The Jazz.com Blog
May 19, 2009 · 26 comments
Almost a year ago, I was caught talking to myself in print. It's a warning sign, huh? Maybe I should call a doctor, because last night I started talking to myself again. I was half in a dream and half awake, and the conversation went like this . . .
Is the jazz world in a state of crisis?
If this isn't a crisis, I would hate to see what a real one would looks like.
Aren't you over-reacting? Economic cycles go up and down. There is still plenty of jazz out there. Maybe more than ever before. And that new Lovano CD really kicks . . .
The crisis here is not on the supply side. It is on the demand side. The number of musicians and CDs is increasing, but the audience is shrinking. Reversing this trend is the single biggest challenge facing the jazz world.
How many jazz artists—even well-known ones—can sell ten thousand copies of a CD? How many concert halls can book jazz acts and fill the seats? Hardly a week goes by without news of a jazz radio station switching formats, a jazz club closing, a jazz magazine shutting down. These are all measures of a declining audience. And it has been shrinking faster than the GDP for a long, long time.
When you ask people about the health of the jazz scene, they tend to measure it by the quality of the sax solos, or by how much they enjoyed the last batch of CDs they bought. But these measures are hardly relevant, if there is no audience to support the music.
I think I understand. You're saying: if a sax plays in a forest and no one hears it, can it still play a great solo?
Huh? I don't think I understood that.
Never mind. . . . Back to your comments about the audience—is this situation really so different from the past?
The problem of the shrinking audience is masked by various subsidies and supports that didn't exist a few decades ago. If you strip those away, you see how small the market for jazz really is.
Let me cite one example. Many musicians now make a significant proportion of their income from performing outside the US—sometimes this is more than half of their annual earnings from gigs. There are several hundred festivals in Europe that are crucial to the global jazz economy. Without them, a lot of name players would no longer be able to pay their rent.
Yet these festivals are heavily subsidized by governments and other organizations with deep pockets. These subsidies are, of course, a good thing for the art form. But they mask the true level of the crisis. The brutal truth is that jazz is not surviving because it has a loyal audience of fans. It is a charity case now, relying on the kindness of strangers, if I may quote Blanche DuBois.
Nice New Orleans angle there . . .
On the other hand, when a jazz festival decides that it needs to make some money, the first thing it does . . . is get rid of the jazz. Did you see the press release for the Montreal Jazz Festival? It announced the main acts on the bill. Here were the names: "Jeff Beck, Harlem Gospel Choir, Buddy Guy, Mos Def, Pink Martini, The Dears, The Orb, Burning Spear, Toots & The Maytals and Many More." Thanks goodness for the "many more" at the end of the list, because there is no jazz represented in that line-up.
This is not an isolated instance. Have you seen the line-up for the Sonoma Jazz Festival? It should be called the Sonoma No-Jazz Festival. Here the list of its headliners: "Joe Cocker, Lyle Lovett And His Large Band, Ziggy Marley, Chris Isaak, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Shelby Lynne, Keb' Mo' And More."
This is a dangerous situation. As this trend continues in the Americas, the European circuit becomes more and more important. Yet—as has been highlighted frequently in this column—the European festivals are increasingly booking European musicians. Even more surprising: the recent Mumbai festival in India showed a pronounced tilt towards booking European artists. We can't just blithely assume that foreign governments will continue to bankroll American jazz. They have their own local scenes to support.
You are saying that jazz is like treasury bonds . . . too dependent on foreign money?
And not enough interest.
Ugh! That was a bad pun, even by your low standards. Back to brass tacks—what would happen if the subsidies disappeared?
Fifty years ago jazz could survive without subsidies. In fact, it did survive without subsidies. For the most part, there was no government support back then, no academic support, no foundation support. Yet an audience existed who paid all the bills for the music. Imagine how much larger the audience must have been back in the 1950s to cover the full cost for the art form, with more clubs, more airplay, more visibility than we have now.
And today? By my estimate, half of the jazz world would disappear overnight if it were forced to cover its costs by its own inherent ability to draw an audience. I hope the subsidies continue forever, and grow each year. But let's not kid ourselves. An art form without a vibrant growing audience is not healthy no matter how big the life support machinery surrounding it.
Are there any heroes in this story?
Although a lot has been done to support jazz music in recent years, very little has been done to nurture and grow the audience. Everyone just assumes that supporting the art form means supporting the musicians. But that is only half the equation, and actually the least important half. We don't need more sax solos. We don't need more CDs. We need more fans to support the fine artists who are already out there producing first rate music.
Surely someone is out there building the next generation of fans.
The groups that have probably done the most good during the last decade—the alphabet soup folks like the IAJE, JALC, the NEA—are often highly criticized. Yet they have played a key role in audience development. And now the IAJE is gone. Some people seem to gloat over that fact. That shows you how shortsighted many members of the jazz community are. There are probably others who would celebrate if JALC ran into problems. Freud called it thanatos, the death wish, and apparently it can afflict art forms as much as individuals.
As hard as it may be to believe, there is an influential contingent in the jazz world that would like to keep the art form small and untainted by the need to please an audience.
Of course, you probably think jazz writers are the good guys here?
I only wish that were true. Jazz critics are key factors in educating the audience and keeping the art form healthy. But critics need to realize that their main responsibility is to the audience. Not to their friends among the musicians, or to other critics, whom they try to impress. How many jazz writers today really demonstrate that commitment to the audience?
A half-century ago, the critical function got corrupted. This happened around the time art critic Clement Greenberg found that he could make his name and reputation by jumping on the bandwagon for Jackson Pollock.
What was so wrong about that?
Nothing was inherently wrong about it—at least at first. But the rules of the game changed, and critics learned that they could enhance their reputations if they were the first to jump on the next new thing.
Critics have to make choices. Do they write about the serious artist who is quietly building a body of outstanding work over a period of years? Or do they constantly jump from fad to fad, trying to pinpoint what is going to be hot during the next six months. I would suggest that a critic frequently must make a choice between these two goals. Either you focus primarily on work of the highest quality, or you try to anticipate the next flavor of the month.
"Did you ever have to make up your mind," as the old song goes. Many critics eventually decided to do the thing that enhanced their own reputation the most. Guess which choice they made.
You make it sound so bad.
In truth, the jazz critics handled this dilemma better than critics in other art forms. At least for the most part. Jazz has always prided itself on judging music by how it sounds. But that isn't always the case in other forms of music. I recently met a scholar who had written a paper on John Cage, and found that it caused some controversy, because he analyzed Cage's music on the basis of how it sounded, rather than on the basis of its "compositional strategies."
How strange, that a music writer would get called to the carpet for paying attention to the sound of the music. Isn't music all about how it sounds? Yet this tells you something about the state of mind across the fence in the world of contemporary classical music. Fortunately things never got quite that bad on the jazz scene. The jazz critics still listen to the music, for the most part, and are influenced by what their ears tell them when they write their reviews. Of course, that begs the question of how much they hear . . .
Sorry to cut you off. But does it really matter what the critics say?
It certainly does. When critics try to impress each other, rather than fulfill their responsibility to the audience, the audience feels shortchanged. And, eventually, the audience shrinks.
How often have you bought a CD because of a critic's recommendation, only to find that it was almost unlistenable? More often than you want to admit, huh? If you are a dedicated fan, you might keep on buying more CDs even after that experience. But many intelligent members of the general public, who might have become serious jazz fans, got turned away by this corruption of critical standards.
Isn't this just a matter of taste? You talk about intelligent members of the public who might become jazz fans. But who are these mysterious people?
Let's face it, the jazz audience has always had a disproportionate share of musicians in its ranks. Just listen to the conversations of the people sitting at the tables around you at the jazz clubs. The chairs are filled with guitarists, pianists, saxophonists, and other players. This is a good thing for the art form.
You listen to the people at other tables at the clubs? I thought you went out to hear the music?
The jazz audience is a smart audience. These people understand music. You can't insult their intelligence with some jive act. And I fear it is precisely this group of people—with discerning ears and a good grasp of musical structure and potentiality—who have been turned off by a critical establishment that jumps blindly from fad to fad.
You sound very pessimistic.
Actually I have high hopes—over the long run. And they are based on the amazing strength and vitality of the music itself. Jazz is honest music. It is exciting music. It allows more scope for individuality than any other musical genre. It offers more surprises too. I don't think it is possible to kill it. But it would be best if we put away the knives and stopped stabbing. After all, it wouldn't take much to bring back an audience for this music.
What else are they gonna do with their ears? On second thought, don't answer that . . .
Me? You're the one with the bad jokes. I'm going back to sleep.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia