Mr. Teachout gets the word: Jazz’s Swing Era popularity past

Biographer of H L. Mencken and (coming soon) Louis Armstrong, ArtsJournal blogger and scribe for the Wall Street Journal Terry Teachout has raised a fuss by pointing to the National Endowment for the Arts‘ study citing declines in jazz audiences from 2002 to 2008 (and indeed from 1982 to 2008). That this data was released in June and been reported on earlier, elsewhere, (like at by editor Ted Gioia) without getting much attention suggests either the broad reach and high profile of Murdock-owned media or it’s August and a writer getting outraged about ho-hum “news” can stir otherwise becalmed straits. 
But seriously: Mr. Teachout has stumbled into a very old trap, forecasting the death of jazz.

Teachout writes:

Jazz musicians who want to keep their own equally beautiful music alive and well have got to start thinking hard about how to pitch it to young listeners–not next month, not next week, but right now.

He blames jazz’s intellectualism, its presumed lack of relevance to pop-saturated audiences, for its position.
I wouldn’t want to undo the transformation of jazz into a sophisticated art music. But there’s no sense in pretending that it didn’t happen, or that contemporary jazz is capable of appealing to the same kind of mass audience that thrilled to the big bands of the swing era. 

And he prescribes the very thing most practical, professional jazz musicians of the level worth paying special attention to already do: 

And it is precisely because jazz is now widely viewed as a high-culture art form that its makers must start to grapple with the same problems of presentation, marketing and audience development as do symphony orchestras, drama companies and art museums–a task that will be made all the more daunting by the fact that jazz is made for the most part by individuals, not established institutions with deep pockets.

Yeah, ok — meet Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, Jon Faddis and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, SFJazz, Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Earshot Jazz, the Jazz Institute of Chicago  — among the numerous educational and grass roots institutions jazz musicians align with/partake of to further their individual and collective careers. This endeavor can be dated to have started in its present form in the early ’90s or depending how you want to narrow it, considerably further back. Concurrently, there is a present day generation of Young Lions — not the ’80s or the ’90s bunch but the newcomers right now pitching jazz to young audiences without pandering to low common denominators, Jonathan Batiste, Esperanza Spalding, Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone, Corey Wilkes, Tyshawn Sorey, the Bad Plus, Brad Mehldau, Mostly Other People Do The Killing, to name a few. Let’s look squarely at NEA evidence cited to demonstrate jazz’s endangerment — 

  • As the study covers the years 2002 to 2008, the decline reeks of the Bush Affect. From 9/11 through Katrina to the bursting of the real estate and financial services bubble, what in American improved instead of declined during the years of W’s presidency?
  • Contrarily: 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?
    • And with Obama in the White House, might some of the numbers turn around?
    Maybe it’s not simply a question of the culturally vapid Texans vs.the  blues-and-jazz steeped Chicago South Siders. The survey from which figures were drawn was completed before it was understood the country had entered a recession, and certainly economic factors have some sway. Jazz audience declines, it should be noted, are consistent with the declines of audience participation discovered for all other art forms in this study; the very first highlight the NEA itself announces is —

    There are persistent patterns of decline in participation for most art forms. Nearly 35 percent of U.S. adults – or an estimated 78 million – attended an art museum or an arts performance in the 2008 survey
    period, compared with about 40 percent in 1982, 1992, and 2002. i ii

    Young peoples’ attendance at jazz concerts specifically does lead that category of decline. On the other hand, maybe young people don’t define Bonaroo as a jazz concert, even if they’ve heard Ornette Coleman there.

    One of the conclusions Teachout deducts from the study is that jazz is now considered a high art form, like classical music, non-musical plays, opera and ballet, and that jazz musicians act like artists rather than attempting to entertain. Maybe so, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story — I heard young tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger with a quintet playing music of Tristano, Konitz and Warne Marsh at Brooklyn’s Tea Lounge on Saturday, and though the band didn’t have much of a slick act together, a couple of dozen alt-looking people in their 20s seemed rapt. That’s not a Madison Square Garden or Radio City Music Hall’s crowd, yet there are approximately 200 jazz venues in NYC, not completely empty on most nights. Somebody’s listening.

    Ok, that’s New York City, the Big Apple, jazz capitol. Yet another factoid from the NEA’s study hints at how big the jazz audience is: 14.2 % of Americans, or 31.9 million, listen to jazz on broadcasts or recordings. Not bad, could be better . . . How ’bout we take into account that jazz in history and practice feeds into and underlies most commercial pop music forms, so hip-hoppers, country musicians, theater and movie soundtrack composers and jingle-writers all disseminate something of jazz through idiomatic phrasing, harmonies, improvising and yes, rhythmic feel, though maybe not acknowledging jazz by name or paying into its revenues.
    Teachout ignores a major finding of the NEA study —

    The Internet and mass media are reaching substantial audiences for the arts.

    That seems likely to be the key to reversing declines in all the arts — mastery of the Internet and new media to reach young audiences. That’s why everything’s different now — you just don’t have to go out to fine good music. Personally, I’m listening to George Wein’s Care Fusion 55 Newport Jazz Festival for free live from NPR via WBGO (Newark) on my computer — Esperanza Spalding just ended, Miguel Zenon’s coming on, Michel Camilo after that, last night’s set by Steve Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra — so the competition is stiff getting me out of my chair just now to attend a performance somewhere else. But I’m enjoying a great afternoon of very current, solid jazz.
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    1. Michael J. West says

      Howard, just one point – when you ask,
      “From 9/11 through Katrina to the bursting of the real estate and financial services bubble, what in American improved instead of declined during the years of W’s presidency?”
      are you addressing it to your audience, or Teachout’s – i.e., readers of the Wall Street Journal? Because their answers would probably vary from yours….

    2. says

      Great points, Howard (and I especially like the Bonnaroo reference). I’m old enough to have lived through about three pronouncements of the death of jazz (I called my blog post on the topic “Jazz Is Dead . . . Again). Each time, the music has been reborn (though it never went away) and in a form that didn’t much look like the previous incarnation, whether it was fusion in the early 70’s, the Young Lion thing in the 80s or the multi-lateral accretionism that flowered out of the Downtown scene in the 90s. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, jazz isn’t dead, it just smells different.

    3. dave says

      The Jazz police, is killing the audiences,about the “correct way” to play a saxophone/etc…So who cares if its being played in NYC venues…IT IS BORING,BACKGROUND music for BS sophisticated parties or to cook your dinner. NOBODY, I dont care who you name, Chris Potter/Joshua Redman/etc..go on and on ad nauseum…is saying anything remotely interesting or new…Cows mooing on the stage.
      HM: Harsh, and to my ears wrong. I’m interested in what Tony Malaby plays and has to say with his horn, I find Joe Lovano well worth hearing and especially liked him with Ravi Coltrane and Dave Liebman in Saxophone Summit, which is not background music. There’s no Coltrane, Ayler or Shepp at work right now in the clubs as far as I’ve heard, but there is new compositional work being done by Steve Lehman, check it out. Not hearing anything “remotely interesting” is often a problem of not looking in the right places. Keep looking.

    4. says

      Here is my comment to Terry’s piece:
      There are over 100 PubRadio stations programming at least some Jazz, listed at
      There are 450 stations playing Jazz listed at
      At, admittedly this by subscription, I stopped counting at 1000 streamers (but, for the same few bucks a month, I can bookmark all of them in Winamp).
      Locally, WPRB, Princeton, ( has great Jazz four week days from 11:00AM-1:00PM. There is also a program on Sunday. Also at WPRB, there is the Jazz Calendar, listing lots of live Jazz in clubs and in concert hall performance mostly between Princeton, NJ and Philadelphia, PA, but also some in New York City.
      Also locally, WBGO, Newark, NJ ( plays a full palette of Jazz and has a Jazz Calendar for the New York City/Northern New Jersey clubs and concert halls. WBGO also produces live concerts from the Village Vanguard and J&R Music, some of which are videocast.
      And, last, there is NPR/music ( which has a Jazz and Blues page with so many concerts and interviews that a Jazz aficionado will be made dizzy (no pun intended) by the content.
      I agree with Terry Teachout that the art form must be kept dynamic if it is to stay alive. I think that all of the outlets described above are trying very hard to do that.

    5. Richard Kessler says

      Well, there are some people who have pushed hard to make jazz, “America’s classical music.”
      HM: The idea that Grover Sales had, titling his 1984 book “Jazz: America’s Classical Music,” was that it is a complex, highly rewarding and also demanding music that must be understood within its cultural context, and that older forms are as worthy in the present as newer forms. Sales did not urge the museumification (shorten to “mumification”) of jazz or the institutionalization of it and he was well aware of ongoing developments, embracing them as aspects of the continuum. I’m not sure where Terry Teachout stands on those issues. I’m pretty sure he knows that jazz didn’t end 80 years ago, but not so sure he’s aware of what’s happening these days. He’s right that jazz is in danger (as usual), losing market share and audience numbers, and ought to be informed (as should his Wall Street Journal readers) that these problems have been noted, so many concerned listeners and players have been working on potential solutions.

    6. says

      Yours is the latest firm rebuke of Teachout’s Chicken Little act that I’ve read since coming back from Toronto this weekend, and it’s spot on. You can read my take on the issue here:
      You touch on many of the same issues, but the most important thing to highlight (as your sarcastic title allusion suggests) is that people like Teachout have been crying wolf about the death of jazz for DECADES — at least half of the time that jazz has even existed! Maybe someday they will figure out that just because we’re in a recession or the frame is changing, that doesn’t mean that the stuff we love about jazz is going to diminish.

    7. says

      RE: “By the same token, jazz musicians who want to keep their own equally beautiful music alive and well have got to start thinking hard about how to pitch it to young listeners—not next month, not next week, but right now.” Terry Teachout, WSJ
      I think the key word is “expose” not “pitch” as children really dig jazz.. every time I’ve played in front of kids they absolutely love it! I think ALL musicians need work on “exposing” more children to this music that has been called jazz.
      Like anything media related, it purely is a law of numbers. The more people exposed, the larger the audience grows. What has been termed jazz has never truly been a mainstream music mainly because it has never been promoted or garnered exposure as such due too its perceived complexity.
      The music can be enjoyed on many different levels by different people because it is deep.
      Children in their infinite honesty and innocence, harbor none of the misperceptions that adults do. As such, children are ultimately receptive to the music. They feel it for what it truly is, in honesty. So it is only a matter of musicians taking ownership.
      The music needs not to be pitched because God has already placed the seed in each of us. Exposing children to the music waters that seed and allows inner creativity to flourish.
      The same inner creativity can be also found in adults, too.
      It is the duty of the artist to communicate via this universal language to bring that out.
      If “jazz” musicians united in one front, they would rival any “pop” or other genre in number worldwide.
      It is already there. Expose it!

    8. Scott Foster says

      Reply to B. J. Jansen: While I have firsthand experience in exposing individuals to particular jazz artists and records and winning converts here and there, and indeed someone did that to me once and that’s how I got here, I think we tend to overlook the possibility that the types of music people listen to other than jazz or classical have qualities which genuinely appeal to people, that it’s not merely that some very powerful and mysterious persons in the media are directing the public to like pop/rock/rap/electronica etc., that the public obeys these directives because they don’t have minds of their own.
      I would cast some doubt on the idea that large numbers from among these same members of the public would switch their allegiances to jazz if only they were exposed to it, or that if only we can catch them when they’re still toddlers we’ll reel them in for life.
      Many of the more popular types of music tend to be less static in terms of their year-by-year development than jazz in general and part of the attraction is that people enjoy the process of keeping up with new developments, new songs, and new artists. Obviously, a lot of that interest in new developments is tied in with celebrity intrigue, and obviously, we-who-like-jazz know that there are always new developments in jazz and new artists to seek out, but many of the highest-profile artists in jazz tend not to emphasize new developments and continually mine the same book of standards for their material. That book of standards stopped accepting new submissions around 1959 or so. We also tend to overlook the possibility that most people already are fairly well-exposed to jazz. In large cities, throw a rock and you’re likely to hit a jazz performer or group giving a street performance. It could be that most of the jazz performances that are out there providing involuntary exposure to the general public through street performances and whatnot tend to be bands performing the most conventional types of jazz and they promote the idea that attendance at a jazz concert is unlikely to provide much in the way of surprises. They might not be our best ambassadors.
      There also is plenty of incidental jazz appearing in movies, TV, etc., and I’d venture to guess that most people have some friends who like jazz, have been to parties where someone is playing jazz records, etc. Mention a big name such as Miles Davis and most people know who you’re talking about and will express a favorable opinion even if they don’t own any of his records. I’d like to see some statistics not only on attendance at jazz events, record sales and radio listenership but also on how many people are familiar with jazz but who are nonetheless infrequent voluntary consumers of jazz.
      HM: I tend to think that jazz underlies much popular music, and that forms of jazz, if not the book of standards convention jazz musicians offer, have changed quite a lot since 1959 though in ways that are often daunting to casual music listeners (but not to those interested in jazz beyond jazz). Those who adapt or propose new standards — whether Herbie Hancock, the Bad Plus, Esperanza Spalding, John Pizzarelli, Bobby McFerrin — have sometimes done pretty well.
      Most forms of popular music seem to be anchored in a simple, steady, heavy beat — unlike good jazz drumming that is in constant flow and transformation — and rely on lyrics to an extent that is not honored by serious instrumental jazz (or contemporary composition, new chamber or “classical” music). Most pop music has a 3 – 4 minute length, whereas much jazz goes on longer, favoring immediate creative development rather than crisp, concise execution. Much pop music is highly amplified and broad of gesture, whereas much (not all) jazz is essentially unamplified and depends upon nuance, inference and abstraction. Furthermore, the values embodied/pursued/expressed by jazz musicians — musical virtuosity, career endurance, personal modesty and the expectation of being marginalized come to mind — aren’t glamorous or fashionable compared to those of rap/hip-hop, rock-pop and country stars who flash their bling and booties, revel in rebellion or set well-established virtues in danceable narrative forms.
      Like BJ, I think giving kids a close-up encounter with someone playing jazz is a very powerful experience. Whether or not it leads to lifelong jazz love remains a debatable, maybe testable, hypothesis.

    9. Ries Niemi says

      As usual, its all in the definitions.
      If you define “Jazz” as ragtime- well, it died in the thirties.
      If you define “Jazz” as big band swing, its been dead for 60 years or so.
      The fact is, jazz changes, evolves, and inspires all kinds of mongrels, mutants, and spinoffs.
      Purists, in any genre, lament the mingling of the races.
      I could find people who, almost word for word, will discuss the way “real” rock and roll has no audience any more, and how, if people would just be exposed to Carl Perkins, everything would change.
      There will always be a small audience for purist, historical recreations.
      But you have to remember- in the 30’s and 40’s, Jazz WAS pop music — not opposed to it. And now, Benny Goodman is a name known mostly to septuagenarians, and historians.
      I think a pretty good argument could be made for a direct lineage from Slim and Slam, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, through the “Jazz Poetry” of the ’50s, to the Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron and thus, to Rap. Rap, of course, is the most popular music today, and it descends from — yes, JAZZ.
      I find this fly trapped in amber definition of jazz to be commonplace, for a long time — actually, there are still a LOT of people who cannot reconcile themselves with what Ornette did in 1959 or so, when he ripped the lid off things. Most “jazz” radio stations in America pretend history stopped in 1960, and that anything since then that doesnt faithfully recreate earlier styles is evil. My local “jazz” station ignores the existence of Ornette, post Miles era Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, all free jazz, and would go crazy at the mere mention of any music influenced in any way by Bitches Brew.
      My point being- young people today listen to literally thousands of different bands that play improvisational based instrumental music, but if it isn’t bebop, we don’t call it “jazz”. Most of it is so far from “pop” that it barely inhabits the same universe.
      Whole genres of instrumental music exist, and thrive, all over — all totally indebted to jazz, and all several generations of rapid mutation down the road from saxes doing solos on ballads.
      Bands like Tortoise, or Jackie O MF, or God Speed You Black Emperor, or Galactic, Critters Buggin, Mogwai, Mocean Worker, Kinski, John Zorn or Zony Mash, Jah Wobble or Bill Laswell — these are just the tip of the iceberg. Tons of electronic based music now features live improv with real instruments over backing tracks. Modern “lounge singers” like Jamie Lidell or Sonic Youth collaborating with Roswell Rudd — my lists could go on for pages.
      Kids haven’t forsaken Jazz — they have just changed it. And will keep doing so.
      HM: Thanks for your posting — I agree, and that’s the point of jazz beyond jazz. But for two things: I’ve heard God Speed You Black Emperor, and that ain’t jazz by any stretch. Nor is Sonic Youth anything like a lounge singer.

    10. Scott Foster says

      Howard’s descriptions of the contrasts between jazz and popular music are very insightful and correct, except perhaps for an oversimplified contrast regarding the rhythmic structures – complex rhythms can be found in funk and in much of electronica – and there are plenty of popular acts which reject an image of bling and booty. I’m not sure that personal modesty is something jazz audiences care about. Some of the greatest artists, such as Miles and Keith Jarrett, are not exactly known for personal modesty. If by modesty Howard means no bling, then Jarrett can be excused but Miles would certainly still be on the hook. The central question, however, is whether jazz simply needs more exposure in order to significantly gain in popularity. If the exposure is dominated by the types of jazz which keep the music’s development relatively static (the pre-1959 standards, etc), even when performed by great masters, it’s a questionable proposition. If the innovations of Hancock, Esperanza and the Bad Plus (and Joshua Redman, contrary to what Dave wrote), were closer to the forefront of the public’s perception of what to expect at a jazz concert, I think that would undoubtably help.

    11. Kent says

      I find a lot of jazz to listen to that is vibrant and exciting and, yes, you can dance to some of it.
      But mainstream jazz writers and listeners don’t know anything about it.
      Can we talk about Frank Zappa, Gordon Goodwin, Yoko Kanno & The Seatbelts, Us3, and Appelnyckerjazz?
      If you don’t know who these people are, you aren’t listening to living jazz, just the dead stuff (which is still good).
      HM: I remember Frank Zappa! Saw the Mothers with Cream in Chicago, summer of 1968, and Zappa several times post-Mothers. Weasels Ripped My Flesh includes the excellent “Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque.” Love it! — much preferred to Hot Rats, Uncle Meat, King Kong . . . I even got to meet and talk with Frank in the NYC NPR studio about six months before he died. Helluva blues guitarist, too.
      US3 — are they still active? Did they perform, or only produce/dj? I’ll check out your other recommendations. Long live live jazz.

    12. Ries Niemi says

      I dont think God Speed is Jazz- I think its improvisational instrumental music. Which, as a genre, owes things to jazz, more or less depending on the music.
      But there were certainly historic bands that are widely considered to be jazz that played from sheet music, with pop vocals- which, if you took away the 30 second clarinet solo, were no more jazz than God Speed.
      And my sentence structure isnt the best- I was trying to say that Roswell Rudd and Sonic Youth, performing “Dem Bones” at the Harry Smith memorial concert, is yet another jazz derived, non jazz type of music that “kids today” listen to.
      Ornette just “programmed” the Meltdown Festival in London in June, and even Ornette Coleman is muddying the waters by listening to music that isnt what we would classically call “jazz”. His lineup is eclectic, to say the least – Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, Sean Lennon, Cornelius, Moby, The Roots, The Master Musicians of Jajouka and Bachir Attar, Patti Smith, The Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra, David Murray, Gwo-Ka Masters, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Baaba Maal, Yo La Tengo, Bobby McFerrin, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, Carla Bley, Robert Wyatt and The Bad Plus.
      Doesn’t sound like he is on the “high art” bandwagon.
      HM: Ornette can do very little wrong in my book (just check out my book and you’ll see what I mean). However, when I heard God Speed at the Victoriaville Musique Actuelle festival a few years ago (maybe 10?) they didn’t improvise, they didn’t have any rhythmic acuity, they seemed to me like a very dour and not very well rehearsed student orchestra. I guess they’ve improved with age and practice, as we all hope we will. . .Now the Master Musicians of Jajouka! — see my post about them last February. There’s a band!

    13. Scott Foster says

      In one of Ted Goia’s related blogs, Marty Khan makes a very good point that I’ll paraphrase as follows: a large portion of the jazz audience still has the same favorite artists they had 20 years ago – Miles, Mingus, etc. – and many of those artists have since died; dead musicians don’t give concerts; ergo, lower attendance at jazz concerts. So jazz could be just as popular today as 20 years ago, or even more popular, and concert attendance would be down anyway. I would add to that point: a significant portion of the young jazz musicians coming up place more emphasis on emulating the past greats than on innovating; most of the past greats were great not just because they played their instruments well but because they were innovators; jazz audiences know that the copy isn’t as good as the original.