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Jazz, the Reluctant Valetudinarian

Why Jazz' Salvation is Not Really an Issue - August 20th, 2009

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Jazz, the Reluctant Valetudinarian
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The jazz internet has been abubble in recent days thanks to an article by jazz writer Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. The piece, entitled “Can Jazz Be Saved?,” examines findings of a survey conducted jointly by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Census Bureau. The results of the survey suggest that jazz’ audience is simultaneously becoming older and smaller in number, and consequently that the future of jazz is bleak.

The article ignited a bombardment of blog-based opinions, and Patrick Jarenwattananon at NPR’s “A Blog Supreme” sums up the debate with links to a handful of the responses.

New York Times reviewer Nate Chinen provides the most levelheaded rejoinder, calling into question the methodology of the survey. Because of the substantial amount of musicians working just outside the scope of jazz proper, it wouldn’t be surprising if their impact on audiences young or old went undetected. Howard Mandel points out another potential flaw in Teachout’s interpretation of the data: in a period marked by economic recession, “Jazz audience declines… are consistent with the declines of audience participation discovered for all other art forms in this study…”

With all the fuss, it’s easy to get mixed up about which aspects of the argument are really important. Initially, Teachout makes it clear that what he’s concerned about is the economic health of jazz. If he’s talking about concert ticket and CD sales, then nothing he is saying is news. We are well aware of the record industry’s steady downturn since the 1990s, and it’s never shocking that jazz concerts aren’t the ones selling out large venues. But in my admittedly somewhat insular community of jazz enthusiasts, the absence of money floating around doesn’t seem to have any effect on the practice and development of jazz.

With the exception of the few wildly talented and/or wildly lucky, most jazz musicians expect to lose money on gigs, but they still perform regularly. We accept that in order to make a living, it’s necessary to have an alternate source of income, whether it’s teaching music, working at Starbucks, or writing for jazz.about.com. The economic health of jazz, in many ways, seems to be irrelevant if it’s the music that is of central concern.

The anecdotal evidence of jazz’ health is certainly seductive, and maybe not as flimsy as Teachout and likeminded writers claim it is. When jazz historian Ted Gioia points to the floundering of jazz festivals, he might be forgetting that most of the people of whom a healthy young audience would consist are often neither willing nor able to pay $65 for a day of concerts. That’s why the anecdotal evidence that Chinen provides holds water. When he mentions clubs like Brooklyn’s Zebulon, or The Stone in Manhattan, he’s talking about cheap places for twenty-somethings to reliably hear great live jazz.

There are dozens more of these places in New York alone, including Spike Hill, Public Assembly, the Bowery Poetry Club, Goodbye Blue Monday, Rose, The Bar Next Door, Zinc Bar, 55 Bar, Le Poisson Rouge, Nublu, Tillie’s, Fat Cat, Café Vivaldi, and Cornelia Street Café. The other notable characteristic of the above-mentioned venues is that they tend to program such genre-mixing improvised music that an outsider could understandably be completely unaware that it’s jazz he’s hearing, and similarly unlikely to mark “yes” on a survey that asks if he’s been to a jazz concert.

Of course we should be vaguely and constantly anxious about CD and ticket sales, but we shouldn’t consider those numbers to be accurate reflections of what’s going on in the tiny but sturdy jazz world. As Ted Gioia writes in a conversation with himself about the state of jazz music:

Let’s face it, the jazz audience has always had a disproportionate share of musicians in its ranks. Just listen to the conversations of the people sitting at the tables around you at the jazz clubs. The chairs are filled with guitarists, pianists, saxophonists, and other players. This is a good thing for the art form.

And Howard Mandel asks,

What does the amazing growth of enrollments in institutions of jazz education say about the age of jazz audiences, the interest of the young in jazz, jazz's future?

These are numbers we can take seriously, because as long as there are jazz musicians, the music’s future is bright.

Pardon my own anecdotal evidence, but last night I saw Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Lehman, the members of the dramatic, machine-like, and dissonant group Fieldwork perform at the Stone for over 100 people in their mid-twenties, some standing, some sitting on the floor, and all marinating in their own sweat in the unventilated, sweltering storefront venue. It was a sign that jazz musicians and listeners are willing to brave all kinds of unpleasantness in order for the music to persist.

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