Jazz Profiles from NPR
Today's Generation: Ups & Downs
Produced by Molly Murphy

Pianist/composer Jason Moran  

On this Jazz Profiles: jazz in the new millennium. There are naysayers who believe that the genre doesn't stand a chance in today's hit-driven music industry, and younger jazz artists like pianist Jason Moran (left) are facing new challenges in these changing times.

Listen to New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff, saxophonist Joshua Redman, vocalist Luciana Souza, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, pianist Jason Moran, and vibraphonist Stefon Harris give their impressions on the current jazz scene

Making a living as a jazz musician has never been the easiest task, and it's become particularly difficult in the recent economic downturn. Many artists have to hustle from gig to gig just to pay the rent, and if a gig falls through, there are few places to turn for recourse: no severance pay, no kill fee, nothing.

Listen to Redman and Ratliff talk about the economic realities of the jazz industry

Amid looming concerns of marketability, many jazz musicians during the 1980s and '90s found themselves in a quandary between neo-conservatism and modernity. But as New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff points out, many of today's leading voices, like Jason Moran, see beyond that duality.

Listen to Moran tell how he fell in love with jazz

Barry Harris  

Any number of artists can cite lack of exposure to jazz as one of the primary reasons for the music's declining popularity. Young listeners only fall in love with jazz either by being a music student in formal jazz programs at schools like Berklee or the Manhattan School, or in master classes led by veteran jazz pianist Barry Harris (left).

Listen to Barry Harris talk about his master classes

Vibraphonist Stefon Harris attended a number of Barry Harris' workshops and is often hailed as one of the most important jazz vibe players to emerge since Bobby Hutcherson. But Stefon wasn't exposed to jazz until he was in college.

Listen to Stefon Harris talk about his first experience with jazz

Another concern facing many younger jazz musicians is the limited time they're allowed to develop an artistic voice and identity. With tight studio budgets and a need for niche marketing, many artists feel the pressure to neglect their creative growth and follow the pack when it comes to recording and releasing CDs.

Listen to saxophonist David Sanchez talk about the pressures of recording

What do you say to a jazz musician with a steady job? "I'll take two Big Macs and a large order of fries."

-- famous jazz joke  

Currently, jazz makes up about three percent of all record sales, down when compared to the "jazz lions" boom of the 1980s and '90s. Major record labels like Columbia and Verve are slashing their jazz divisions. But as Ratliff observes, this could be inevitably be a positive effect for the independent jazz labels, which give jazz players more room for artistic growth, compared to the larger, multi-genre labels.

Listen to Ratliff talk about jazz record sales

Ratliff also points out that a bigger threat for jazz musicians is the lack of performance spaces. Too often, jazz artists don't have extended club gigs that would let them stretch out and develop their music. One-nighters, the mainstay of the pop music concert dynamic, often drain a jazz musician's focus and energy.

Listen to Ratliff discuss the lack of jazz venues


New Orleans-based ensemble, Los Hombres Calientes, featuring trumpeter Irvin Mayfield (left), is one band that knows how to balance the art of music and business. Even on the small independent label, Basin Street, Los Hombres Calientes attracts a large, diverse audience that spends money on CDs.

Listen to trumpeter Irvin Mayfield talk about his group's fans

In order to supplement their income, some jazz artists teach, do studio recordings, play club dates, and even tend bar. Others, like vocalist Luciana Souza, who doesn't have a major-record contract and represents herself, has even cleaned housing to try to support her dream of being a jazz artist.

Listen to vocalist Luciana Souza talk about life as a jazz musician without a major label contract

With limited work opportunities and sagging record sales, does jazz have a future? As the music continues to incorporate other influences and as musicians like Jason Moran, Luciana Souza, and David Sanchez push the envelope, jazz will certainly survive, but the measurement of its success is certainly an open question.

Listen to legendary saxophonist Jackie McLean, Ratliff, and Redman talk about the future of jazz


View the Today's Generation: Ups & Downs show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

ListenListen to the NPR Jazz Riffs CD review of Jason Moran's Black Stars

ListenListen to the NPR's Weekend's All Things Considered interview with Joshua Redman. Originally aired June 2000.