kyser.  Jazz has always enjoyed a narrow audience, and I suspect that this is something its fans secretly enjoy, knowing about Tesch and Tristano when everyone else was listening to the Top Forty.  “Fit audience, though few,” wrote John Milton. 

And journalists and critics know that bad news — the sky is falling, again — gets more attention than the reverse.  Articles of this sort used to be called “thumb-suckers,” and the phrase is devastatingly apt. 

On the other hand, a sincere devotee of “traditional jazz” wrote that things were better than they seem, that jazz was being played at parties and festivals all across the US, and that it was only the slanted nature of surveys, statistics, and media coverage that gave rise to the premature mourning.  Some of this is true.  The Europeans, especially, seem to be doing a far better job of keeping hot jazz alive than the Americans.  Still, it’s hard to predict that jazz will “be alive” forever, especially if your definition of “alive” relies on a fancifully large audience that probably never existed. 

My thoughts on the subject may strike some readers as nihilistic.  Everything comes to an end.  Human beings are finite, and their accomplishments are forgotten.  “All things fall and are built again,” wrote W.B. Yeats, and he was considering something larger than jazz as an idea, a way of life, or a practice.   

Suppose at some time in the unimaginable future no one knew who Lester Young was or why past civilizations had made space for him in their encyclopedia.  Would Lester’s life and work have been meaningless?  I don’t think so.  If what we love as “jazz” is no longer talked about or even played, it will have existed, taken up space in our ears and our consciousness.  Perhaps we should stop glooming over the aticipated “death of jazz” or defending it against statisticians and simply live in the moment to enjoy what is there, while it (and we) are able to do so.

P.S.  People addicted to journalism will recognize the syndrome I have been describing and be able to call to mind grave articles on “The Death of the Broadway Theatre,” “The Death of Print,” “Is Fashion Dead?” “The End of Classical Music,” and such funereal prose has been the fashion in jazz criticism for a long time.  I would bet that a survey of DOWN BEAT circa 1939 could turn up pieces titled “Swing Is Dead, Says _ _ _ _ ,” and to the left of my computer I have a 1999 essay from THE ANTIOCH REVIEW (its special jazz issue), “Where’s The Jazz Audience,” by Willard Jenkins.  Sincere, thoughtful, earnest . . . . but plus ca change.

12 responses to ““JAZZ IS DEAD,” REDUX

  1. Pingback: “JAZZ IS DEAD,” REDUX

  2. I remember hearing an interview on NPR’s Performance Today about 5 years ago in which a concert pianist recounted starting his career 40 years ago & looking out at a symphony hall audience full of white heads. He thought he would have a short career. Now in his 60s, he looks out from the piano bench at an audience that has the same snowy hair. It may simply be that serious music, jazz or classical, is something that we come to later in life.

  3. John, thank youh for reminding us that every jazz cloud has a silver-haired lining. That audience has not only longevity but loyalty: they didn’t encounter jazz on Monday and grow tired of it on Thursday!

  4. Jazz will never die. The evidence for this assertion lies in the growing number of young jazz musicians (take a look at the expansion of jazz studies programs at music schools around the U.S.). Inspired and influenced by jazz musicians of the past and present, they will act as cultural ambassadors to both preserve the tradition and history of the music and continue to move the music forward.

    Secondly, if we look at “jazz” as a means and method to composing music, then we should rest assured that it will always live. If the sad day comes when no one remembers Lester Young, there will still be musicians out there interacting and communicating with audiences and each other through their music, who will have the facility and awareness to perform music that honestly reflects their personality and existence in that given moment.

  5. Barbara Bengels

    By chance I was at a local community concert held al fresco in the evening. People of all ages attended–the major difference being that the younger folk were seated on blankets while us oldsters were either on park benches or in folding chairs. The youngest members of the crowd were enjoying the music by running around–and munching on popcorn, supplied by the village. Their grandparents occasionally got up to dance. Even our dog picked up on the celebratory atmosphere–and will probably demand that we take her to more outdoor concerts in the future.

  6. I would suggest that the popcorn had a great cultural influence, especially on the dog . . . . !

  7. I just returned from a 4 day swing dance festival in Canberra, Australia. It was 4 days of live jazz bands (Michael McQuiad featured), vintage DJs (including yours truly) playing mostly tracks from the Swing era until the wee hours, and a average attendee age of around 25.

    The jazz audience will live on, it just might not be in the form we recognise it now.

  8. A friend of mine had a jazz picnic this past weekend. The band was Anat Cohen, clarinet;
    leading Randy Reinhart,cornet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Howard Alden, guitar; Frank Tate, bass and Marion Felder, drums.
    This jazz was alive and well! In fact it occured to me that while I was hearing the same tunes (for the most part) that Condonites had been playing fifty (or more) years ago, these musicians were playing them more inventively. For example, a clarinet/guitar duet on “Sheveport Stomp” played at Morton’s original tempo-perhaps faster.

    This will surely be viewed as sacrilege but I think this kind of thing happens with great frequency among this particular group of players. You rarely hear anyone talking about it except on Jazz Lives.

  9. Thanks for the praise at the end, Bob . . . although words like “inventive” make me nervous, there’s plenty of room for reimagining and rethinking even the most tired jazz material. Sounds like it was a lovely picnic: your friend has good taste!

  10. André Growald

    I don’t think jazz will ever die. But jazz won’t ever be as popular as pop and we have to accept this as a fact. Jazz, as classical music, is a much more difficult music which requires much more attention – as classical music – and there’ll never be enough people in this world who’ll be motivated to give away their time to deepen in “difficult” music…

  11. Here’s hard evidence that Pres MIGHT make it for a long time. It goes like this: A cat named Guillame de Machaut wrote a Messe de Notre Dame that in the 40s had only one 78 recording on a determined German Archival label. Now, over 60 years later there are LPs, multiple CDs and numerous performances of that Mass. Guillame was born in 1300; still turning people on 709 years later. I think Pres & Louis and all have as good a crack at immortality as our Bill…sam p

  12. Great analysis of this topic, Michael–

    And great point about the graying jazz audience, John Herr.

    Funny, when I play jazz music for the high school students I teach, they often remark that, yes, of course I like that 50’s jazz because I’m old.

    But most of the music I love is older than I am. Not a sentimental attachment but an acquired taste.

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