Jazz and the Passion Crisis - JazzWax

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August 11, 2009


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Doug Zielke

Sad but true.

John Goldsby

Marc, you suggest that many people are overreacting to Teachout's article in the WSJ, and I agree somewhat. But the solution that you put forward will not have much of an impact in growing audiences —— when you write, "My suggestion is shorter tracks, for starters, and fewer solos that drag on forever by instruments that aren't appealing."

Recording shorter tracks is also a marketing strategy (not necessarily a musical strategy) that has been successfully used quite often by many musicians and labels. But it still may not work to bring jazz onto the ipod playlist of a teenager.

As for "instruments that are not appealing . . ." which instruments are those? Since jazz is such a subjective experience, it is hard to say what is going to be appealing. No bass solos?!? I don't think so ;-)

Thanks for your blog–I enjoy it!

Jason Parker


My biggest problem with Teachout's piece is that he offers up a grim view in a major newspaper without offering up any solutions. Peter Hum, in his blog post at http://jazzblog.ca offered up many different possible solutions. Many other bloggers, including myself (http://oneworkingmusician.com) have offered up solutions as well. I made the point that it is up to US, the jazz musicians and jazz lovers, to make sure that jazz is relevant to the youth of today. More doom-and-gloom proclamations, especially in major papers, only help to further cement the idea in the public's mind.

The good that has come out of Teachout's article is that the jazz blogosphere is talking about the issue. Alex Rodriguez at his blog (http://lubricity.wordpress.com/) is a young jazz musician/fan who has also taken on the issue. It is through these discussions, both public and private, that we can effect change.

Jazz is not dying. It just needs new clothes!

Ben Shelton

Yup. Makes perfect sense. Obviously us young whippersnappers can't focus on one thing at a time. It's our fault, and the music needs to change to accommodate our generation's obvious deficiencies.


The problem isn't the music. It's the way the classics are promoted as being the standard of reference against which everything else is judged. Playing Clifford Brown licks over bebop tunes is not creating. It's rehashing something that's already been done. Why should we go watch someone do that? Why not just listen to the damn record? That music was incredibly fresh the first time I listened to it on recordings, and I'm sure the older members of the audience remember how fresh it was when they heard it live for the first time, but it's not fresh any more. Recreating history is never as fulfilling as creating it in the first place. Jazz dies when it becomes the musical equivalent of a civil war re-enactment. How many twenty-somethings participate in those?

The younger generation isn't completely aloof. We can tell when there's passion in the music, when the artist is fully invested in what he or she is doing, trying to push forward. I can show a video of Brian Blade to somebody my age and they'll get it, just like I can show them a video of John Coltrane and they'll get it. I can play them a Wynton Marsalis record and while they'll appreciate it in the abstract, they'll view it as "I'm supposed to like this" rather than "there's something immediate about this that grabs me in a visceral sense."

The other issue is that jazz refuses to embrace its offshoots as its own. Maybe it's a result of the backlash against smooth jazz, but there's so much great improvised music that the jazz establishment places outside the tradition. Frank Zappa? Stevie Wonder? All the Canterbury scene progressive rock? The late '60s and the whole '70s are almost entirely disowned, although much of that music is challenging and complex yet still appealing to a younger audience. I saw a Stanley Crouch talk once where he couldn't hold himself back from ranting about "fusion and confusion." I almost punched HIM. In the words of the late great Tony Williams, "They just know how to look and talk a certain way. They go around rewriting history by preaching and telling people what to listen to and not listen to." And it's not a result of the musicians. For example, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder don't hesitate to mention the influence of Allan Holdsworth on their playing, but inside the jazz community, he is a virtual unknown, due to his focus on playing in jazz-rock contexts.

Thanks for the blog - the Zeitlin interview was great!

Patrick Jarenwattananon

With all due respect, Marc, at least I never tried to say that the young audience isn't diminishing at NPR's A Blog Supreme. It is. I know this from the NEA data, and can confirm from personal experience, being 24. And I do agree that the community leapt to something that says "Jazz Is Dying" and responded reflexively rather than understanding the intricacies of Teachout's statement.

You're right that the sheer amount of choices presented to young folks is staggering. Of course, I tend to see this as a good thing: it opens the door for jazz to be in that field of view. Esteemed interviewer/historians they may not all become -- but a small handful will, and the others will bring new perspectives to the table.

The trick, of course, is how to accomplish that. I think that your suggestion of making fewer self-indulgent recordings (and by logical extension, fewer mediocre discs period) could help somewhat. But more immediately, jazz suffers a marketing crisis: nobody is hearing these albums to begin with. Shows are too expensive, and those are really how people get into jazz in the first place. People instinctively perceive it's boring, or too difficult, or requires being in the know. Or even just extra effort. If more people just heard some of what's going on today, especially with the younger crop of musicians, I reckon they'd have some avenues in. But the jazz media isn't thinking in those terms yet -- and at least in his WSJ piece, neither is Teachout.

Chip Boaz

Marc -

I agree with you about the changing state of the way that music is consumed, and think this is where the issue lies. Jazz musicians, promoter, business owners, and journalists need to address the music from contemporary viewpoint and think about distribution in a totally different way. They need to be in touch with digital distribution, social media, and listening practices. Yes, we do see jazz artists on iTunes and many jazz artists do have websites or Facebook pages. How many jazz artists leave their pages unattended for monthes at a time though? How many jazz artists give away free downloads? How many jazz artists have a PR person take care if all this Internet stuff for them? We have to face the facts, the jazz world is way behind the curve when it comes to modern musical consumption.

As a musician and high school music teacher, I do feel obliged to point out that the claim of a passion void among young people simply avoids the topicand sounds a bit out of touch. Young people today have more access to music and as a result their exposure to diverse styles is way more advanced than anything I experienced. They've learned to block out the soulless garbage and find music that touches them on a more authentic basis. Yes, there's a definite need for education around jazz and the meaning behind it, but you'll find that young people are very interested. Jazz artists don't need to change anything artistically; there's an audience waiting to hear them. Artists just need to connect with them. In fact, I would counter that young people and their music habits are not necessarily the problem; actually the established jazz world is the issue - we simply need to change our practices to function in the modern world.

Michael Steinman

Wait. Nylons aren't coming back?

Frankly, the whole discussion should be very familiar to anyone who's read history, musical or otherwise. Generation Z complains that the younguns chew with their mouths open and no one is paying proper attention to Tacitus. But to get riled up about change as if change was the enemy is a waste of effort, especially in August. Accept the fact that the imagined Eden (1927, 1977, whatever) when Jazz Mattered might be only due to our own jazz-inspired perceptions. There aren't any "solutions" to the "problem," because change IS; it isn't the problem.

Now I'm going to go back and stare lovingly at the dusty labels of my scroll Victors, if you don't mind.

Ian Carey

One thing I haven't heard anyone mention in this discussion is the impact of the harmonic simplification of pop music on people's reactions to jazz. Questions of quality aside, it's simply a fact that most pop music of the 1930s-50s had much more going on harmonically than today's pop. That harmonic language formed the structural basis of jazz improvisation, so when the average consumer who grew up hearing the so-called Great American Songbook coming out of every radio was exposed to the improvisers of the swing & bop eras, they had some context in their ears in which to interpret the new sounds. That's simply a very high bar to expect a 21st-century listener to meet. (I know it took me several years of concentrated exposure to really start to hear what was going on in a jazz performance--beyond the crowd-pleasing high notes and blues riffs, that is--and I grew up in what I would consider to be a pretty musically hip household.)

The fact that some younger people are nevertheless choosing to listen to and play jazz shows that it's not impossible, but I think public perceptions of jazz as either a highbrow intellectual exercise or a status word for middle-aged yuppies and buppies (hence the smooth jazz phenomenon, which I've heard keenly described as "music for people who like the idea of themselves as people who listen to jazz"), there's just not the motivation for young people to really delve into the music the way they did in the days when jazz's cultural cache evoked rebellion & hipness. Excepting maybe New York, that ship has sailed.

As for passion, I know lots of younger folks who are deeply passionate about music--hiphop, indie rock, electronica, etc., and yes, even occasionally jazz--so I don't really buy the lack-of-passion argument. To those who suggest making fewer mediocre records--who decides which records are unmediocre enough to get made?

Richard Kamins

I grew up in the age of free-form radio, when Hendrix, Coltrane, The Grateful Dead, Beatles, Sly, etc, could be heard in the same hour. In this day and age, there seem to be too many options, too much noise, too much information, and few people really listening. And the radio airwaves have changed, become corporate, conservative, and often just cater to the "classics", even many of the jazz stations.

Is jazz dying? I doubt it; instead, the music is always evolving, becoming more "grass-roots", more localized, even as the internet brings the world to your door-step. So many younger people play creative music/jazz and are finding ways to find an audience. Jazz did not start out "national" and the current recession may help music get kick-started in smaller cities around the country. (Yes, I'm an idealist.)

We've been spoiled; the world comes to our doorstep in the form of cable & satellite, we don't need to go out of our homes to be entertained. Jazz is "live" music, doesn't translate well to the small screen (if at all), and musicians (just like actors, poets, and dancers) need the interaction with people.

Keep up the good journalistic work, Marc.

Larry Kart

Allow me to post a comment on this subject that I've posted on another blog:

Everyone (including Terry Teachout) who is talking about what the NEA study of the arts says is a huge drop-off in the audience for jazz seems to be accepting the statistics in that study as sound when IMO they are extremely dubious. In particular, I find it hard to believe that 17.5% of adults 18-24 attended a jazz event in 1982 (this being the base-line figure that the NEA study gives us). Do you know how many Americans were in that age group in Nov. 1982, according to U.S. census figures? No less than 29,917,000.

So that means that some 5,235,475 people in that 18-24 age group (17.5% of 29,917,000) attended a jazz event in 1982? (Remember, that's only 18-24 year olds, which means that 5,235,475 people would have to be a good deal LESS than the total jazz audience in 1982.)

Well, no matter how loosely one defines jazz, I think that's an absurdly large figure, especially when you recall what 1982 was like on the jazz scene. And if that base-line figure is absurd, why trust the other figures in the NEA study? Remember, we're talking about trends that are not merely anecdotal but supposedly have a rock-ribbed statistical basis.

BTW, while I'm at it, a digression: There's only one category in the NEA study where median age and attendance shows almost no drop off from 1982 to 2002 -- art museums. OK, let's accept that as fact for the moment. Why would that be so? What are the art museums doing right that everyone else is doing plumb wrong? Are art museums, for instance, doing OK because they're reaching out to young audiences in hipper, more attractive, more energtic and effective ways than everyone else is? Well, I'm sure they're trying, we've all seen evidence of that, but enough to account for that supposed big difference? Nonsense. It's that the loose-limbed forms of entertainment/amusement/enlightenment that art museums offer to young couples is ... well, art museums are relatively cheap casual-date places with pleasant trimmings and are full of stuff you can talk about if you care to. If you're in charge of a museum, you can do things that will drive people away, like filling the galleries with hot-steaming offal and charging $100 to get in, but otherwise you're going to be OK. A good museum is like an indoor park, and what's good about it in 1982 isn't going to be, or need to be, that much different in 2002, 'cause Renoir and Rembrandt and Velazquez and Vermeer tend not to go out of style. No great lessons there, and in particular no endorsement of the supposed need to engage in great gobs of urgent and handsomely funded "outreach" to youth or whomever as a form of solution/salvation.

P.S. To John Goldsby: I want more bass solos ... from you.

Jan Stevens

A thoughtful essay, Marc, as was Terry's WSJ column, which made many valid points – as did Doug Ramsey's, which was clever and honest, as usual. I have followed this around the blogs a bit and can only add a few ideas.

Any reasonably educated jazz fan or musician would accept the hypothesis that exposure to the music at as early an age as possible was a major exponent in their appreciation of it. In my last fifteen years of piano teaching, I have asked dozens and dozens of students (ages 7 though 19, mostly) if they ever even heard the music of Miles or Duke or Trane or Bud or Bill Evans. A resounding "no" has most often been the answer. One could expound on this at length (as several have recently) but is the grade-school music program eliminations and cutbacks that are at fault for a big part of this. The instant-gratification, iPod-YouTube culture is another – as has been pointed out ad infinitum. The lack of exposure to jazz on TV and most radio is another.

Secondly -- and I've not seen this mentioned much -- for the "average Joe", the cost of going to a jazz club (let alone a concert) at least in NYC, is almost prohibitive these days. Some places charge, let's say a $25 - $35 cover and/or a $10 or more minimum per set, or more. Figure in parking and tolls at least-- if you're coming into town from the suburbs -- and you're up to about $150 or more for a night of jazz for two people. The same, and worse can be said about pop venues and such, but for jazz, it is worse, with such a small audience to begin with.

Thirdly, I feel as many others do, that Wynton Marsalis -as much as he has accomplished as a jazz player, educator and media darling of sorts -- has perhaps influenced the closing of doors in jazz rather than opening new ones. I've written about this at greater length at my Bill Evans Webpages site (shortly after the Ken Burns documentary came out). And even though it’s been eight years since that often-great, yet clearly unbalanced work was completed, listeners and musicians are still feeling the after-effects of his personally unintentended jazz-as-museum-piece viewpoints.

In nature, when something stops growing, if begins the process of dying. Jazz is NOT dying, but I wonder in what ways it is “growing”. Perhaps musically, but certainly not culturally. This topic gets revived every few years – but the jazz field is also divided among its own ranks in some ways. Fresh and adventurous music is being played by Brad Mehldau, The Bad Plus, Esperanza Spalding, Jack Reilly and many others but how many get to hear it? Others play a more traditional post-50s straight-ahead or Latin style to great effect, and we probably notice them because of the creativity of some the particular improvisors. Do we adhere to the straight-ahead post-bop aesthetic or embrace at least some of the formidable contributions that of the best of fusion music offered, and rework them, as some have done? Why not both? We can appoach it academically, but the truth is that the music consumer in general doesn’t care.

Changing the future in jazz (as in the best of pop/rock) has always acknowledged a thorough knowledge of the past, yet all of us involved in jazz on any level face this crossroads of the possibilities and contradictions (depending on whose view you adhere to) of innovation as well as music-marketing again and again. Record companies have no money and are looking for new business models, CD distribution is almost a thing of the past, and high ticket prices and shorter attention spans among young people do not bode well for our music.

I think we just need to wait it out, keep promoting, keep playing and practicing and try keeping the music alive for an increasingly ignorant newer generation. These are all difficult things to do, but as Doug Ramsey pointed out in so many words, no one-size-fits-all answer will suffice.

--Jan Stevens

Kent England


There are some plain facts contained in Teachout's article and Mandel's response that aren't explicitly stated:

1) No music can be dominant or popular with a broad audience unless it has a beat and a melody, meaning "you can dance to it".

2) It doesn't matter how many young jazz musicians there are if they continue the stereotypes of their Marsalis' forebears, namely that jazz is the "American classical" music and we need to protect it and preserve it like we do dinosaur fossils.

Jazz can't be vibrant again until it remembers some key lessons that have been forgotten:

a) Jazz was born in the cultural gumbo of New Orleans. Jazz learns and borrows from other musical forms and develops them into its own idioms.

b) Jazz is living and breathing. As soon as you can classify it, catalog it, genre-fy it, and understand it, it's fossilized.

Here's some examples of people who are keeping jazz alive and the jazz mainstream knows nothing about:

1) Frank Zappa mixed original jazz with doo-wop, rock & roll and classical music to create some of the most exciting jazz ever made.

2) Us3 made a remix of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" called "Cantaloop". I think it was somewhat popular. Is it jazz? But young people made it and listened to it.

3) John Medeski is one of the greatest jazz keyboardists ever. When was the last time a mainstream jazz writer talked about Medeski or MMW? Did you hear how Marian McPartland dissed John's piano work on her radio program? I have the recording.

4) Gordon Goodwin leads a premiere jazz big band in LA. GG writes incredible arrangements and gives them to high school jazz musicians. Young musicians are always present in large numbers at concerts by GG's Big Phat Band. Do any mainstream writers talk about Gordon Goodwin?

5) Some young Swedish rappers heard Cab Calloway on record and were inspired to create a combination of swing and Swedish rap called "Appelnyckerjazz". Steven Colbert discovered them. Has any mainstream writer talked about these young musicians?

6) Yoko Kanno is a keyboard-pounding, singing, living encyclopedia of musical forms. She is best known for writing the music for the Japanese anime series "Ghost in the Shell" and "Cowboy Bebop". Has any mainstream jazz writer ever talked about her big band arrangements? Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts are one of the most exciting jazz orchestras ever.

I hear jazz in all kinds of music that young people listen to. They don't call it jazz, but you can interest them in the historical jazz by giving them playlists of original jazz that plainly influence the music that they like to listen to now.

But if you have to sift, classify, and catalogue your music until it fits into your comfy preconceived notions of the ideal jazz forms, you're out of the mainstream popular. As Pops would say "man, just listen to the music. If I have to explain it to you, you just don't get it."

Claude Neuman

"Though the Jazz Age continued it became less and less an affair of youth. The sequel was like a children's party taken over by the elders."

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Claude Neuman

Your entries of July 25 / August 1, and this one, reminded me of something I wrote in 1995 in the Jazzletter at the invitation of my friend Gene Lees.
At the time, the Internet was not yet around as a means of both salvaging jazz history and possibly further endangering its future as a living music, but I feel I was touching upon some of the same themes.

It’s a bit long, so I put it here : http://grabbinattheflies.blogspot.com/

I was surprised by your statement that “Jazz has never been mass market music—it's not ideal for dancing”, whereas between 1920 and 1945 jazz was the popular music to which America was dancing, but I guess you started from the (probably correct) assumption that when jazz is present on the young people’s ipods, it’s post-war jazz or current be-bop repertoire music, and that pre-war jazz is not even on the radar.

Claude Neuman

Read Chuck Israels’ thoughts in the last issue of Cadence Magazine, quoted on Donald Clarke’s blog (last article of the page) :


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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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