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August 08, 2009

Jazz Goes Geriatric

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Today's Wall Street Journal includes the article "Can Jazz Be Saved" by Terry Teachout suggesting that jazz is going the way of classical music, if its audience is any indication.

He cites results from the National Endowment for the Arts’ most recent Survey of ­Public Participation in the Arts done with the cooperation of the Census Bureau

After citing a few statistics, Teachout offers the following:

These numbers indicate that the audience for jazz in America is both aging and shrinking at an alarming rate. What I find no less revealing, though, is that the median age of the jazz audience is now comparable to the ages for attendees of live performances of classical music (49 in 2008 vs. 40 in 1982), opera (48 in 2008 vs. 43 in 1982), nonmusical plays (47 in 2008 vs. 39 in 1982) and ballet (46 in 2008 vs. 37 in 1982). In 1982, by contrast, jazz fans were much younger than their high-culture counterparts.

What does this tell us? I suspect it means, among other things, that the average American now sees jazz as a form of high art. Nor should this come as a surprise to anyone, since most of the jazz musicians that I know feel pretty much the same way. They regard themselves as artists, not entertainers, masters of a musical language that is comparable in seriousness to classical music—and just as off-putting to pop-loving listeners who have no more use for Wynton Marsalis than they do for Felix Mendelssohn. ...

Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to undo the transformation of jazz into a sophisticated art music. But there’s no sense in pretending that it didn’t happen, or that contemporary jazz is capable of appealing to the same kind of mass audience that thrilled to the big bands of the swing era. And it is precisely because jazz is now widely viewed as a high-culture art form that its makers must start to grapple with the same problems of presentation, marketing and audience development as do symphony orchestras, drama companies and art museums—a task that will be made all the more daunting by the fact that jazz is made for the most part by individuals, not established institutions with deep pockets.

I've liked at least some classical music since about the time I started high school. I became interested in jazz about the same time, though this interest mostly had to do with swing bands of the late 1930s and very early 1940s. I thought Dixieland was too crude, liked some Bebop, but never could get interested in jazz created after the early 50s. For all I know, there is a lot of great music out there, but I can't bestir myself to find it.

A problem I have with jazz is that it is extemporaneous. (It can't be anything else. Swing band music was based on written arrangements with slots available for on-the-fly solo riffs. So I don't consider it "real" jazz, but won't fight the contention of others that it was a sub-species of jazz.) Jazz therefore is linked to a specific time, place and set of participating personalities. Unlike most other forms of music, it cannot (in principle) be replicated (though I suppose replication is attempted in practice from time to time). On the other hand, the score of a piece of classical music is set for all time, though it is open to interpretation by a conductor or performer.

Why, then, should I bother going to a jazz concert if I have no idea what its music will be like? I seldom go to classical concerts (the CD is a lot cheaper), but when I do I at least have an inkling as to what I'm spending my time and money on.

Another problem I have with jazz -- insofar as I've heard snippets of it over time -- is that I find it boring. I suspect a lot of the young folk who seem to be uninterested in jazz feel the same way.

Oh well. My inability to appreciate jazz probably has to do with fact that I am incapable of performing music in any capacity whatsoever. Don't pay attention to anything I said here. Read Teachout's article mull over the data he cites and the conclusions he draws; after all, he was a professional musician at one time.



posted by Donald at August 8, 2009


From Teachout: In 1987, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring jazz to be “a rare and valuable national treasure.”

Well there you go. Symptom or cause, when Congress gets around to calling something a national treasure, whatever life is left in the thing is gone, gone, gone.

Actually, Teachout points out why it happened later in the article. Jazz stopped being music you could dance to. Dance music has to appeal to an audience or it fails. Head music though, can become something that musicians play to one another, audience be damned...they're lucky they even get to listen! Jazz musicians are particularly insufferable with this "grooving with one another" thing they do onstage...they don't deserve an audience, quite frankly.

Jazz going into the same dutiful, Congress-approved cultural dustbin as classical music is only fair, I think.

Party on!

Posted by: PatrickH on August 8, 2009 9:46 PM

Perhaps the really interesting comparisons would be with the audiences for "High Art" in the 1940's and 1950's, both in age and relative numbers of consumers.

My recollection, as someone growing up in small Midwestern towns in the 1950's and early 1960's, was that jazz music of any sort was never heard on the radio, that aside from the odd moment here and there in movies no one caught a glimpse of ballet or live symphonic music or art galleries or museums, that the closest anyone got to live theater was watching or acting in the high school play (one night per year), that classical music on the radio was pretty much limited to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts (which I never even knew of until I attended college), etc. It was a poorer, less cosmopolitan world in a lot of ways, but most of us back then took it for granted.

So there's been an attempt to disseminate the high arts to the masses for the past 40-50 years or so, and it seems to be coming to an end. In the future, we'll have pop music up the wazoo thanks to the internet; we'll have Youtube videos and Flickr and the like for spreading the sounds and images that Everybody Has To See. And traditional art like ballet and opera and live theater will slowly fall back to entertainment for a small, affluent elite. As it was when I was a kid.

Is this bad? All bad? Is there a way to keep the arts alive for years to come for a relative handful of consumers? Should it be public policy to subsidize the arts, to a greater extent than they are today? Is this a left-wing touchy-feely liberal thing to do, which Democrats might choose to support with public monies? Or a right-wing elitist conservative thing, which Republicans might chose to back via changes in the tax code?

Or should we just shrug our Atlas-ian shoulders and let the high arts peter out in this country, with the understanding that real knowledge of high culture is going to be limited to the American equivalent of aristrocrats who receive much of their education in Europe?

Posted by: mike shupp on August 8, 2009 10:55 PM

A taste for jazz is something that has to be developed just like a taste for literature or art or classical music. Personally I prefer jazz recordings made in the early 1960's by small ensembles of three or four talented players.

Posted by: Luke Lea on August 9, 2009 12:06 AM

Music is evolving. Genres are converging. There is no more Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, Classical, Country, Blue Grass, etc., etc. They have not really evolved as separate entities. Instead they have been incorporated into the styles of today's artists and bands.

As for Jazz itself, it simply has to accept its place in time. Keep teaching it in the schools and camps to help push and hone the talents of today's musicians so they produce good music.

Like Duke Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music--good music and bad music. He shunned labels as well.

Jazz festivals should not only showcase Jazz artists and Jazz music. Jazz festivals should also demonstrate how Jazz has influenced and shaped the music of today's popular artists and bands. Also get some of those popular bands to perform at the Jazz festivals so they draw their fan base, who then will be exposed to Jazz.

Posted by: Steve-O on August 9, 2009 12:28 AM

Roddy Doyle's sentiments about jazz from one of my favorite novels, The Commitments:

- An what's wrong with jazz? Jimmy asked
- Intellectual music, said Joey the Lips - It's anti-people music. It's abstract.
- It's cold and emotionless, amn't right? said Mickah.
- You are. - It's got no soul. It is sound for the sake of sound. It has no meaning. - It's musical wanking, brother.

Joey the Lips goes on to say the Russians had the right idea in banning jazz.

I have to profess a deep enjoyment of Billie Holliday, whether she's to be considered R&B or jazz. Excellent post, Donald.

Posted by: Joe Valdez on August 9, 2009 12:54 AM

Funny, but I've just started to listen to jazz seriously (well, as seriously as I do anything) in my fifties. I guess I fit pretty well into the demographic.

However, my interest in jazz, to date, is overwhelmingly a matter of listening to recordings made decades ago; I have a fraught relationship with contemporary jazz music. (Granted, I have an equally fraught relationship with much of 19th and virtually all of 20th century classical music.) Even in the case of the soundtrack album to Ken Burn's Jazz series, which became part of my drive-time listening for a year or so, the CDs from the 1920s and 1930s got a lot more airplay than the CDs from more recent decades, which I listened to rather dutifully once or twice.

Jazz as particularly sophisticated strain of, and a good-natured and lively comment on, pop music still amuses me today and apparently amused the mass audience from the teens through the forties and somewhat into the 1950s. Jazz as a stand-along phenomenon, with performer/composers providing the bulk of the songs as well as the interpretation, as has been the dominant paradigm since, not so much.

I've wondered if the problem is basically a simple one. To wit, an integral element of early Jazz as it worked its magic on pop tunes and blues was the tension between the underlying material and the actual performance. I wonder if this tension wasn't a good deal of the point of this genre of music. When then tension goes away, as it has in contemporary jazz where the process of music making has fundamentally changed (contemporary jazz has isolated itself from outside, and particularly pop, source material) the point has been...lost. And so is the music.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 9, 2009 1:32 AM

Larkin said that the jazz he loved split in two, with the rhythm going to Rock & Roll, and the intelligence going to Modern Jazz. I would add that the Rock & Roll tradition soon enough lost interesting rhythm when it morphed into music for children and musical morons. Modern jazz lost a lot of intelligence when it became music for the drug-addled and the pretentious.

Posted by: dearieme on August 9, 2009 6:36 AM

Musical forms get played out. Literally. I played Dixieland and swing band music when I was a kid. Although I loved it, the music was played out. All the really interesting musical and lyrical themes had been explored. What began as an improvisational form turned into a set piece, with pre-programmed cliches pretending to be exciting discoveries.

The same has happened now to blues and rock and roll. The forms are literally played out. It's very rare for the slightest breath of fresh air to break through. The airwaves are dominated by songs written 40 years ago, performed by guys who are now in their 60s.

Musicians are the own worst enemies in this process. Since I was close to the jazz scene, and knew the jazz musicians involved, I know what happened. Jazz evolved from Dixie to Swing to Be-Bop. Dixie was a form musicians loved because the bands were small (generally 4 to 6 pieces) and this allowed room for individual expression and improvisation. Swing was a straight jacket for the individual musician, but audiences loved it. Everything was scored. Playing in the big band was like playing in an orchestra. No individual or improvisational freedom.

The Be-Bop era was a revolt against this in favor of freedom for musicians. It was also, in a way, a revolt against audience preference. The Bop bands were four piece outfits that gave ultimate improvisational freedom to the musician.

Bop had a short era of critical acclaim, but it killed the music for the audience. The audience preferred to dance and party. Bop was kind of surly and introverted.

Jazz has long been played out. There's nothing new to do there. It's all nostalgia.

I play with a very good female jazz singer, Nikki Armstrong, from time to time. She does a good job of making jazz relevant to the audience by bringing in the dance band feel of a R&B band, and by working hard to make the audience feel they're part of the show. She mixes up the forms, so her shows feel fresh, appeal to an audience of all ages, and she even rocks out a bit.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 9, 2009 11:14 AM

The cranky curmudgeon quotient around here sometimes borders on the comical. Just two nights ago as I wandered the streets of Portland during the First Friday Art Walk I passed a bar in which a jazz quartet was playing for a full house. The band and much of the crowd barely looked old enough to drink legally. Anecdotal, but of a piece with dozens of experiences I've had attending jazz concerts or club dates where the age range of the audience was wide enough to include the very old and the quite young.

The one comment I fully agree with here is Steve-O's first paragraph. The real issue is one of labels. This is "Jazz" that is "Pop" something else is "Classical"; these divisions may have a purpose in marketing, music history courses, or grant applications, but they fail to deliver the goods when it comes to actual experience.

And as for experience, Donald has my extreme pity. Music has been with us pretty much since homo became sapiens and, while not discounting the soloist alone in the woods having fun or honing her technique, it has been a social phenomena for a couple of hundred thousand years. Only since the mid-19th century have recording devices been able to capture music for private listening. While this has its benefits, to sever the appreciation of music from its actual creation and to remove oneself from being part of the overall experience of hearing music live is analogous to giving up having sex with other people because "it is extemporaneous" and "cannot (in principle) be replicated."

You people need to lighten up and get out more, and especially try pushing the envelope of your comfort zones.

Posted by: Chris White on August 9, 2009 11:18 AM

Yes, Duke Ellington had it right: there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. The unstated assumption here is that there is some sort of objective aesthetic, i.e. that which is good and which is bad is not entirely a question of your subjective feelings. But an even more important point is that the good and the bad exist in all genres so what genre a piece of music may fall into is a whole lot less important than whether it is any good or not.

What I notice going on is a very significant dumbing-down in the general population with regard to music. Fewer and fewer people actually learn to play an instrument and to read music. The immense effort to bring high art to the masses that Mike mentioned is now going backwards. Current pop music is sadly listless, cliched and reduced to most rudimentary of means. The most salient form of music to the unwary passerby is the mindless thumping coming from a boombox car. Good jazz is just another casualty along with good classical and good pop music.

But none of this prevents any individual from enjoying music to its fullest. The cds, dvds, youtubes, concerts and festivals are all out there. Go listen to a Beethoven quartet (or Duke Ellington recording) today.

Posted by: Bryan on August 9, 2009 11:27 AM

You people need to lighten up and get out more, and especially try pushing the envelope of your comfort zones.

And you need to stop with the fucking sanctimonious lecturing. Can you do that? Like, for one fucking second? Ever?

Basta. As a commenter, you're dead to me.

Posted by: David Fleck on August 9, 2009 1:15 PM

Tone of voice often conveys critical information, doesn't it? It is so hard to get nuances sometimes in short text comments. Is that over the top, "you're dead to me" response meant as a playful and witty foil, helping make my point about lightening up or is it totally serious? Certainly I hope it is the former.

I wade into a batch of comments about jazz, by people who mostly claim no particular love or interest in the genre (ST being a musician is the exception), and where what warm feelings there are seem to stop at the edge of be-bop, to suggest folks should lighten up and get out more ... and THIS is fucking sanctimonious lecturing? Does that mean, But none of this prevents any individual from enjoying music to its fullest. The cds, dvds, youtubes, concerts and festivals are all out there. Go listen to a Beethoven quartet (or Duke Ellington recording) today. is also sanctimonious lecturing? If not, in what fundamental way are they different?

Portland, Maine is not New Orleans, or Chicago, or NYC; if I can find decent jazz (in a wide range of styles) being performed, often by young musicians, reasonably often, and go to shows where young people are in the audience, then I figure the statistics about support and audiences reflect the lingering demographic effect of the Boom as much as anything else. At the risk of offering another fucking sanctimonious lecture, quit bellyachin' and go catch a live band playing a style of music you like.

Posted by: Chris White on August 9, 2009 4:49 PM

If you want to hear something really unique, try this. Jerry Garcia and David Grisman doing an acoustic version of "The Thrill is Gone."

I go back to this one over and over. Compare it to B.B. King's original version.

Garcia's version brings in elements of blues, bluegrass, jazz... you name it.

An astonishing piece.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 9, 2009 5:18 PM

I grew up listening to Maynard Ferguson, Bob James, and other fusion jazz while in high school. I loved the stuff. The more complex music structure, the more I loved it. I also was into rock as well. Later, I found that I liked Rush and other forms of "progressive" rock.

I am a technical person who is into stuff like transhumanism and radical life extension. Cerebral people are often attracted to cerebral music. This should not be a surprise to anyone.

Owing to its complex musical structure, all Jazz since the Be-Bop era has had a reputation for being a cerebral listener's music, much like classical music. So, its appeal will be limited to cerebral types like myself. Since non-cerebral people far out number cerebral people (after all, it IS a bell curve) it should be no surprise that Jazz would not only be limited in its appeal, but that most of its listeners would be older than for pop music.

Posted by: kurt9 on August 9, 2009 7:23 PM

Thanks for that link, ST. Cool stuff.

Posted by: green mamba on August 9, 2009 7:44 PM

They say jazz is an acquired taste but the first time I heard Charlie Parker that was that. In the early 90s I think. It's interesting that he moved on to the big band in the sky 50+ years ago and most people nowadays would consider him way too far out to listen too.

A couple things. Those guys played off all that great american pop music from the 20s-60s. So if you're not familiar with Cole Porter tunes and such listening to someone riffing off a Cole Porter tune is going to sound a bit abstract.

Also, people are unfamiliar with the basics of song structure like AABA. Can't even hear chord progressions so how do you know if someone is playing around with one in a clever way.

Another thing is the music is highly dependant on strong personalities like Parker, Thelonious Monk, etc. Not a lot of those dudes around anymore. A dry academic like Marsalis is going to sound like a dry academic.

Also, it's geek music. Geek musicians made it for other geek musicians. So if you don't have some geek in you, I dunno.

Saying that jazz isn't emotional . . . that's just dammed odd.

That being said somebody said that jazz is the easiest music to play badly so it's easy to hear it played badly.

Thanks to Youtube you can watch pretty much all the footage of jazz that was filmed from the 30s on. Lots of beautiful black & white stuff from the 50s. Hard to dig that stuff up even 10 years ago. It was sitting in archives and the like.

Posted by: Bhh on August 9, 2009 10:40 PM

Symphony orchestras, opera companies and legitimate theaters all suffer from union greed, courtesy of the musicians' and stagehands' unions. Jazz doesn't really face the same risk.

Posted by: Peter on August 10, 2009 9:30 AM

I have to wonder about the parameters of the survey, as formulated by the NEA. I can't help but suspect that the focus of the survey was indeed, "Geriatric Jazz" of whom the most contemporary act might be Diana Krall -- precisely the sort of station my parents have pre-set on their FM tuner. If you go to a Medeski, Martin & Wood concert, the hall is usually full and the median age is 30, possibly younger. As danceable as their music can be, I'd still have to call it "jazz." Then there's all this other weird stuff the kids are listening to: Acid, Ambient, Bebob, Funk, Fusion, Hip Hop, Trance and a few other sub-genres I know little about. Purists might argue these genres might contain elements of jazz, but they aren't the thing itself. But I'd say the only time jazz has ever been the thing itself is when it crossed over into smarty-pants music -- the kiss of death for any genre. Nah, kids are listening to jazz music. It's just that geezers like Teachout, the NEA and myself prefer the older stuff.

I think Chris White's point still stands: if you get out and about what you're likely to see will call into question the conclusions of Teachout and the NEA.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on August 10, 2009 9:58 AM

I wonder if this has anything to do with the apparent death of the "lite jazz" format in modern radio? The last one of those we had in Denver went off the air this year.

The only jazz on the airwaves anymore is a PBS station.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 10, 2009 11:32 AM

SO much good jazz still being performed today. I'll second (or third?) CW's encouragement for those who think it's a dead genre. Get out more often! Most likely, though, the naysayers simply don't like jazz. And that's fine. But not liking jazz and saying jazz is dead are two different things. Here's a by no means complete list of currently performing musicians/groups playing absolutely BURNING, emotional and contemporary jazz:

-Steve Coleman
-Dave Holland
-Medeski, Martin & Wood
-Josh Redman
-Rudresh Mahanthappa (my current fav, blending Indian and jazz styles)
-Dred Scott Trio (unbelievably great pianist)
-Terence Blanchard
-Alphabet Soup

Lots of musicians experimenting with electronic stuff too. I don't know, while I certainly agree jazz isn't as popular as it once was, I totally disagree it's a dying genre. Traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis, whom I think is the current jazz artist most people are familiar with, might give the wrong impression, that jazz is mostly about curating past traditions. And that's not a knock against Marsalis, he's a great musician serving an important role, I think. But the fact that he's the de facto face of jazz I think goes a long way in explaining viewpoints like the one in the Teachout article.

Also, most really good and contemporary jazz doesn't sound like be-bop or big band, so perhaps a lot of people wouldn't classify it as jazz. I'm with CW in that I don't really care what it's called, if it's good, it's good.

All of this is, of course, my opinion. I'm frankly surprised when non-musicians genuinely like jazz. As mentioned in another comment, jazz is a geeky genre, and the non-danceable sub-genres require a bit of knowledge regarding music theory and history to fully appreciate, in my opinion. Is that elitist? I don't know, maybe, but I couldn't care less. Plenty of elitist activities out there to choose from, take your pick.

Posted by: JV on August 10, 2009 1:53 PM

"My inability to appreciate jazz probably has to do with fact that I am incapable of performing music in any capacity whatsoever."

I think that sums it up. Jazz post-Parker generally can't be appreciated unless you have some background in musical theory and/or musical performance. Jazz fans often don't appreciate just what a specialized interest jazz is, and come off as snobs. But people who disparage jazz should be a little more humble about the fact that they're usually speaking from ignorance.

Still Teachout is right. Intellectual tastes have moved. In the late 70s it was considered necessary in certain circles to know about Miles Davis, French film directors and Thomas Pynchon. Today those sorts of young people/future arbiters of taste are probably talking about Arcade Fire, Hayao Miyazaki and Joss Whedon.

Posted by: vanya on August 11, 2009 5:09 PM

All I know is that I am totally in love with these Texas Jazz musicians. Yeah, I wouldn't label the Texas Gypsies as purists, but they have the kind of jazz sound that pulls you in, makes you wanna say, "yeah, man!"

IMHO, lumping jazz into a single category doesn't work in the genre's favor; some jazz is absolutely soul-touching, while some of it leaves me flat out cold.

When I think of jazz, I don't want to have to "interpret" anything...I just want my spine to tingle, and my snappin' fingers to get happy. A slight soft alcoholic buzz makes it even finer.

Jazz speaks best when it makes me feel slinky, sexy and beautiful.

And there's no one on the horizon who I see taking the place of one Mr. Stevie Ray Vaughn.

We kick jazz butt down in Texas.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on August 12, 2009 12:29 AM

As a slight amends, Stevie Ray does mostly fall into the blues category, but he can fit into both places, if you ask me.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on August 12, 2009 12:30 AM

One last contribution, a south Texas jazz band with a slight Latino tinge, Joe Gallardo's Latino Blue.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on August 12, 2009 12:43 AM

Texas Gypsies

Try this link, the previous one seemed broken.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on August 12, 2009 12:49 AM

Pattie, speaking of Texas jazz, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys are a favorite of mine. Big band country swing? How can that not be good?

Posted by: JV on August 12, 2009 12:12 PM

I'm 22 and started listening to jazz on the local community college station just some months back. I did listen to some fusion on Pandora before that. I've never been able to play any instrument.

Posted by: TGGP on August 15, 2009 2:52 PM

BTW, if you are interested, here are some traditional jazz albums that you shouldn't find boring:

Herbie Hancock: Takin' Off 1962
Charles Mingus: Ah Um 1959
Lee Morgan: The Gigolo 1965
Wayne Shorter: Schizophrenia 1968


Posted by: on August 15, 2009 9:31 PM

Skap, those are some great albums. You can't go wrong with anything from 50s and 60s Blue Note.

Posted by: JV on August 16, 2009 11:33 AM

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