It is almost always packed when Doug and I play at Delaney’s. They have good food, it’s a nice venue, and maybe, just maybe, people like jazz. But wait, that can’t be… jazz is dead isn’t it? Magazine articles, online forums, blog posts – that’s what they say. They’ve been saying it for years. Okay then, it must be the good food. But how do you explain the packed house at the Fountain for last Sunday’s jazz jam? Hmmm…..
Is jazz dead or not? What can be done to keep it alive? There are no easy answers, but the topic is fun to thrash around anyway. For several months I’ve been getting together with five guys to play through jazz standards. As we were wrapping up last Wednesday opinions bounced around about jazz venues, smooth jazz, and I forget what else. We were just warming up. The next morning D sent an email with Frank Zappa’s famous quote as his subject heading, “ Jazz, it’s not dead….It just smells funny.” Here’s the email exchange (with some personal details edited out).
It’s an interesting conversation and one that gets me going…so I thought I’d go on a little rant myself. Read or delete at your leisure. I just can’t help disagreeing with the writer on almost every point, even the ones he borrows from other writers.
1. Jazz has always been fractured into many schools. This is nothing new and I don’t think it’s more fractured now than it was in the past, because the difference between those historical schools is virtually obsolete to contemporary listeners, even musicians. I don’t think listeners would be confused by a combo’s switching from a hard bop piece to a cool jazz piece and back to a straight bebop piece. So the notion that these 22 categories of jazz are overwhelming and confusing is a little disingenuous.
2. He starts by claiming that jazz’s decline isn’t a marketing problem and ends by concluding that it’s a marketing problem. I guess I agree that jazz has a marketing problem. All good art has a marketing problem. That’s a sign that you’re doing something right. I taught creative writing at a for-profit “Art Institute” in Atlanta and there was a big banner inside the foyer that read: “it’s never too late to build your brand.” This confusion between successful art and successful marketing is epidemic, especially among the young.
3. This line just boggles me: “Of course jazz is culturally relevant.” Is it? I know a lot of jazz fans would like it to be, but honestly? Beyonce and Kanye are culturally relevant. Besides, what’s so appealing about being culturally relevant? Isn’t it more appealing to be aesthetically relevant?
4. And that’s kind of the biggest point for me–the complaint that artists who are too “out there” for the audience are ruining it for the rest of us is not new. Ironically the same artists who make this claim now turn around and perform a piece by Thelonious Monk, a man (among so many others they pay tribute to) who was once the target of the same complaint, albeit in a different era. There are already enough philistines in the world to discourage artists from taking risks. It’s a shame when other artists–accomplished artists with national megaphones–lend an air of authority to the witch hunt.
5. “Make it entertaining!” he ends with. Guess what, though: If it’s good, it will be “entertaining.” A better word might be “engaging,” since it’s art, not a circus performance, but hey. And if someone is on stage having their own personal orgasm, it’s more likely, and more important, that they’re probably ignoring the other musicians on stage than that they’re ignoring the audience. That’s not being avant-garde. That’s just being a bad musician. Ornette Coleman was probably ignoring the Stanley Crouches in the audience but he certainly wasn’t ignoring Don Cherry or Ed Blackwell on stage next to him.
Anyway thanks for indulging. I’m realizing now that this is just another manifestation of the same rant I have when it comes to attacks on “experimental” fiction by big name authors like Jonathan Franzen et al who corner the national publishing market and complain they’re being squeezed by small press collectives that pump out one or two titles every year. I’ll stop now before I slip into it…
Yeah, this topic always gets things stirred up and there are many sides to it. The part I find interesting is the struggle between wanting to be true to your artistic vision and have an audience, too.
Jazz is out of the mainstream so developing an audience is difficult, even for virtuosos. The question becomes, “how important is your audience?” Some people would rather play in the basement than compromise their artistry. For me, performing is a way of connecting with others, both bandmates and listeners. That connection is important so I’m willing to consider where people are coming from and try to meet them partway. That doesn’t feel untrue to myself, it just feels like being social.
My artistic vision is also not that narrow; I enjoy a wide variety of music. It’s not hard to to play music I like and music that also resonates with the particular audience in front of me. For example, at Delaney’s we have no setlists. We play songs that seem to fit the people that are present. Of course, there is a limit, we play within our genre. I guess it’s a matter of how far you’re willing to bend.
A related topic from last night: smooth jazz. I try to get past the labels and just decide if the music appeals to me. Some of it does. Here is an example:
Except for Kenny Garrett these are all smooth jazz dudes. Maybe I just like a three sax lineup, but I think it sounds great. You can see how much fun they’re having. For me it doesn’t have to be intellectually engaging if it makes me move and smile. YMMV.
Everybody has a different vision.
As art forms develop, age and mature… clichés begin to be developed accepted and applied. When I played in the symphony it was expected that I had to wear a tux… Every concert was some piece of music that was a classical “standard” that was written eons ago and that every other orchestra plays all the time. There was no “new” music performed. Or at least rarely. But the truth is that the music that was performed the most was the most exciting for audiences when it was new and being heard for the first time many years ago in it’s own era. I see no difference with jazz today. I am working hard to learn the “standards”. Learn the “cliches” and conventions that have become the accepted language/sound… The conventions of the music. But I have the same feeling about this as above. That music was probably the most exciting and happening when it first came out in it’s day. Different times and cultures have different palettes of sounds. We only choose to live within these structures. Accept the conventions etc. Learn the language.
Then there is society. There is a reasonably large audience for classical music. A large percent of these folks expect to hear certain works. It drives what you hear at the concerts. Same with the jazz scene. Like the woman at the Jazz Jam that referred to Hanah Jon Taylor as sounding like a pig stuck under the fence. Obviously she would rather hear something familiar. Yet, in my opinion he was the most creative thing there that afternoon and everyone benefited from his participating. It is a subjective world. For me personally, I can just as easily appreciate Tony Barba playing straight ahead recognizable Coltrane tunes as I can appreciate Hanah Jon Taylor play free improvisation that he is literally making up on the spot.
For me, the reality is if you want to generate money to pay the bills you have to find a sweet spot where you can appeal to an audience and still be able to express yourself. Because the audience has the thing that you need to make it in the real world and pay the bills. Money. Guitarist Dave Stryker that played with Stanley Turrentine among others just put out a recording where he took popular songs and did some very interesting jazz treatments of them. Why is he doing this? He is trying to build his audience. Cast a wider net by giving melodies that people recognize. Vibraphonist Joe Locke put out a recording with some very basic tunes played at a very high level. Same deal. Done very creatively. Both these artists manage to make a middle class living by doing a variety of their preferred art and art that reaches out to a wider audience. That Bobby Hutchersonn song Uhmmmm… Basically a simple simple I IV vamp… That was his most popular tune…commercially… Not artistically.
So, when Christian McBride jazz bass player was quoted as saying the jazz artists have lost touch with entertaining. He is talking about surviving as an artist in the real world. He is saying that jazz could have a wider audience. But again.. . Everyone has their own vision. That would be Christian McBride’s. I’m kind of in his camp. Entertaining means giving the lady at The Fountain some recognizable melodies and if the rest of the “art” is engaging maybe she comes along on that ride too.
The world loves the art but hates to pay for it.
I’m down, up, and sideways with all of that. I actually don’t think we disagree about the important part. We each deeply appreciate and enjoy all kinds of music and all kinds of jazz. I just think it’s a shame when creative people scapegoat or stifle other forms of creativity for ruining their financial prospects. Play and let play. Embrace and encourage all kinds of creativity from the smooth jazz that Bob loves so much 😉 to the kind that makes the gray- and blue-hair’s blood boil.
From there the discussion turned to ageism, how much gray hair we have, and hearing good jazz this weekend. Isn’t it interesting that it ended with talk of hearing live jazz? For our group at least, jazz is not only alive – it keeps us alive, too.