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 artsjournal.com 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 artsjournal.com 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.