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Oh, The Kids These Days

First, read Marc Myers of JazzWax on why twenty-somethings, for whom iTunes libraries serve as sonic wallpaper, may prove fundamentally incompatible with jazz, a "listening music" that requires significantly more concentration:

Can jazz survive Generation F? The "F" here stands for "flighty," and anyone who has watched people in their 20s listen to music today knows what I'm talking about. Songs in iTunes libraries and on iPods serve mostly as white noise for this demographic group. Music is what you put on while working, organizing photos on your computer, i-Chatting or texting.

Then read Phil Freeman's intelligent, historically perceptive and thorough takedown here. The arguments lead up to this:

It's a good thing Myers' complaining is mostly directed at people his own age or older. If people in their twenties read his whiny b——— and reductive generalizations of their generation, they might wind up turned off to jazz, rather than mostly unaware of it, as they are now. (Here's a hint, Marc: most Americans, regardless of age, are pretty much unaware of jazz. Try making a positive contribution to the discussion next time, rather than griping pointlessly about "these kids today.")

I greatly admire Myers' work elsewhere, but I cast my lot with Freeman on this one: the challenge with this generation of listeners is so much more "wait, what's jazz?" than Attention Deficit Disorder. Though in saying so, I'd like to point out that in many faulty arguments, there's a kernel of truth embedded in the premise; it's just extrapolated incorrectly. And I think that's the case with what Myers is saying here.

Myers may know, or be curious to find, that I myself am 25 years old. I can hazily recall the time before MP3s, but I identify with the idea of the digital native. I'll even agree with him that the convenience and portability of recorded music today has led to many in my generation treating all music with minimal patience and attention. At very least, I certainly know that sometimes, I'll tire of a song, and dial up something else — because on iTunes or an iPod, I can. And I'd even be willing to say that some of the jazz students currently in conservatories right now grew up listening the same way.

Myers' logical leap is his assumption that my generation will never approach music listening in any other way. Just because you treat music as white noise at times, or have an itchy trigger finger at others, certainly doesn't mean that you're incapable of close listening. (If nobody ever shows us how to do that close listening, it seems like the fault of music education rather than technology.) After all, the same innovations that Myers believes to encourage bad things in listening — the MP3, Apple's music software, tiny portable players — also make it possible to pay more attention in more ways and means than ever too.

I'd hold myself up as proof, along with the record numbers of students enrolling in university-level jazz programs throughout the U.S. But then you could question how good I am at my job, and how good this generation is at music. It'd be better to point out that young people still turn up in droves to concerts. Perhaps they aren't jazz shows, but often enough, they're good music which rewards close listening. And they care enough to go to these shows because they often fall in love with the artists' recorded music, and listen to it frequently and intently.

If jazz is to expand its audience, or even simply maintain its size going forward a generation, its newest fans won't be mass crowds of 16-year-olds, at least not immediately. Those who are regularly captivated by music at large — those who actively take charge of their own musical discoveries — will drive jazz's growth once they understand its potency (or even its existence). That group has always been a minority in every generation. And it seems highly unlikely that new ways of listening could be so dominant as to make music fundamentally less fascinating.

One more thing: I'd like to echo Freeman on one point too. Here he is responding to Myers' assumption that jazz's "history is too deep for a casual relationship."

I could say the same about heavy metal. But I wouldn't, because I'm not a snobbish idiot. Music is music. Each work should be taken or left on its own merits. This is the single thing I hate most about jazz people — their fixation on the idea that jazz is a course of study, not a world of music there to be enjoyed. Not studied, though you can do that if you want to. Enjoyed. Jazz musicians, like all musicians, make music in the hope that it will give people pleasure, not in the hope that it will give people subjects for monographs and symposia decades later. This is why I say that if you want to convert a non-jazz listener into a jazz listener, don't say "You should listen to jazz." Instead, figure out what they already like, and say, "You should listen to [specific jazz album]."

My vision for what jazz could become among my generation has something to do with this. It's highly possible that we could see jazz records — not necessarily "jazz" at large, just a few albums (or even songs) by selected artists — enter the iTunes collections of most music lovers. For some, Kurt Rosenwinkel might be the gateway; others, Bill Frisell; still others, Sonny Sharrock. Or Mehldau/Glasper/Tatum, or Akinmusire/Douglas/electric Miles. Whatever floats your boat really. If you like rap, there's something for you. If you like Broken Social Scene, there's something for you too. If you like to know that you're listening to some hazily preconceived notion of jazz, that isn't going away either. Best of all, this can live in that same massive library of music which fits in your hand, or the great cloud of streaming music which you just need a broadband connection to access.

If jazz is attached to some notion that you need to write an essay on its history and be able to tritone substitute in ii-V7-I progressions to appreciate any single example of it, most would, reasonably, write it off. If it's treated simply as good music to be enjoyed however you like, jazz stands a chance at a wider embrace. But first, we need to stop pronouncing it as beyond the ken of the generation we seek to introduce it to.