Jazz and Starbucks

WHO listens to jazz these days? Besides a small, dwindling number of purists, almost anyone who goes to a chain coffee shop, it seems. Are they really listening? Those are some of the questions music historian Ted Gioia gets into in a fascinating essay in The Daily Beast, in which he talks about the mostly mid-century jazz that plays in Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and, soon, Peet’s:

220px-Billie_Holiday_0001_originalWhat’s going on here? Even as total album sales shrink, jazz shrinks faster—and now represents a tiny 2 percent of album purchases. Many high-profile jazz artists struggle to sell more than 10,000 copies of their new releases. Yet as jazz disappears from the mainstream culture, it dominates the ambiance at eateries, and especially coffee shops.

It’s happening, he expects, because jazz now signifies “classy” in commercial settings.

Some day a smart cultural historian will trace how this happened, and it will certainl be a strange and surprising story. Jazz originated as the music of the underclass and the impoverished, but these days you hear it in the background of commercials for luxury cars and other high-end merchandise. Jazz is perceived as the music of the educated—and what an amazing attitudinal change that is! When I was learning about the music, it was excluded from most schools and universities. During my 21 years of formal education, not one of the institutions I attended had a jazz studies program.

We’re left with the question of whether this is good or bad for the music. Ted thinks, for instance, that jazz has won the battle to seem “culturally significant,” but that it’s traded that for its former reputation for pleasure.

And jazz’s status as coffee achiever is happening in a time in which it’s hard to find jazz on the radio, on television, or anywhere else outside the realm of specialists.

This piece had a lot of depth – please check it out.

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  1. says

    Ted’s essay is interesting, but I don’t think he plumbs either why the music is so popular as background or why people don’t listen to its present incarnations.

    Personally, I attribute the background popularity with the familiarity of what Miles et al play — this is music that has been assimilated into American culture over a long period of time, rather than by insistent radio play over recent months. It is melodious, with clear song forms, and most of the choices are mellifluous. Mostly without words, it does not interrupt conversation. I have never been in a Starbucks where there is a stream of vocal jazz; perhaps an Ella or Sarah song comes up in the mix, but it’s usually sort of a punctuation to instrumental music.

    Most of today’s active jazz artists are obscure by virtue of lack of corporate support — a vicious circle, as corporations which may once have had the muscle to promote artists through record sales and concert tours themselves implode. And the musical ideas of current jazz artists are genuinely new — the concepts of even artists like Braxton or Threadgill with 30 year histories have not been assimilated by other musics yet, and have never been broadcast as widely or adopted as universally as the ideas of Monk, Blakey, etc. Even late Miles — few marketers know what to do with the musical ideas and moods of anything after, say, Miles Smiles. Bitches Brew does not convey affluence to most consumers. But Bitches Brew and late Coltrane, Ornette, Cecil, etc. do convey the honesty of jazz’s critique, which runs so truly against the superficiality of much post 1960s popular music. So creative jazz of the past 40 years remains the alternative (unauthorized) pleasure Ted G. recalls it being in his father’s day and his own earlier years. Many listeners would have to experience a sharp shift of perspective on music/art/society to embrace present day jazz — for instance, they’d have to learn to look at the consumerist uses of music more skeptically. Until they do, it’s safe to have hard bop (or Wynton, who seldom stretches beyond that for his vocabulary) with one’s coffee-and.

  2. says

    Howard makes some good points.

    And that lack of corporate/ label/music industry support is indeed a vicious cycle.

    This said, I’d be happy if what we could call the mainstream — Monk, Blakey, Trane, etc — had attentive listeners and an infrastructure around it. That would be good for Braxton (a college professor of mine 20-some years ago) and the others in the long run.

  3. says

    Classical and Baroque pieces have been used in department stores and bus terminals for years, but many of them were once musical expressions meant to be listened to on their own, and which could even shock audiences and cut through their chatter. I personally don’t think there is anything unique to a type of music that makes it “backgroundable;” instead each culture has its own methods to relegate music to sonic wallpaper. It is possible that one day we’ll all be sipping our coffee and reading the paper as Nikki Minaj and Rammstein are piped into the café.

    Maybe alongside Mr. Gioia’s “smart cultural historian” tracing how jazz became synonymous with class, a smart musicologist and/or anthropologist can explain the mechanisms by which a society says that some types of music are there for listening, others are there for background?

    • says

      Music “for listening” – which I take to mean produced for the purpose of contemplating it, as a meaningful work of art — seems like a rather specialized concept, considering other more all-involving functions music has commonly fulfilled in world cultures. Where music is an intrinsic part of a society’s life, it works as social lubricant, message conveyor, background and/or foreground, aspect of devotional practice, synchronizer of labor, mood- and/or pace-setter, occasion of socializing and seduction and dance, bond among people both in real time and memory. In our market driven society, music naturally gets appropriated for marketing purposes. But I think it’s a positive that the music of ’40s-’50s-’60s’ modernists (among others) gets exposure in public spaces. This jazz IS a draw — it IS generically familiar and perhaps appropriate or even desirbale as background to the movies of our lives, it DOES make it a place I’d like to sit rather than listening to baroque or other classical music.

  4. says

    I’m a lucky guy, Mr. Mandel: between all the modern jazz and early Classical on store loudspeakers, I get to listen to a lot of music I love for free!

    Music for listening is a very specialized concept, but it is just that, a concept i.e. an idea that is fairly malleable once it’s out of the originator’s hands. It’s safe to say that the music of the modernists from the forties and fifties, or the Italian violinists of the eighteenth century, might have been intended as an isolated listening experience, but so much for their intentions! I am just fascinated in those thin(ning) borders between a purported listening experience and those “social lubricants.” Jazz is neither more nor less entitled to be background than any other music.

  5. says

    Andrew makes some interesting points above. It strikes me, though, at the risk of being obvious, some kinds of music are more suited to background for technical rather than cultural reasons. That is, music in a slow to medium tempo, without lyrics, without sudden or extreme shifts in dynamics, with ample amounts of space and more half or whole notes than 16ths and 32nds… etc. Anyone who had chosen music for a dinner party or similar has been through this intuitively.

    For what it’s worth, the notion that a piece of jazz, a cello suite, a painting or a poem may be there for silent contemplation may be a historically specific idea… But it’s one that remains important to me.

  6. says

    At the risk of falling into relativism (a phrase which usually means I’m about to), I would only suggest that even those very good musical examples are still culturally absorbed. It is still a certain person living in a certain society having that cocktail party who chooses that music. I have heard CPE Bach played at wedding cocktail hours and Art Blakey (even some high-octane stuff from the Jazz Messengers) in Starbucks. Who knows what types of music future generations will be able to keep in the background? With the “right” habituation, people can discount anything.

  7. says

    I’ll agree with Andrew in part. Yes, our instincts and “natural” senses of things are “culturally constructed.”

    But I think for virtually all human cultures, in various eras and in various parts of the globe, we could find common elements for music that each tribe considered martial, cerebral, erotic/amorous, relaxing, etc.

  8. says

    A study of what different cultures find relaxing, exciting, etc. broken down into constituent musical elements would be fascinating.

    Speaking of which, this discussion certainly has been interesting! Thanks so much for starting it. I tried following your blog via email but the link did not work for me. Would you mind adding me to your mailing list?

    • says

      Hey Andrew, I’d love to do that, but not sure how to. Can you try following via Twitter? (My “handle” is @themisreadcity

      If you have trouble let me know.

      Very glad to have you on board!

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