Can Jazz Be Saved? (Is That A Useful Question?)

I'm supposed to be thinking about Newport — or sleeping so I can later be thinking about Newport — but I had to get this out of my system.

I woke up yesterday in Newport, R.I. to find this Terry Teachout Wall Street Journal opinion piece forwarded to my inbox. The headline: "Can Jazz Be Saved?" Which — yikes! — even considering the prospect of watching live jazz all day, was not the greatest way to start Saturday.

Here's the catch: Nobody's listening.

No, it's not quite that bad — but it's no longer possible for head-in-the-sand types to pretend that the great American art form is economically healthy or that its future looks anything other than bleak.

The subject of the op-ed is one dear to my heart, which has only been beating for some 24-odd years. (Yes, I played that card; not like you couldn't have Googled it anyway.) I'm very much of this critical demographic whose participation in jazz could "save" it, should you choose to accept the logic of the article. And I'm fairly sensitive to the suggestion that jazz's future doesn't look "anything other than bleak," and that it's implied to be the fault of my generation for not embracing jazz.

Believe me, the reality of the NEA survey that Teachout writes about is not lost on me.

I mean, you try being a modern twenty-something and getting your non-jazz-nerd friends to go see shows with you. I myself noted the grim empirical data — and they are grim — on this blog when the reports surfaced. NPR's Elizabeth Blair filed briefly about it too.

The thing about that, though — and this is the actual lede of Blair's piece — is that the NEA's reports show that all participation in high-cultural activity is down. Once the economy recovers and young people have, you know, job prospects, maybe they'll go see some shows again. I try to monitor the state of affairs in jazz, and I know there are at very least still a lot of young people making improvised music. It's not unreasonable to suppose that youthful interest may not be far behind.

Which brings me to the point of all this: there's a sizable gap between the NEA data, which you can find here, and what Teachout is inferring. And furthermore, for someone who claims to support jazz, his inferences aren't particularly useful. Take this statement:

What does this tell us? 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 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.

Wait, what? Really? First of all, the heart of the problem isn't that people see jazz as high art: it's that people see it as boring or unapproachable art. We would do well to treat this problem, and not the imagined, increasingly meaningless distinction of low vs. high. As with race in this country, it isn't being black that makes you less likely to go to college; it's being from the poorest neighborhood in a city with failing schools, which happens to be a majority-black community. Let's diagnose the issues correctly.

But furthermore: has Teachout recently talked to or seen in concert any jazz musician under the age of 35? I'm fairly certain that jazz musicians, and especially young jazz musicians, don't exist in hermetic bubbles. They listen to the popular music of their peers and their generation, and often themselves make it for fun and/or for a living. And so they don't think jazz is anything intrinsically different than good rock, or hip-hop, or whatever it is. If there's one thing I can say about young jazz musicians, it's that their first favorite records were probably not jazz albums. Their musical outlooks probably reflect that.

Double furthermore: if young jazz musicians think this way, then young music listeners — you know, we who could put representative samples from the entirety of Western (or even non-Western) popular music on our iTunes libraries, and often do — are even more genre-agnostic.

And really: what's the point of Teachout saying all this, and not offering any directions forward? Does Teachout think the jazz world needs yet another good scare to start moving faster? Or does he actually see no models for developing audiences, no encouraging young artists or scenes who are bridging this so-called high-art divide by making just-plain-fun music? Not even in Vijay Iyer, or Christian McBride, or the Vandermark 5, or Joshua Redman, or Miguel Zenon, or Hiromi, or Mos Def (whose band is led by Robert Glasper), all of whom I saw at the Newport Jazz Festival, a supposed bastion of conservatism in jazz, on Saturday alone?

I have great respect for Teachout as a thinker, and ultimately, I do agree with his assertion that jazz faces a dire crisis which needs to be resolved. I'm also not going to deny that jazz is now, on the whole, more challenging than it once was. But rarely has jazz — the kind we choose to remember and write history about today — ever been more than a minority-appreciated music anyway. And now, the territory between high and low art has never been hazier now that people are beginning to see the issue in superior terms: good art and bad art. To write about the audience crisis while overlooking these possibilities, not to mention the positive trends which do bring real hope to widen the audience, seems to me a waste of a valuable platform. And to that end ...

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