The Jazz Audience

When The National Endowment for the Arts study on Public Participation in the Arts came out a few weeks ago, the survey’s bad news about the size of the jazz audience caused ripples of concern. It showed that over a six-year period, the number of Americans attending jazz events dropped to a low of 7.8%. In a population of 301 million, that translates to attendance of 2,347,800 each year at jazz clubs, concerts and festivals. As if that weren’t discouraging enough to those worried about the state of jazz, the audience for live jazz is growing older. According to the study, in 1982 the median age of listeners at live performances was 29. In 2008, it was 46.
Over the weekend, Terry Teachout’s Wall Street Journal column about the NEA study amplified those ripples of concern into waves as his piece was picked up by web sites and blogs. What are the implications of the numbers above and of the study’s other statistics of decline? Teachout, also an blogger, wrote:

I suspect it means, among other things, that the average American now sees jazz as a form of high art. Nor should this come as a surprise to anyone, since most of the jazz musicians that I know feel pretty much the same way. They regard themselves as artists, not entertainers, masters of a musical language that is comparable in seriousness to classical music–and just as off-putting to pop-loving listeners who have no more use for Wynton Marsalis than they do for Felix Mendelssohn.

Terry ended his column with this:

No, I don’t know how to get young people to start listening to jazz again. But I do know this: Any symphony orchestra that thinks it can appeal to under-30 listeners by suggesting that they should like Schubert and Stravinsky has already lost the battle. If you’re marketing Schubert and Stravinsky to those listeners, you have no choice but to start from scratch and make the case for the beauty of their music to otherwise intelligent people who simply don’t take it for granted. 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.

Fellow blogger Howard Mandel, responding to Teachout, charges him with “forecasting the death of jazz.” In his column, Teachout does not do that. But, having set up the straw man, Mandel knocks it down with a series of illustrations that jazz is flourishing, all encouraging. You can read them in his new posting at Jazz Beyond Jazz.
“How to pitch it” is Teachout’s key phrase in his conclusion. Let’s take that to mean improvements in presentation, audience education and marketing. If jazz musicians find ways to reach larger audiences without watering down their art, it will be good for them and the future of the music. Calculated attempts to increase audience by forcing hybridization of the music itself have neither elevated its quality nor achieved permanent increases in attendance figures and record sales for uncompromised music. Such amalgams as disco jazz, soft jazz, smooth jazz and other varieties of near-jazz have done wonders for Kenny G and John Tesh, but little for players of undiluted jazz.
In a barroom discussion of such compromises, the guitarist Jim Hall once said, “Where do I go to sell out?” That was decades ago. You’ll notice that he hasn’t sold out. It may be that the NEA study illuminates what serious artists have always known even as they dreamt of popular acceptance, fame and wealth. The pianist John Lewis articulated it, and his quote has been popping up in the wake of the study: “The reward for playing jazz is playing jazz.”
In the introduction to Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers, I reflected on the matter of the jazz audience. Here’s an excerpt:

For a few years in the 1940s and 1940s, when the big band phenomenon resulted in a congruence of jazz and popular music, jazz records sometimes became best sellers. That happened not because the music was jazz, but because it was popular despite its being jazz. The high artistic quality of a hit like Erskine Hawkins’s “Tuxedo Junction” or Charlie Barnet’s “Cherokee” was coincidental. In succeeding decades when an anomaly like Stan Getz’s “Desifinado” or Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” made the top forty, there was a revival of the old hope, born during a few unreproduceable years of the swing era, that jazz could again be a part of mass culture.
It is understandably painful to jazz musicians to witness the enormous popularity of inferior music based on jazz, and to see many of its practitioners become wealthy. A talented musician working for union scale might feel despair to read in one day’s newspaper that Bruce Springsteen, the rock star, earned an estimated $56 million in 1986-87, and in the next day’s edition find Springsteen quoted, “Chuck (Berry) played in a lot of strange keys, like B-flat and E-flat,” these “strange keys” actually being two of the least complicated. Like so much in life, commercial dominance by the slightly talented and musically ignorant is not fair. It may be time, however, as the brilliant alto saxophonist Phil Woods has suggested, for jazz players and listeners to accept the fact their music is art music, that commerce is commerce, and that the more sophisticated and artistically complete jazz becomes, the less likely it is to be a wide commercial success.
Because of its enormous strength, vitality and creative energy, jazz has from its beginnings influenced trendy popular offshoots. Fusion, crossover and the so-called New Age or earth music of the 1980s are only the latest manifestations of a tradition that goes back at least as far as the soupy sweet bands and chirpy pop songs of the l920s. Indeed, the popular music of the past sixty years in virtually all of it forms, especially including rock, would not have existed had there been no jazz. This could fairly be called a mixed blessing.
Still, despite the occasional brief popular acclaim of a jazz artist, the mother lode of American music remains untapped by most Americans.

Like Terry Teachout, I don’t know how to interest young people in jazz. I tend to think, based on observation and anecdotal information, that rather more of them listen to jazz than the NEA study suggests. Study results often lag behind current realities. I hope that’s the case here. I am sure of one thing; the de-emphasis and, in many cases, elimination, of arts education in public schools has done enormous damage to audience-building for music, literature, theatre and the visual arts. There are many more contributing factors, including the spread of instant communication with the result that young people are conditioned to instant gratification rather than slow, deep appreciation. That is a worldwide cultural and societal problem. I don’t know how to solve it, either.
Go here to read a summary of the NEA study.

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  1. says

    People like Teachout (unwittingly?) present themselves as if they never leave midtown Manhattan.
    Just a couple of weeks ago I visited The Maine Jazz Camp, a place I have a connection with, and checked out a couple of the faculty concerts. Judging from the uniformly enthusiastic reaction to undiluted contemporary jazz performed by an excellent New York-centric faculty, it seems today’s teenagers go in for the live experience. Kids listen intently when presented with live jazz and find the music fun as well as compelling, whatever the style of jazz that is being offered. I saw standing ovations at MJC for both a bossa nova and an open-ended free piece. I don’t think it matters if it’s straightahead, free, Ellington ensemble recreations or Radiohead covers; kids respond to musical excellence, sincerity and honesty. Preferably live- then they might buy the record.
    Did I not mention that all of these kids play musical instruments in school? Not that they will all become musicians professionally, but the experience of learning to play has created an empathy that allows them to actively listen to recorded music and appreciate the audience participants role in listening to live music, too.
    Doug, I must say that I don’t share your hierarchical musical views of jazz vs. popular rock music. I don’t think most young people do either, nor current younger jazz musicians. I personally grew up on rock music as well as jazz, and have spent much pleasurable time digging rock, blues, and folk music as well as so-called “art music”, such as classical and jazz. By the way, I think Springsteen is artistic, and so are The Beatles, Dylan, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. Irving Berlin was not musically ‘educated’; does that mean “How Deep Is The Ocean” is not art? I think we moved beyond the nastiness of the ‘kids and their ignorant rock music’ debate a long time ago.
    (Mr. Grover is a drummer, composer and educator with several CDs as a leader.
    As some Rifftides readers may recognize, my views are less hierarchical or, at least, more flexible, than they were when I wrote that book excerpt in 1989. However, I affirm its basic tenet, that jazz is the wellspring of American popular music and has evolved to a level of musical sophistication that rock and roll cannot match. — DR)

  2. Larry Kart says

    Allow me to post a comment on this subject that I’ve posted on another blog today:
    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? 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? 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 “outreach” to youth or whomever as a form of solution/salvation.

  3. Dr. Mike Baughan says

    Great ‘Jazz is Dead’ type discussion here. As far as getting youth interested in jazz, didn’t Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” have a tremendous impact on classical music appreciation in this country? How about someone other than Wynton attempt such a jazz version IF proper funding available out there? Pardon my naivite’-I know that a dynamo such as Bernstein is impossible to find, nor is there any funding available these days, but thought I’d throw this out there.
    Like most things, it starts in the home-I got my start in jazz watching my Dad play ‘air sax’ to Tommy Dorsey records & listening to Paul Desmond on my uncle’s ‘killer'(for that time) stereophonic system!
    Going to Monterey Jazz Festival next month. There’s a place where youth involvement is fantastic. Bless them!

  4. Norm Brust says

    I’m old enough to remember when college auditoriums were filled to overflowing by groups like the Dave Brubeck quartet and the George Shearing quintet. Millions of jazz fans were created by those concerts and the live recordings that followed. What did those musicians know that today’s jazz players have forgotten? Humans respond to melody and beat.
    Today’s players are playing for each other, not for the general audience. It may be fun but it won’t pay the rent.

  5. Larry Kart says

    Re: Dr. Baughan’s request for “proper funding” for Leonard Bernstein -type forms of outreach to da youth. The very partial answer is for more funds to discretely go to, or at least not get in the way of, those things in the world of jazz that ARE working. The Chicago scene for about the last decade is one such place, and one of its secrets is that no one wastes their time lecturing horses on how they should learn to go to where the water is because they’ll be better horses morally for it; rather everyone simply does his or her best to provide good fresh water (i.e. music) under pleasant conditions and to please/interest themselves while doing so. (Genuinely interested people who are having a good time tend to stir interest in others — a natural thing.)
    I agree, though, that “like most things, it starts in the home–I got my start in jazz watching my Dad play ‘air sax’ to Tommy Dorsey records & listening to Paul Desmond on my uncle’s ‘killer’ (for that time) stereophonic system!”
    The trick is that the music has to be compelling in and of itself (a la vintage Dorsey and Desmond), and that if the environment is not the home itself, it needs to be fairly home-like (i.e. friendly). The seeds still grow; I’ve sat in the shade of what were once green shoots. But watch out for most (if not perhaps all) forms of subsidized outreach; it eats up dough that better could go elsewhere and probably kills off more potential interest that it stirs, because it smells of “‘This is good for you”-ness.”

  6. Phil Wood says

    As it always has, music finds its audience. Of course, exposure is the key but still, young people go with (1) what is easiest, and (2) what welds them to their peers. Only those who begin to seek something different really discover jazz and begin to crave it.
    As an old man of 72, my experience is that I had close friends in the 1950s, just as I do today, who don’t listen to jazz because they don’t understand it. The creative expression of spontaneous ideas has no meaning for them.
    It isn’t particularly surprising that interest in jazz among young people is dwindling. There simply isn’t enough time to build an appreciation for what these interesting people turn into compelling sounds.
    Our culture now develops beloved things instantly which are also instantly dismissed as passe. And so it goes. But jazz will always find its audience. Not the other way around.

  7. says

    FWIW, I basically agree with your contention that the music business is unfair, and that commercial interests are in the business of hyping and promoting trends and fads that have little to do with music, such as the American Idol trend of pop music and commercial rap music. Rather than call this stuff music, I prefer to call it musical product- it has attributes of music, but is akin to the center section of the supermarket, which has packaged food products with very little nutritional value; the real food is in a corner off to the side of the store. The profit lies with these products, not real food. When was the last time you saw an ad on television for green peppers or spinach? The ads are for tv dinners and fast food. Kids (and adults) like fast food, but when exposed to the real thing and how good it can make them feel, they will eventually choose a balanced diet, saving the frozen pizza and Double Whopper for once-in-a-while.
    I think I took issue with your example of Springsteen, who is a career artist, when there is plenty of other pop music to cite as examples of the inherent aesthetic emptiness of the music business. I suppose in many ways I am as much of a jazz snob as anyone could be, but I think I am constantly vigilant about my own musical prejudices and fight to purge them when necessary.
    One other thing: Kids are very opinionated about pop, rock and rap music. They are deep into the inner workings of it and are quick to express who their favorite bands are and why. That does not prevent them from liking jazz or playing it or even becoming serious about learning it, as I have seen some gifted students do.

  8. sam stephenson says

    I believe Teachout is onto something important in saying jazz could be marketed better to young people. I believe there’s a opening right now for new jazz marketing. Hip hop has matured and popular bands like Radiohead and Wilco are leading people to Mingus and Alice Coltrane and Mehldau and Jenny Scheinman.
    Somehow, the Kronos Quartet, who have been around for 40 years, still draw young audiences. Two years ago I saw them blow the roof off a Durham venue full of people under 35 playing three new arrangements of Round Midnight plus Brilliant Corners. Last fall at Zankel Hall I saw them draw a pretty young audience to hear “Black Angels” and a new piece by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. Some purists will sneer at their hybrid music, I suppose, but it seems to me that if Kronos can draw audiences like this, jazz can.
    Finally, I’ve had the good fortune of interviewing a lot of aging jazz musicians (I know I’m not alone here saying that) and I’ve found their impressions of the “good old days” to be really not all that good. Lots of lame gigs until 3am in joints with 25 patrons who weren’t paying attention.

  9. says

    With my own instrumental jazz groups (duo, trio, 4tet, sextet, big band) I have found success in reaching new listeners with (1) original music and (2) interpretations of popular music they know.

    There are very few audience members who recognize Gershwin beyond Summertime, Richard Rodgers beyond Sound of Music and Irving Berlin beyond Easter Parade.
    They do, however, know a good tune by the Beatles, the Who (Pete Townshend is a good songwriter!), Simon & Garfunkle, Nirvana, etc.
    The musical challenge for us, of course, is to interpret these songs in artistically substantially ways — so they don’t come off sounding like Muzak. I sense that we’re on the right track.
    FYI, if you go to my YouTube Channel, you can see inerpretations of music by Billy Joel, the Beatles, and Queen. Here’s our version of Norwegian Wood.

    I feel strongly that interpreting more current popular music (yes, the Beatles stuff is 40+ years old — but recognizable nonetheless) is no different than beboppers using Tin Pan Alley songs as their musical vehicles.

  10. Phil Wood says

    Be careful what you wish for. Better marketing to young people is a slippery slope. While broadening the reach of jazz and increasing the money received by its practitioners are both positive goals, the whole world of pop music and celebrity marketing is the La Brea Tar Pits of ugliness and exploitation.
    I don’t want this to sound elitist but jazz is too cerebral to dumb-down for the youth market. And once it begins, there is no stopping it.
    But the truth is that jazz isn’t ‘pop music.’ Can’t, won’t ever be. It takes too much time and effort to appreciate, things not in over abundance in today’s culture.
    One of my favorite memories is sitting through several sets of the Mulligan-Baker Quartet at the Haig on Wilshire as a 16-year old underage fanatic. To me, nothing was more heroic than listening to those two weaving their spontaneously conceived tapestry through the LA night.
    Why was I there? I had heard about them on after-midnight radio shows, bought their early records and knew I HAD to see them in action. Was that marketing? In a way. Probably the best way.

  11. Allen Lowe says

    I kinda see things like the Maine Jazz Camp as part of the problem, though I take a jaundiced view – I have lived in Maine 13 years and am probably the most accomplished jazz player here (David Murray, Matt Shipp, Don Byron, Julius Hemphill, Marc Ribot, Doc Cheatham and Roswell Rudd have all worked as side men with MY groups) – yet in the clique-ridden world of Maine jazz I have been excluded from this camp year after year – and herein lies the problem: jazz is as in-grown as a Mountain family, musicians covering their own butts, protecting their own gigs instead of trying to see a bigger picture –

  12. Sugar Candelaria says

    I agree entirely with your contention that jazz is the wellspring, but in fairness, I don’t think most rockers, or their audience, are attempting — or even desire — musical sophistication.
    Pretension? Yes, often. But that is also true of any number of jazzers for that matter.
    Excellent observations, thank you again.

  13. says

    Rather than viewing the act of interpreting a Beatles tune, for instance, as a dumbing down, is it possible to see this as gateway music for the uninitiated jazz listener?
    If the melodic-rhythmic-harmonic-formal substance is solid, and the musicians use their “jazz” improvisational processes on said Fab 4 vehicle, can’t doing something like this be a way to invite these listeners into your musical world by giving them something to hold onto (i.e. a melody they recognize)?
    And, if so, is it reasonable to think this is a good thing for the music?
    (sorry for the awkwardly long sentences… )