Why and when did jazz cease to be mainstream music? Many fans and jazz legends I talk to wryly point to the Beatles' arrival at Kennedy Airport in 1964. Others cite Elvis Presley's TV appearance in 1956. But both charges seem unfair, really. These cultural events merely were the effects of trends set in motion years earlier, not the cause of jazz's jolt. Besides, one art form is never accountable for the decline of another. Other factors are always at play, some more surprising than others.
The best argument I've heard for jazz's declining popularity in the mid-1950s and 1960s revolves around jazz's abandonment of dance music in the late 1940s. As jazz became more focused on technique and prowess and less on entertainment, the argument goes, the music ceased to have large-scale social significance. Once jazz and jazz musicians began to take themselves too seriously and the music catered to distant outsiders rather than the jukebox, a beat-hungry generation turned elsewhere for its soundtrack.
But was jazz's growing sophistication in the mid-1950s calculated snobbery or simply the natural maturation of an art form? Did jazz really undermine itself by cultivating a cool and detached mystique instead of engaging the youth culture, which rock 'n' roll did so shrewdly in the years that followed? Or was jazz simply too self-respecting to meet the callow demands of the 45-rpm-obsessed youth culture of the mid-1950s?
The moment jazz decided it was an art form that required listeners rather than dancers, its mass appeal was in jeopardy. High art, by
definition, has value, and value has little currency in America, where the next hot thing always trumps integrity. What jazz failed to recognize during those crucial years in the early 1950s was the emerging commercial power of the youth culture and its relative disinterest in creative genius. Jazz's reluctance or inability to satisfy this influential market's thirst for excitement and stimulation was a fatal error. The "let them come to us" attitude so prevalent in jazz then and now forfeited a critical advantage to r&b and rock 'n' roll that it never regained.
Jazz musicians themselves also played a role in the music's declining mass appeal. In the early 1950s, jazz increasingly required musicians who had a strong knowledge of music theory, composition and arranging. The total number of musicians playing jazz declined compared to the 1930s and 1940s, when hundreds of bands played dance music. Once jazz made a conscious decision to become high art, fewer musicians were accomplished enough to compete or excel at it.
By the mid-1950s, the opportunities for marginal jazz musicians dried up as proficient headliners consolidated audiences. Those musicians who found jazz too challenging or couldn't land gigs or recording deals gravitated toward the blues, r&b and jump boogie. This music was a lot easier to play comparatively, it emphasized a steady beat for dancers, and it had much more stage and sex appeal—all elements that jazz had abandoned in its bid to be high art.
Compounding jazz's troubles during the late 1940s and 1950s were jazz musicians themselves. Many jazz musicians admired r&b artists and quietly played on r&b recordings. Who could blame them? Like
everyone else, jazz musicians had families and bills to pay, and many artists needed to supplement incomes that concert jazz couldn't satisfy. So from the late 1940s onward, jazz musicians like James Moody, Ben Webster [pictured], Tadd Dameron and so many others played, toured and recorded intermittently with r&b bands. I even heard Sonny Rollins confess recently that he admired Louis Jordan when he was coming up.
Jazz musicians didn't trawl for the extra work. They often were the ones hotly pursued by r&b artists and emerging labels eager to add cache and chops to their record dates. Jazz musicians also were less likely to goof up and cause costly retakes. As James Miller writes in the superb Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977:
"One of the songs Wynonie Harris sang on December 29, 1947, Good Rockin' Tonight, would become a best-selling hit, played on jukeboxes and aired on radio stations across black America. And by popularizing the word 'rock,' Harris' recording would herald a new era in American popular culture...The band consisted of seasoned musicians, most of them jazzmen like Oran "Hot Lips" Page. [pictured]"
Like many top jazz musicians in late 1947, Hot Lips Page was in search of a viable payday just prior to the musician's union recording ban of 1948. As strange as it may seem now, Hot Lips would play a small but vital role in rock's ascent.
As the 1950s wore on, other jazz greats were lured to Hollywood to compose and arrange for television and the movies. The rewards and recognition were too big to pass up. Some jazz artists even helped marginal rock acts get started. One of these jazz musicians, writes Mick Brown in the newly published and excellent Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector, was guitarist Barney Kessel:
"Kessel was [Phil] Spector's idol, and Spector even got to meet Kessel when he was 15 years old...Kessel offered Spector some surprising advice in 1957. It was one thing to love jazz and to play it, [Kessel] told [Spector], but he would not recommend a career as a jazz musician. Philip should look at the big picture. Fashions in music were cyclical, and jazz was on the downswing; it was rock and roll that people wanted to listen to now. If Philip wanted to make a career in music he should be thinking of becoming a songwriter or a record producer...
"Shortly after meeting Spector, Kessel would take Ricky Nelson [pictured], the 16-year-old star of the television program The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and produce his first record, a cover version of Fats Domino's I'm Walkin, which went on to sell more than 1 million copies. Kessel would go on to perform on countless pop sessions for artists including Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys as well as working with Spector himself."
So when Alan Kurtz wondered in a post at Jazz.com earlier this week why jazz and Cyrus Chestnut are so obsessed with Elvis, the answer is that jazz musicians directly or indirectly made Elvis possible. Why shouldn't they share in the King's riches? The bigger question I suppose, is this: Why after all these years content to be high art does jazz continue its silly pursuit of mass-market approval? The fact is, for jazz to survive, it must remain high art. Once it dumbs down and rushes after the mass market, it will truly become road kill. There simply are too many other forms of disposable music out there that are far better at cashing in on tastes and trends.
Ultimately, art moves with money, and eventually money corrupts the quality and purity of art, transforming it from personal expression to commercial manipulation. Jazz's popularity waned in the 1960s because in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, jazz made a conscious decision to be high art, and not all musicians were gifted or financially able to make the sacrifices imposed on serious artists. There's nothing jazz or jazz musicians or record company executives could have done to stop the shifting sands. The fact that jazz has survived as long as it has remains something of a miracle. We can thank the hundreds of artists who remained true to jazz's origins and traditions over the years despite the commercial hardships. Good taste may not pay well but it lasts longer than faddish Faustian bargains.
So, who's ultimately responsible for knocking jazz out of the mainstream box? It wasn't Elvis or the Beatles. Or the Vietnam War. Or television. Jazz musicians simply decided that they would not compromise what they were playing or developing to satisfy a teen craving. Their biggest error, I suppose, was not realizing that the emerging popularity of r&b and rock wasn't a fad but a revolution. But what of it? Kids were never going to hang out in basements necking to Thelonious Monk or Clifford Brown. And America is better off for it. Ultimately, jazz is for listening, not dancing. Jazz should stop worrying about Elvis and the Beatles, and think a little more about preserving the joy and art of Bird, Louis, Miles, Max and the Duke.