Tag Archives: “Jazz is dead”

“JAZZ LIVES”: SETH COLTER WALLS

Excerpts from his piece, “JAZZ IS DEAD.  LONG LIVE JAZZ.”  (From NEWSWEEK, Dec 21, 2009.)

[O]n an economic level, right: as a mass-culture force, jazz is dead. Simply look at the contemporary brand most familiar to a lay audience: the Marsalis family. In the early ’90s, one brother (Branford) was leading Jay Leno’s late-night band, while another (Wynton) was the preeminent trumpeter on Columbia, Miles’s old label. By the middle of this decade, both of them had lost those public perches—and no one has reached that stature since. 

Multi-disc sets of previously unissued live concerts from Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz are also competing for the public’s limited attention span this season. So no wonder folks keep saying jazz is dead: devotion to its past is stealing oxygen from the same room in which the present hopes to draw a breath.

[A]t the point where a relatively young art like jazz amasses enough history to merit these important tomes and huge box sets, the more difficult it becomes for the culture to absorb what’s happening in real time. And real time is how jazz is best experienced. Like baseball—another great American invention—part of jazz’s appeal is in how it unspools without deference to the clock. Just as drama asks for suspension of our disbelief, jazz asks us for the suspension of our need to program our every moment. Meantime, our contemporary mania for abbreviated text updates—think Twitter, Facebook, and BlackBerrys—feels as if it stands in direct opposition to jazz’s deliberate, instrumental abstractions. Enjoying the music—really swinging with it—is a glorious sacrifice of the need to micro-manage the moment. And though it can be dreamy, this surely isn’t a recipe for amassing a stable brand that can support itself in the modern marketplace. At the beginning of the 21st century, the economic status of jazz is more like that of the symphony orchestra, only without the economic safety net of foundation funding that undergirds concerts featuring Beethoven and Brahms.

In fact, the arts community should debate whether a greater share of the music endowment pie ought to be going to jazz musicians. The rub is that it never will, unless there is an understanding that jazz’s economic status isn’t a hideous reflection of poor aesthetic health. But even if jazz is finally buried in that (expanding) graveyard of former mass-culture obsessions, that doesn’t mean the music isn’t still happening, or that it isn’t still perfectly capable of talking to us at an individual level. As long as they don’t starve to death, committed jazz musicians will be there for you, the forbidding economics of their pursuit be damned. And even if no one you know is talking about what they’re playing, be wary of any strangers who tell you they aren’t swinging anymore.

In reprinting excerpts from Walls’ piece, sent to me by Bill Gallagher, I am definitely not trying to awaken the Teachout-driven controversy about whether “jazz is dead” or not.  But I think Walls makes splendid points about the competitive marketplace that makes jazz — for most listeners — less essential, and the short attention span so characteristic of our times that makes many people too impatient for the music, too eager for instant gratification to immerse themselves in a musical form that no longer seems like a common language.  It wasn’t difficult to get listeners to appreciate jazz in 1936 or even 1956, because it was still part of the contemporaneous art . . . but now everyone has to work a bit harder.  I would quibble about his division between “past” and “present” in his second paragraph, since the jazz I revere brings those two artificial entities together from the first bar.  But that’s semantics. 

Since I think that much of what Walls writes makes good sense, and especially because “swinging” is the penultimate word of his essay, I hope he is able to come to New York City some Sunday night: I’ll buy him dinner at the Ear Inn. 

Comments, anyone?

The full piece can be found here: http://www.newsweek.com/id/226331/output/comments. 

And I would try not to be startled by the many unfamiliar names Walls cites: you can, if they make the room spin around, insert the names of musicians you love.

“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.