Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Jazz, not dead

The publication of the NEA survey on arts participation, followed by critic Terry Teachout’s article, “Can Jazz Be Saved?” in the Wall Street Journal, caused a lot of consternation among jazz lovers. The gists:

NEA: "[B]etween 1982 and 2008, attendance at performing arts such as classical music, jazz, opera, ballet, musical theater, and dramatic plays has seen double-digit rates of decline…. audiences for jazz and classical music are substantially older than before…. Since 1982, young adult (18-24) attendance rates for jazz and classical music have declined the most, compared with other art forms."

Teachout: "Nobody’s listening…. it’s no longer possible for head-in-the-sand types to pretend that the great American art form is economically healthy or that its future looks anything other than bleak…. [P]op-loving listeners…have no more use for Wynton Marsalis than they do for Felix Mendelssohn."


Ted Gioia weighed in on his website So did a lot of other people. Patrick Jarenwattananon linked to several responses on his blog for NPR, "A Jazz Supreme." I mentioned the survey on MinnPost, sent out an email asking for suggestions on how to grow the jazz audience, and got some good ones. Ramsey Lewis wrote a letter to the editor of the WSJ and Jarenwattananon responded to that.

[Patrick, I don’t entirely disagree with Lewis’s suggestion that jazz musicians dress up a bit. Not meaning to sound too, like, shallow, OMG, but I’ve seen jazz musicians (Lewis and his trio, JALCO, James Carter, Jeremy Pelt, etc.) who look as if they stepped off the pages of GQ, and jazz musicians [no names] in grody T-shirts, do-rags, and trailer-trash attire, and I prefer the first. Who wouldn’t? I’m not saying jazz musicians should dress like models. In between those two extremes, most everyone else looks just fine, tattoos and all.]

Anyway, I’m glad to read yesterday’s piece by Nate Chinen for the New York Times. He briefly reprises the conversation so far, dips into the NEA survey, gives his own anecdotal evidence that jazz is still alive and kicking (and sweating), turns, as usual, some lovely phrases (“Jazz has long been a porous genre”), and considers, as the survey didn't, how jazz is defined, what it is called or not called, how much music it encompasses.

I’m reminded of something Kelly Rossum once said during a class at MacPhail: “Jazz is the only music big enough to include all other kinds of music.” And Jeremy Walker: “Add a jazz musician to any group and it’s like adding a drop of blue food coloring to a bucket of clear water. The water turns blue.”

Chinen mentions NPR’s coverage of the Newport Jazz Festival on the radio and online, then notes, “Considering that live jazz is hard to come by outside of a handful of major cities, efforts like this may be the most promising news for the jazz audience.”

By “a handful of major cities,” I can only assume he means to include Minneapolis/St. Paul, where jazz is not at all hard to come by. Somewhere around 90 live jazz events will take place over the next week alone, and those are just the ones I know about.

In October we’re going to Fargo to hear Kurt Elling. During a break between sets at the Dakota last night, a friend mentioned that Fargo has quite the jazz scene.


  1. While it does take a large population to support an vital professional jazz scene, I think there is a lot more jazz out there than people know about. Even in small towns. Most of it being played by musicians who do it because they have to do it. They'd play if there was no audience, and frequently do.

    However a thriving jazz scene requires an audience with educated ears and the will to go out and listen, and a pool of competent, dedicated players (like we have in the Twin Cities).

    Jazz will never die, it may go underground and unnoticed by most of the population until it becomes 'cool' for a while.

  2. Hi Pamela,
    Appreciate the links to A Blog Supreme. Though I do want to say that I'm not disagreeing with Ramsey Lewis. I do think it's hip when musicians dress sharply, and in fact if you read what I wrote more closely, I quite agreed with the gist of Mr. Lewis' statement. It's just that looking good on the bandstand is not the core of the problem: relying on that to solve much would seem to pale in comparison to the actual solutions -- namely, smart programming (which Lewis mentioned) and online outreach (which he didn't). Plus, the kids these days are less inclined to care about matters like this -- I'd venture to say that many of us would prefer not to feel like jazz is an experience with a dress code.

    Anyway, much appreciate what you do for the music in the MPLS community. So long as it's not too happy about Brett Favre!

    Patrick Jarenwattananon
    longtime Packers fan

  3. I think we're saying much the same thing. I just couldn't resist another nod to the sartorial excellence of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Maybe a side conversation, or a parallel conversation, has to do with generational perceptions and behaviors. If you're older, sharp dressing is professional; if you're younger, it's fashion. If you're older, you give away CDs; if you're younger, you post MP3s. If you're older the Web is a sea change; if you're younger, it's the air you breathe.


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