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.
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.