Jazz Now: Conclusions

Jazz Now image 2. i i
Jazz Now image 2.

It's been a while since we finished our Jazz Now survey, asking the Jazz Internet to recommend modern jazz starter albums. But we never really wrapped it up in any authoritative way. So here are a few observations of this whole affair.

There's one more task left still: actually getting some people to listen and engage with these selections. Still in the works from this end. In the meanwhile, some thoughts on the data and the series. This grew to be quite a monster post, so I'll give you a little table of contents:

1. On The Bad Plus & Brad Mehldau
2. I See Black People
3. Different Strokes, Or, To What Audience?
4. Jazz & Not-Jazz
5. The Long Tail

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1. On The Bad Plus & Brad Mehldau

As one might have predicted, The Bad Plus and Brad Mehldau were far and away the artists mentioned most frequently by Jazz Now contributors and commenters. Personally, I'm glad to see a consensus for such genuinely talented artists. I myself listed The Bad Plus, and I really do admire Mehldau's trio records.

But I don't fully understand why so many people have latched on to these artists' recorded works as good "starter" or "gateway" albums. I surmise it has something to do with their loving jazz embraces of not-jazz — more on that later. That can't be all of it, though. Allow me to work through some conjectures.

It's in part because they were (or are) signed to major labels. Big labels have big marketing budgets, and win larger exposure. This applies to many other high-polling artists too: Dave Douglas, Brian Blade, Robert Glasper, Medeski Martin and Wood and more. Of course, also high in the polling were "indie" artists like Vijay Iyer, Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue. And if major label budgets were the entire story, Eldar and Joshua Redman would have appeared much more often. There must be something else to that phenomenon of "buzz."

It's in part because of the media attention paid these guys. There was once so much coverage around TBP (remember 2003?) and Brad Mehldau ("Is Brad Mehldau the most influential jazz musician of his generation?" —Down Beat, 2007) that they both earned visible backlash. That says something about just how much they were embraced by critics and non-traditional audiences: the jazz world is usually pretty supportive of anyone with real talent, but too much commercial buzz and out come the haters. (Which is ultimately good for jazz: to have your merits debated is to be talked about in the first place.) Still, I think most of the young people who responded don't pay much attention to jazz media. Word of mouth remains the way most young people discover music, and while the press often triggers the spread of that word of mouth, plenty of Down Beat cover artists aren't well represented here too.

(As an aside, I remain unconvinced that TBP and Brad Mehldau represent "the future" of jazz, or any such nonsense hyperbole often bandied around new, original artists. The future of jazz lies in a thousand different directions, and these artists would be the first to tell you that. But that wasn't the question posed by Jazz Now, which asked people to introduce other people to modern jazz.)

It's in part because they're young. There wasn't a lot of Wayne Shorter or Chick Corea or Ornette Coleman in the polling, and I surmise that has something to do with an emphasis on youth. If you want to show someone that jazz is alive and well, you want to present younger artists. Of course, Mehldau and the members of TBP are all hovering around 40. And if we asked twenty-something music lovers to pick music that resonates with their generation, shouldn't the names skew even younger to reflect artists of their (our) generation? Sure, it takes a long time to develop a strong, original voice, and sure, artists' careers seem to be lasting longer than ever, shifting the upper boundaries of "young." (Not to say that 40 is "old" either, 'cause it ain't.) But it might be more accurate to say that these artists' popularity is due to their continued "youthiness" rather than their empirical youth.

It's in part because white artists have always enjoyed more opportunities than black or Latino artists, which has something to do with the fact that jazz critics tend to be college-educated white people. (One might also note that Ethan Iverson and Brad Mehldau also write as if they're college-educated white people.) We're onto something true here, but it's far more complicated. Read on ...

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2. I See Black People

More accurately, I don't observe a whole lot of African Americans in the jazz blogosphere. Which is why I didn't ask any young, black jazz bloggers to be part of the original Jazz Now team: as far as I can tell, there aren't many. (There could be important perspectives that I'm not up on, and if you know of them, let us know — we've only been doing this blog thing for five months, you know.)

I did, however, reach out to a young reader (and Twitter presence) named Anthony Dean-Harris. He's got a blog which deals with jazz from time to time, and attended an HBCU. So when he submitted his Jazz Now thoughts, I pressed him on it. I believe he was the first black person to submit a list on a blog — the only one out of twenty, not including the contributors published on ABS — and I thought he might have some thoughts on the dearth of Jazz Internet from African Americans, especially those in our generation.

Dean-Harris responded in a new blog post. For the most part, he's as stymied as I am, but he does point out that NPR doesn't have a high percentage of black listeners, and that the audience for live jazz is growing older on average — thus less likely to be following blogs. Combined with the fact that ABS existed for less than four months when Jazz Now started, and that's the beginning of an theory why Dean-Harris was alone in this particular project.

But that still doesn't explain the perceived lack of young, black jazz bloggers at large. At one time, folks like A.B. Spellman and Amiri Baraka were anomalies for cracking the mainstream jazz press, theretofore the sole province of white enthusiasts. Now anybody can play the Web 2.0 game and distribute their opinions. (Many powerful blogging technologies are, after all, free.) So as a sheer demographic issue, I would expect black-run jazz blogs and jazz-related internet entrepreneurship to mirror the percentage of jazz fans who identify as black. This is not the case.

That might be anecdotal evidence that young, black jazz supporters are either not plentiful (in either relative or absolute terms), or not exhibiting their fandom in jazz-specific ways. Perhaps that audience is going to shows and acquiring records, but not participating in the Jazz Internet community as it currently stands.

All this is to help contextualize the fact that Brad Mehldau and The Bad Plus — and many of the other high poll-finishers — are white folks. Would the results be different if a different set of fans had chimed in? There's a question I can't answer.

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3. Different Strokes, Or, To What Audience?

It has been noted several times by commenters that not everyone will like everything. Someone who doesn't care much for modern R&B may not be into Esperanza Spalding's latest album; someone who hates math-rock may not necessarily dig Rudresh Mahanthappa's Codebook. To that effect, I like the approach of a fellow named Kevin, who tailored each of his picks to people who are already fans of a certain style of music.

This is an interesting thought, and a different tactic than I tried. I like to think that a heartfelt, intense jazz recording defines its own rules in a sense; gifted musicians bend familiar sounds to their own twisted ends. I also credit people with complex musical tastes, and assume that people assess aesthetics based on individual musicianship. So to that extent, I tried to make varied picks based on recordings which I think most listeners could appreciate if they were willing to sit down and engage with the music.

But does that work? Does one enthusiastically-recommended size fit all? Obviously, in "proselytizing" for jazz, you need to keep your audience in mind. (Ideally, you'd be able to answer their feedback too.) At the same time, the mere presentation of musical breadth in modern jazz is, I think, pretty useful. In introducing jazz to a new listener, it's important to remember that many neophytes think that jazz refers to a narrowly specific set of sounds. Directed listening that emphasizes musical diversity: that's as close to an consensus formula as I can get you.

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4. Jazz & Not-Jazz

Over and over, people made the point (both implicitly and explicitly) that jazz which somehow draws from not-jazz could be a powerful draw for people new to the music. Lucas Gillan: "To be perfectly honest, the jazz that most often packs the biggest emotional punch for me is that which exhibits some awareness of non-jazz styles." Dean Christesen: "I would play the following five albums ... they are all similar in that the elements of contemporary rhythm are crucial characteristics of the music." Other selections from the Jazz Now posse include covers of Britney Spears, M.I.A. and Nirvana.

The novelty of any cover anywhere is one thing, and there's of course the obvious appeal of appearing to come from the same generation as your audience. But there's something more sophisticated than "jazz meets hip-hop!" going on here. The free inclusion of sonic ideas commonly associated with not-jazz stretch the idea of a singular jazz genre to a sort of reductio ad absurdum. Yet the music of Robert Glasper, Todd Sickafoose, Matthew Shipp, Guillermo Klein, John Zorn, Chris Potter — I could go on — still (often) sounds like it could be called jazz. It certainly has the structural rigor and improvisational chops characteristic of good jazz, and a quorum of the jazz community has embraced it too.

It's not exactly the mixing of genres itself that appeals to people — how could it be if most people don't understand music in terms of labels, and if those labels aren't valid anyway? I doubt you can sell an indie-rock hipster on all of jazz just by playing some Aaron Parks or whatever. But you can probably sell someone who likes the dreamy, art-damaged soundscapes of Blonde Redhead on certain tunes from Invisible Cinema. So yes, good jazz which draws from not-jazz helps to prove that jazz musicians don't live in barns; more importantly, it's loaded with a lot of musical details which expand the recruiting for the broad church of jazz.

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5. The Long Tail

Finally, I might point out that while there were many artists mentioned multiple times by survey participants, there were many more artists who were only mentioned once. Add that to the fact that many records from popular artists were only mentioned once, and it's pretty clear: people thought up a lot of entryways into modern jazz.

There are a lot more jazz records being made now than ever before — it's simply much easier to put out an album in 2009 than it was in 1959. And they're being made in all sorts of styles: We have people recommending acts as diverse as Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, The Lounge Lizards, Derrick Gardner, Tord Gustavsen, Marco Benevento and Roscoe Mitchell. There's something of a consensus at the top, but at the bottom, modern jazz proves itself a wide stream.

I framed Jazz Now as a tactic to get people into jazz at large, a sort of "see, this stuff doesn't hurt" approach. Also, people who really like jazz tend to like a spectrum of different jazz styles. But in thinking about it, a deep appreciation of this stuff takes time. It took several years for me to get from Head Hunters to Spiritual Unity and the Hot Fives. And really, at heart I care more that people find their own way into something — anything. If Jazz Now leaves anyone with a curiosity about only one artist practicing within one distinct subcategory of jazz, I think this whole exercise was worth it.

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