The Jazz.com Blog
October 24, 2009 · 2 comments
The “audience factor” can no longer be ignored. We are fast approaching a period in which jazz musicians may outnumber the people who want to hear them play. When that happens, we will no longer have a living, breathing art; we will be left with a hobbyist-driven artifact, the musical equivalent of Latin, a dead language spoken only in lecture halls and courtrooms.
So the questions remain: Who will save performance jazz? As much as I’d like to suggest that a few caped “jazz guitar heroes” will swoop down from the sky, dazzling stadiums full of newly-enraptured jazz Moonies, we know that’s probably not going to happen.
In reality, the future viability of jazz is dependent on two radical changes in our cultural environment. First, music education must become a priority in our public school systems, with emphasis on jazz and classical music in elementary school curricula. Like foreign languages, complex musical concepts are more easily assimilated if taught early and have the additional benefit of increasing a child’s right brain-left brain connection.
Second, musicians must be willing to communicate more and connect with their target audiences. This would be a cultural compromise of sorts—‘opening up’ the public ear, with a bit of ‘sweetening up’ from jazz artists. After all, even the boldest pioneers knew when to pitch camp and dig in after opening up new territories. John Pizzarelli gets it—with an aura of urbane charm and the judicious use of comfortable, flowing bop lines he has made a career of repackaging the Great American Songbook. George Benson has been climbing the charts for years, though his prowess as a player is sometimes kept in the background by his vocal finesse.
It’s no accident that Herbie Hancock has sold millions of records and filled concert halls, revitalizing his audience base by incorporating elements of hip hop, funk and techno into his compositions and utilizing guitarists like "Wah Wah" Watson and Lionel Loueke along the way. After winning a Grammy for Album of the Year for his interpretations of Joni Mitchell tunes and his projects with vocalists Elvis Costello and Christina Aguilera, Herbie is the closest thing we have to a popular jazz superstar. His music has enough broad appeal to reach the neophytes. They may not understand it but it still makes them want to dance.
“Horrors,” you say? Well, if you happen to be in Paris, pay a visit to the Caveau Huchette. You will see an ancient cellar full of young people dancing to bebop, swing and cool jazz. Huchette is not exactly avant-garde, nor is it the hippest jazz salon in Europe, but its patrons are having fun. What’s wrong with that?
Today jazz guitarists are in a position to effect positive change as trailblazers of the next wave, nujazz or whatever you wish to call it. These frontiersmen may choose to dazzle with pyrotechnics and shatter existing tenets of music, or they can choose to communicate with clarity. I don’t suggest that we ‘dumb down’ the music. There is a world of difference between vapidity and clarity. What we need is deeper simplicity, a value often embraced by guitar virtuosi like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and Earl Klugh.
Playing it safe never factored into the equation for any of these artists—in their hands, simplicity is merely the thoughtful restraint of brilliant ideas. In the wrong hands, simplicity is nothing more than mediocrity with the safety on, banality disguised as taste. By the same token, we can’t force the public to listen to angry, strident, chaotic exhortation in the name of Great Art. There must come a time when jazz once again enjoys a broad appeal, without losing its soul, when people everywhere no longer feel threatened and intimidated by its complexity and have no qualms over dancing joyfully to its boundless energy.
If we play it, they will come; but only if they can hear it—and if they dig what they hear. As Thoreau famously said, “It's not enough to be busy. The question is what are you busy about?” It is high time we redoubled our effort to find common ground with the public ear.
Jazzers don’t have to be the victims in this technological revolution. The tail has been wagging the dog much too long—we must use mass media and technology in a proactive, intelligent way, striking a balance between art and commerce. Imagine multi-media events where a growing legion of young, musically savvy fans dance a superlocrian dervish generated by hypnotically rhythmic world-beat newsion guitarist ensembles. Just as Charlie Christian changed the playbook with his use of the tube amplifier, the next generation of digitally supercharged jazz guitarists can forge a future limited only by its collective imagination.
This blog entry posted by Bill Barnes