What Killed Jazz? The Plot Thickens - JazzWax

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June 11, 2008


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Your "Nice vs. Vice" argument seems ludacris without specific examples of films that did this. Please elaborate.

Doug Ramsey

Here are a few related thoughts in a paragraph from my essay, "Big Bands and Jazz Composing-Arranging After World War Two" in The Oxford Companion To Jazz. It includes an additional element regarding transportation:

Following the war, most of the bands that dominated popular music before 1941 stayed in business in a declining market, some with more success than others. With dancing on the downswing, listeners did not take up the economic slack. Veterans raising families and buying houses did not have budgets for much live entertainment. Even in a recessionary period it became increasingly expensive to transport, board and feed 15 or 16 musicians. The musicians union introduced another recording ban in 1948, and in that year television sets began to move into American homes in numbers that decreased the sizes of audiences in clubs and concert halls. Additionally, as Gene Lees pointed out in his essay “Pavilion in the Rain” (Singers and the Song II, Oxford), the automobile was driving out public transportation. As streetcar lines and trolleys disappeared, it became difficult or impossible for those without cars to reach the big suburban or country halls where big bands so often played.

Alan Kurtz

Your May 30 and June 11 posts on "What Killed Jazz?" catalog a host of what you call "little factors that converge at roughly the same time and feed off each other" in contributing to "most major events such as Rome's fall or the Great Depression." I doubt that jazz's waning popularity in the 1950s truly qualifies as a major event, except to jazz artists, their families, friends and fans.

In any case, it's remarkable that in your combined 2,616 words, not once do you mention race or the civil rights movement. Indeed, the only reference to black America comes when you quote James Miller's book on the rise of rock 'n' roll.

This is a startling oversight. Surely it's no accident that jazz's declining popularity directly coincides with the civil rights movement. As one who lived through that era, I believe strongly that jazz's sagging commercial fortunes can be graphed in inverse proportion to the growing demand for racial equality. Jazz's widespread success in the 1920s and especially 1930s depended on crossover appeal, meaning whites supporting black music--even in its sanitized guises exploited by bandleaders from Paul Whiteman to Benny Goodman. To a lesser extent, the acceptance of such white emulators continued well into the 1950s, as Dave Brubeck and other West Coast jazzmen cultivated the newfound postwar college crowd and slightly older, fashion-conscious young bachelors consulting the latest issue of Playboy magazine to determine which musicians qualified as flavor of the month.

But by the mid-'50s, blacks were becoming increasingly vocal. "I can't stand the faggot-type jazz," Horace Silver told Down Beat in 1956, "the jazz with no guts. And the discouraging part is that the faggot-type jazz is getting more popularity than the jazz with real soul. The groups that play with a lot of guts are not making as much loot." Homophobic Horace didn't mention any names, but to informed readers he was obviously referring to Brubeck, Chet Baker, et al., who were just then raking in as much loot as Mr. Silver had guts.

Within 10 years, the militantly black Free Jazz movement had so alienated white listeners that jazz's ofay audience could now fit comfortably into a phone booth--with room to spare for Jimmy Rushing!

Or perhaps I'm jumping the gun, Marc. Are you planning a Part 3 of Who Killed Jazz? If so, I hope you'll consider what was after all not such a "little factor" in this saga.


Alan, I don't understand your argument. Are you suggesting that jazz declined because white people became scared of buying jazz by black musicians?

Alan Kurtz

Trevor, sorry I wasn't more clear, but I do indeed believe that whites were frightened off by the broiling militancy of 1960s Free Jazz. Blacks were reclaiming their historical birthright to this music. White emulators such as Dave Brubeck and Chet Baker were no longer relevant, if indeed they'd ever been. And white fans were longer welcome, if indeed we'd ever been.

You may find such white flight chickenhearted. Perhaps we should have stood our ground. But, trust me, those were very intimidating times. When LeRoi Jones, in his liner notes for John Coltrane's Live at Birdland (1963), wrote of America's "essentially vile profile," there wasn't much doubt he meant white America, not black America.

And when Impulse released The New Wave in Jazz (1965), its original liner notes by Jones and his lieutenant Steve Young were downright apocalyptic. "These men are dangerous," Young wrote approvingly of Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, "and someday they may murder, send the weaker hearts and corrupt consciences leaping through windows or screaming through their destroyed dream worlds." Lest white folks miss the point, Young also invoked witch doctors, juju men, exorcism, nighttime mau-mau attacks, and music that "speaks of horrible and frightening things." Maybe you hadda be there, Trevor, but I for one was put off as much by the racist rhetoric as by the art it championed.

Finally, let me emphasize that I'm not talking here about musical merits. For all I know, Free Jazz may be considered indispensable by future historians. I am discussing only the relationship between black performers and the white audience that had until then supported jazz. Were we alienated by their antagonism? You bet! Was that reaction justified? You be the judge.


Ah yes, I wasn't around to see it, but I understand your point now. Jazz indeed had a lot working against it.


Alan, do you have any actual evidence that white listeners declined as a percentage of the total jazz audience during the period you are talking about?

Alan Kurtz

DJA, that's a fair question. I take it you're not disputing jazz's loss of popularity during those years, but rather questioning what role white flight played. As far as I know, nobody kept tabs on the racial composition of customers who did NOT buy jazz records during that tumultuous time. I'm no statistician, but I suspect such a tally of the undone would've been quite a challenge.

The drop-off in coverage of jazz in the mass media, however, is self-evident. Believe it or not, jazz in the 1950s was a presence on AM radio, of all things. Not a major force, admittedly. But it could be found in metropolitan areas, and I don't mean only New York and L.A. I grew up in Pittsburgh, whose the most powerful AM station, KDKA, showcased the latest jazz releases in weekly broadcasts hosted by Sterling Yates. In nearby New Kensington, a smaller blue-collar city, WKPR DJs Phil Brooks or Jim Grey spun jazz records by the hour, day in and day out. Pittsburgh's "black" station, WAMO, stuck to R&B. Plenty of white teenagers listened religiously to WAMO DJs Bill Powell or Porky "Pork the Torque" Chadwick. But WAMO's market share was miniscule compared to KDKA, with its huge, predominately white audience. By the early '60s, AM jazz programming had gone the way of the Edsel. If whites in significant numbers had continued responding to jazz, this disappearing act would not have taken place.

Likewise the print media, from local newspapers to national magazines such as Esquire and Playboy, either eliminated or at best deemphasized jazz coverage. And after a short-lived fad for jazz soundtracks to such TV crime dramas as "M Squad" and "Peter Gunn," Hollywood quickly retooled to reflect changing musical tastes. Televised performances by jazz artists ("Jazz Scene USA," Jazz Casual," etc.) vanished completely. As with AM radio, publishers and TV targeted mass markets, not small segments. In those days, there were no riches in niches. As long as jazz attracted both whites and blacks, it made economic sense for the mass media to embrace jazz. Once it stopped appealing to whites, jazz was no longer welcome at the party.

Additional evidence is provided by the plight of jazz nightclubs. In his book "This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture" (2007), historian Iain Anderson lists the leading venues that went belly up during the first half of the 1960s, including Boston's Storyville, Philadelphia's Showboat, Chicago's Blue Note and San Francisco's Blackhawk. Most symbolically, the flagship of modern jazz, midtown Manhattan's Birdland also failed. Self-styled Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland opened in 1949 with namesake Charlie Parker as headliner. During its early years the club flourished with 800 nightly paid admissions, and from my occasional vantage in Birdland's bleachers, it was obvious that most customers were white. In 1965 Birdland's featured attraction became a "For Lease" sign. Sadly, for jazz, it was a sign of the times.

Anyhow, DJA, now that I've shown you mine, please show me yours. Do you have any actual evidence that white listeners did NOT decline as a percentage of the total jazz audience during the period we are talking about?


Alan, you haven't answered the question. Nobody disputes that jazz declined in popularity during the 1960's, and all of the examples you cite point to a general decline. But the conventional view is that both black listeners and white listeners turned away from jazz to other forms of music during this time, and nothing you've said supports the idea that there was any kind of racial disparity at work.

Do you have any actual evidence that white listeners did NOT decline as a percentage of the total jazz audience during the period we are talking about?

That's not how this works, Alan. You are the one making the assertion, so it's up to you to back it up, preferably with facts and data. If you claim that, for instance, extraterrestrials walk among us, the proper response when asked to prove it is not "Well, do you have any actual evidence that extraterrestrials do NOT walk among us?"


Apparently HTML is not enabled in comments -- grr.

Second paragraph in the comment above should be a blockquote.

Alan Kurtz

DJA, please excuse me for not giving you the "proper response," as you call it. But discussing this topic with you is futile because you've set up a straw man. First you mischaracterize my comments, then you demand that I defend your mischaracterization. It's sly, but specious.

On June 11 and 12, I noted that jazz waned in popularity coincident with the civil rights movement, and recalled that jazz's previous success depended on crossover appeal, meaning whites supporting black music. I went on to assert that whites were frightened by the militancy of 1960s Free Jazz, and cited examples of whites being castigated by black spokesmen for the New Wave in Jazz. I emphasized that I was describing only the relationship between black performers and the white audience that had until then supported jazz, and concluded that we were alienated by their antagonism.

Nowhere did I claim that white listeners declined as a percentage of the total jazz audience. That insuperable concept, DJA, arose first in your own post to this thread on June 14.

I responded in good faith, recounting examples of how the mass media--targeted predominately at whites, not blacks--abandoned its coverage of jazz when it became clear that the market was shrinking. I also listed top jazz nightclubs--attended predominately by whites, not blacks--that went under during this time.

And in reply, you fault me failing to support "the idea that there was any kind of racial disparity at work." Said idea, DJA, is yours, not mine. I never claimed there was any such racial disparity at work.

Sir, I have enough trouble justifying my own arguments. I'll be damned if I can justify yours.

And as far as extraterrestrials walking among us, I've encountered them often. They have a special gift for twisting things I say to their own advantage.



"I never claimed there was any such racial disparity at work."

Actually, you did. A racial disparity is central to your argument of "white flight" from jazz. Otherwise, it's not "white flight," it's just "flight."

Trevor ased:

"Are you suggesting that jazz declined because white people became scared of buying jazz by black musicians?"

You responded in the affirmative:

"Trevor, sorry I wasn't more clear, but I do indeed believe that whites were frightened off by the broiling militancy of 1960s Free Jazz."

It is implicit in your argument that if "whites were frightened off," then *necessarily*, the proportion of the jazz audience made up by whites must have shrunk.

Otherwise -- if the jazz audience shrunk because both whites and blacks stopped listening in more or less equal proportions -- then there's no "white flight," as you claim, just a general decline in jazz listernship.

Andres Gutierez

Your argument/article ultimately seems quite subjective, especially the "white flight" segment that most comments are directed at. Of course what led to the so-called demise of jazz has always fostered a subjective point of view, as it is a condition that I may even argue has not even happened yet. If jazz was truly "dead" then we wouldn't even be talking about it, but more to the point, jazz is still being played, recorded, and consumed.

It is hardcore jazz fans that fret about its demise, as it was once Pop Music - I mean the premiere American musical form. As you stated, many small changes/conditions lead to a cultural shift, and economics had a big part in changing popular tastes and the "backgrounding" of jazz. But then again, alot of the mainstream buying public appears to be vapid, and wants most things pre-digested, from music to food. Personally, I enjoy a lttle of that Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka spice, who also exemplifies that jazz musicians and fans may be erudite but sometimes say stupid shit.

Nigel Sklorb

Good topic, Marc. You made some very good points, but here's mine: The decline of jazz as the foremost genre for popular music took place because of the rise of top 40 radio and because the greatest elements of jazz were ultimately brought into rock/pop/r&b as the songs became more interesting and complex in the late 60s and 70s.

Whether it was 45s or LPs, who needed jazz and its increasingly arcane excursions when you had Elvis, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Bo Diddley, The Beatles, Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone, Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and so on all making GREAT records?

Rock songwriters and performers such as Todd Rundgren, Jimi Hendrix, Carole King, Norman Whitfield, Becker/Fagen, Joni Mitchell, Al Jarreau, Gamble and Huff, Bernard Edwards, Rod Temperton, George Benson etc brought the most interesting elements of jazz into their music. Benson is a good example because he took a rock ballad to #10 on the top 40 and later won Record of the Year for "This Masquerade."

One didn't need to listen to jazz records to hear sevenths, soulful chord changes and expressive vocals and solos whether it was Victor Feldman on "Black Cow", Phil Woods on "Just the Way You Are", Grover Washington Jr. on "Just the Two of Us", and so forth.

So while jazz as a genre was busy isolating itself (except for a few visionaries such as Roy Ayers who were heavily criticised at the time), pop/rock/r&b was becoming more compelling and "jazzier" while producing songs that people could actually sing along to and wanted to hear.

For every masterpiece like "Cantaloupe Island", "Birdland", "Song for My Father" and "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" you had numerous lengthy, self-indulgent, dissonant and BORING album sides being released under the label of "jazz." Too bad.

Jazz may not be dead but it's on life support. IMHO if we want to look to the future then the Robert Glasper Experiment is a good place to start.

I'm ready to sit at my piano and play "All Blues" or "The Promise" or "Stompin' at the Savoy" any time but I'm just as likely to want to sit down and play "Gettin' in the Way" by Jill Scott or "Think Twice" by Donald Byrd or something by the Replacements or the Pretenders. Maybe it's not jazz that's dead but the idea that we need to isolate ourselves to be relevant.

Nigel Sklorb

If Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald etc had recorded and performed the dissonant, self-indulgent noise that became jazz, it would have been similarly ignored.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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