Jazz Audience Initiative study posted, webinar set

The Jazz Audience Initiative, a 21-month research project of Columbus, Ohio’s Jazz Arts Group, has posted its final reports and scheduled a webinar for October 21 (free registration available) to discuss them. Among the main points:

    Byron Stripling leads the Columbus Jazz Arts Group Orchestra; what can draw new audiences to listen?

  • Musical tastes are socially transmitted.
  • Jazz has relatively diverse audiences.
  • People pay to hear specific artists.
  • Local programming shapes local preferences.
  • Young listeners are eclectic.
  • Many paths lead to jazz.
  • Jazz listeners like informal settings.

The JAI study, funded largely by a $200,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, intended to “learn new ways for engaging audiences, and infusing the art form with new energy.” It was run by the consulting firm WolfBrown, and tapped data collected from “research partners” Jazz at Lincoln, SFJazz, the Monterey Jazz Festival, Jazz St. Louis, Scullers Jazz Club (Boston) and a consortium of university presenters.

I attended a roll-out of these findings in Columbus last August, and blogged about it. Jaded as I am about studies of jazz that are born of institution’s ways of doing things when jazz is a rather unruly and anti-institutional art form, I respond to most of the study’s determinations with, “Yeah, we knew that.” No conclusion will be striking to anyone who has presented jazz with any success (which means being able to sustain such activities) over the past 40 years or so. It’s nice to have the collected data, which can be parsed in many different ways, but hard to imagine that as boiled down into an overview the major conclusions will indeed “infuse the art form with new energy.”

What would infuse jazz with new energy? For that matter, is energy what’s needed? Jazz (however defined) has energy aplenty now — as demonstrated by such evidence as the 175 jazz degree programs featured in the November education issue of Down Beat. This is not bad, compared to some 470 degree-bearing music programs in the U.S. overall. Kids (or their parents) are spending thousands of dollars annually to learn jazz (assuming that jazz can be learned in school). My recent visits to the buzzing Berklee College of Music campus in Boston and Wesleyan University’s music program, as well as frequent peeps at the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music Program are proof positive.

What troubles jazz is not low energy, but that its income streams are mere trickles and the costs of producing jazz, while modest relative to costs of other performing arts productions, are higher than what it brings in. A presentation at the JAI’s August convening by Chamber Music America president Margaret Lioi noted that jazz clubs — those informal settings jazz lovers prefer — are beset by increasingly high rents. A study on how jazz musicians make their money is currently under way, thanks to the Future of Music Coalition, and a couple samples of the detailed questionaires that I’ve seen demonstrate that musicians scuffle for a living by addressing many different sources of funds simultaneously. None of this points to a lack of energy in jazz, unless “energy” = $.

Jazz musicians and related industries could use more money, no doubt about that, and some more respect from the broader culture, too. The bucks aren’t going to come from a consumer market that’s dominated by more popular forms, or the world of grants and philanthropy that subsidizes Western European classical music heavily, primarily through privileged institutions (there’s that word again).

Consider the JAI’s findings for what might help to raise jazz boats. The three that stand out to me are “local programming influences local preferences,” “many roads lead to jazz” and “young audiences are eclectic.” Together, they suggest that if young people are exposed on a local level to jazz — or jazz-like musics — they’ll arrive at jazz without negative prejudice. But where are young people exposed? In high school bands? Is that why jazz education has flourished?

The decline over a couple of decades of jazz on the radio has been a wound, but there is fine jazz radio still, with stations and programs on the web available to anyone with an uplink, and Sirius-XM for cars. Anyone — including eclectic youth — can find jazz for themselves for free by logging into Pandora and inputting a couple names (Miles Davis is a good one to start with, since so many stylists contemporary and historic are linked through his several artistic phases; add a good singer to get vocals). Jazz festivals, especially those with low entry fees held in municipalities where diverse audiences can easily attend, expose people of every sort to jazz in marvelously informal settings.

Some of the problems faced by jazz presenting institutions are self-inflicted. Among those are a disregard for how media to promote information of upcoming concerts and ongoing programs has changed. That issue is not taken up in the Jazz Audience Initiative study, but ought to be a focus of another project sometime, because media, as always and by definition, carries messages, and to get energy (aka buzz?) up, a presenter better figure out what media the desired audience is involved with and how that audience expects to be addressed.

Until that happens, jazz will be heard by people who find out about it from friends, neighbors, kinfolk and schoolteachers; they’ll pay most attention to what’s immediately around them; they’ll go places where they are socially comfortable to listen, hang out and interact. That’s been the pattern since jazz was born, which the basic findings of the Jazz Audience Initiative haven’t unearthed but rather reaffirm.

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  1. albert crawford says

    Very positive and encouraging..I still love and am make a living, pretty much from 90% jazz gigs, and I am not a star,, (Duh) (It not quite a living really) but u get my point.. and thank u for being here.

  2. Bob Porter says

    The idea that there is one audience for all jazz is simply not true. Certain styles of jazz are doing much better than others. But if by ” local programming influences local preferences” you might mean the traditional New Orleans jazz that is so alive and flourishing in that city, I’d agree. You’ll find a tiny amount of modern jazz in NO but even the modern jazz stars(Blanchard, Harrison, Nicholas Payton, etc) that have emerged are thoroughly conversant with the tradition. But I think you are really talking about something else.

    You would do your readers a great service by thoroughly investigating the audience for trad and comparing it
    with the audience for modern jazz. Did you know that there are well over 100 festivals, jazz parties, etc that exist and thrive because the styles presented are limited rather than attempting to be all-encompassing..But
    nobody writes abo0ut this. When it comes to jazz one size DOES NOT fit all.

    • says

      Bob, the survey treats the audience as a single entity to be dissected into various demographic slices, but not by stylistic preferences (and please — I am only the messenger, not the creator, of the report and its findings. Many limitations of the report are evident to me.) Local programming may mean what’s prevalent in live performance in New Orleans or Chicago or elsewhere there’s a strong (maybe multi-faceted, as in Chicago) scene, or it may just reflect radio programming put on by faithful, talented deejays (I’m thinking of Eric Jackson and Steve Schwartz in Boston, and Bob, you yourself and the others at WBGO).

      I completely agree that trad jazz audiences have been ignored by the major jazz publications, which is a shame because those audiences represent potential funders as well as people who have insight and links to the music’s glorious past. I’d like to go to the Bix fest in Davenport someday, or maybe the New Jersey traditional jazz fest, or even the Trad Jazz adult learning camp. I have an interest in early jazz, though my exposure to most of the revivalist bands hasn’t yet been very rewarding. I was never able to sell DB on the idea that this was a valuable world to cover, though, and no one else at any of the publications or platforms seems taken with it — though the American Rag does a job covering that world, and the Mississippi Rag used to. (by the way, I tried to get the Mississippi Rag’s archives taken over by the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia U., but I have not heard that it ever happened. Too bad, and I hope that material has not been irretrievably lost).

  3. says

    Thanks for this post. It seems to me that people in jazz, like those in other traditions, are really good at the supply side: producing wonderful music and wonderful events. As you point out, there’s no lack of energy for doing this, but there is not enough demand to support the fabulous supply.

    So a key question is: how to build demand? How to find people who would love jazz; how to encourage them to show up; how to help them fall in love?

    The survey provides a few clues. I suspect that some presenters know a lot about how to increase demand. It probably has a lot to do with building relationship and trust.

    And maybe it’s important to acknowledge that our current economic system stacks the deck against human projects that are local, labor-intensive, dependent on high levels of craftsmanship, not mass-produced, and not high-profit. The economics of such projects–teaching, nursing, dancing, instrument building, etc.–are different.

    • says

      John, thanks for your note. The demand part of the equation is of considerable interest. Many of the venues around Berklee and other jazz-oriented schools speak of booking students and then attracting mostly other students. Well, that’s one way to build an audience.

      The survey does suggest that building relationships between presenters and audience is the essence. The presenters I’ve heard discuss this accept that it may be necessary, but many of them feel that it stretches their resources unsupportably. That’s got to change — and it CAN change, if the presenters learn to use social (emphasis on “social”) media and other media outlets, too.

      I agree that the current economic and entertainment systems privilege large scale high profit productions over grass roots creativity. It would be interesting, however painful, to see if worse economic conditions turned that around. I blogged about that in a post a few weeks back,