Jazz in Crisis: Part I

The last few years have been particularly bad for the jazz community. The latest spate of bad tidings began in the spring of 2008, when the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) went into a precipitous financial decline, resulting in bankruptcy, shortly after the annual conference in Toronto which lost money. They blamed it on “poor attendance due to a weak US dollar,” but I couldn’t help but remember the old joke about jazz musicians (and jazz organizations, apparently):

Q: “How does a jazz musician end up with a million dollars?”

A: ” Give ‘em $2 million to start with.”

The hard-won academic arm of jazz, which was begrudgingly allowed into colleges and universities over four decades ago, disappeared within a matter of months without barely a whimper. More recently, we’ve seen the cancellation of major jazz festivals in New York and Chicago; and on the publication side, the end of Coda, Mississippi Rag, and Jazz Review, while Jazziz downsized to a quarterly publication and even JazzTimes suspended its publication for a time. Radio is in no better shape—jazz is hard to find on commercial radio, and when you can, it’s likely to be of the smooth variety, which is anathema to the mainstream jazz community.

Yet, these are all somewhat peripheral to the real jazz scene, which thrives in clubs, concert halls, and recording studios, right? Wrong. That scene is not exactly “thriving” in any sense of the word. As the former head of a small university jazz program in the midwest, I would get weekly phone calls and emails from famous players or their managers (often 2nd or 3rd tier players themselves, trying to bolster their own bookings through peripheral association with a “star” player) who were all looking to “fill in a night” between concerts elsewhere. The saddest part was the negotiation for salary, which would start at $1,500-$2,000 for a quartet, and end up at $250-$400 (which is what my budget would allow). To witness four highly accomplished and famous professionals in their 50s and 60s unload their gear from a rusty 12-year-old minivan (in which they were all traveling together across the country, suits and clothes akimbo, empty Burger King bags strewn about) for $60/person was a sobering and depressing experience.  And these phone calls and emails kept coming and coming, to the point where I couldn’t even find the time to reply and politely decline—any contact just bred more contact, so, out of self-preservation, I just stopped answering completely. The irony was impossible to miss—jazz has been “sold” to the university as a training for a professional career, and suddenly the training ground has become one of the primary professional outlets.

The opportunities for regional and local players are in even worse shape—many small jazz clubs have closed or changed formats. Most musicians are relegated to playing other types of music for weddings and parties (hardly the stuff of artistic dreams), and those have been dwindling due to the popularity of DJs. Occasionally, there are concerts, but most often, when jazz is played, it is background music, never listened to closely, just unobtrusive sound that carries with it some supposed residual cultural cache that signifies the host’s superior tastes and status. When I started playing paid performances in the mid-70s, it was with a wedding band, and we made an average of $150 per engagement; I hear from friends who play well-known jazz clubs in New York today that the pay is about the same (usually worse[1]) as I made playing weddings as a teenager 30 years ago. America’s “classical music” is not in good shape.[2]

The situation is dire, and there is no one to blame for its decline. The solution, we’ve all been told ad nauseum, is “Education! Teach jazz in the schools, and we’ll be creating new audiences and supporters for the future.” This theory rests on a fallacy—namely, that jazz is such a timeless and appealing genre, that exposure at a young age will create new fans and the music’s future will be assured. We have ample evidence to assess the education theory, and the evidence is quite clear—it is a complete failure. After over 40 years of Jazz Education, with enormous public and private support, we see no indications of a surge in supporters and fans, but we have seen a huge increase in the number of practitioners. The stark reality is that the people in the audience at most jazz concerts are either seniors or jazz musicians themselves, not devoted new fans. The slew of supporters has not materialized as promised.  Why? The answer is simple: Music is a cultural artifact, and the culture has moved on. Jazz has moved on as well, further and further away from being “popular music,” and yet jazz culture (particularly jazz education) stubbornly adheres to a stodgy conservatism which is hopelessly mired in romantic notions of the Golden Age (circa 1950-1960). (This decade has been reified by many performers, critics, and academics for a variety of legitimate reasons which I will not go into here.) Here we are, a half century later, and jazz musicians continue to foster the attitudes, behaviors, and sometimes even the hopelessly worn-out hipster lingo from that bygone era. While I’m sure this is emotionally comforting as subculture signifiers, to the outside world, this nostalgic indulgence must appear archaic, comical, and desperate. Jazz and its affectations certainly aren’t “cool” anymore, and haven’t been for decades; these signifiers no longer identify the user as a slick, modern, and rebellious hipster. Neither education nor beatnik mythology and posturing has created a sustainable audience for America’s “classical music,” nor does it seem likely that a new and vibrant audience will, at this late stage, materialize from these or any other marketing ploys.

My aim is not to depress an already beleaguered and marginalized subculture, but rather to draw attention to the fact that these strategies (if indeed they are intentional, which I doubt) are not working anymore. The culture that created and supported jazz has long moved on to other things, and there is no way to persuade or manage a culture to go in the direction we might like it to go. Culture is a living thing; it does what it wants, and it grows in surprising ways, some of which are positive, others are negative (depending on your value system and your perspective). It might be good to remember that jazz owes its existence to the very same chaotic and uncontrollable cultural forces of which I speak. Culture’s march forward cannot be stopped, and to try is pure folly—it is a Sisyphean task unworthy of intentional dedication.

One solution, proffered by many musicians I’ve known over the years, is to copy the “classical model” in which government supports jazz in the same way that it has done for classical music. This is unlikely to be successful, for a variety of reasons. First, jazz does not occupy the lofty cultural position that classical music enjoys. It certainly has a certain cache (connoting “sophistication” and “intellectualism” among other things, hence its occasional use in Lexus commercials) but it simply does not have a history spanning millennia, nor does it have the resulting myriad style periods that have stood the test of time with countless generations of listeners enjoyed by classical music.

Second, the classical model has not been effective. It has definitely worked well as a make-work program for classical musicians for the last 50 years, but it has not built a sustainable audience base. Ticket sales do not cover expenses and the model must thus rely on continuing government support, which is, given the current financial climate, likely to suffer severe cutbacks. When governments have to choose between laying off firefighters and police officers, and violas and Wagner tubas, the outcome is not hard to predict.

Third, the failure of the classical model is not a secret. Books and articles have been written that detail the failures of both government and private arts support to deliver on their promises.[3] If jazz musicians attempt to adopt the model, the arguments for “education” and general “enlightened arts support” are unlikely to be persuasive. When a private donor has to choose between funding a new cancer research wing at a hospital, or funding a new jazz orchestra, the outcome is, once again, not hard to predict.

The fabled days of yore are gone, and no amount of education is going to bring them back by attracting or enthralling an obviously disinterested public. Are there solutions? Possibly. Jazz is at a point where other musical niche/period genres have been for many years (Early Music, New Music, and Electronic Music, for example) and there may be a lesson to be learned from how these genres function in academia and in society at large to maintain their standing as serious art forms worthy of respect and funding. However, for a community so attached to its own romanticized “outsider” history, an approach of this sort would be difficult to accept, and quite likely impossible to adopt because of the enormous emotional attachment to the attitudes and behaviors that are apparently as much a part of jazz as the music. That’s a shame because, ultimately, the music that jazz has given to the world is so much more meaningful and interesting than the ephemeral trappings of the fleeting decades of its birth.

For Part II, click here.



1 A sobering and brutally honest account of a young, accomplished European artist’s recent tour in America can be found here:  http://www.jazz.com/jazz-blog/2008/6/3/fry-aagre-s-tour-diary

2 I appreciate Wynton Marsalis’ comment as a fundraising and marketing device, but beyond that, it is troublesome.  Why does jazz have to be legitimized by a comparison to classical music? If jazz is “America’s classical music,” what is “America’s jazz”?

3 Goldfarb, Alice. Art Lessons: Learning from Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding.

This is an excellent book which chronicles the explosion in arts funding that took place in the latter half of the 20C in the United States.

Click here for Part II

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23 Responses to “Jazz in Crisis: Part I”

  1. In talking to pianist/composer Randy Weston back in 1992 his clearest response to the troubles elucidated in this well thought out blog was to re-awaken jazz as part of daily life in the black community (from which the music arose in the first place).

    • Well, this article (haven’t yet read the one to follow) lays out some problems for jazz, a lot of which are true. However, in my opinion, the writer paints with too broad a brush. The loss of the IAJE (which was due to negligence or incompetence if not something worse) was not a particularly good thing for the jazz community but this sentence: “The hard-won academic arm of jazz, which was begrudgingly allowed into colleges and universities over four decades ago, disappeared within a matter of months without barely a whimper” is ludicrous. Jazz in academia is very much alive and thriving, at least as far as I can see and the author gives far too much importance to this body. Beyond that, he seems to ignore (or be ignorant of) a lot of positive developments in jazz including world music collaborations, young grammy winning artists whose audiences are not only seniors and musicians. I live in New York and travel a great deal as a professional jazz pianist. There certainly are problems (clubs disappearing, the loss of royalty money as more and more music is streamed and downloaded without being bought) but there are positive developments as well. Jazz scenes are developing worldwide in countries that are new to jazz (Lithuania, Korea and Colombia –from my personal experience). Also, there is a young, intellectual movement of complex harmony and forms: players like Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Linda Oh, Miguel Zenon and Jason Moran to name a few, who are drawing new audiences at least in NY. I have to say, I’ve been a professional jazz musician for over 30 years and it’s never been popular. I can’t long for the golden age, because it was before I was born and coming of age as a player in the 80s meant already being marginalized. I don’t really see much use for these sort of critiques. Maybe the writer needs to go out and make something happen as such jazz entrepeneurs as Spike Wilner (owner of smalls in NY) Dave Douglas, Wynton Marsalis and other have done. In the mantra of lost causes: it’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness. This also sprach zarathustra masquerades as important truth-telling but it’s really just belly aching, in my opinion. Now on to part II. Perhaps he has something more useful to say as a closer.

  2. The study of American Literature spans about the same time period and has an analogous history to jazz. The general public is similarly uninterested in Faulkner or Richard Wright. The same might be said of poetry or the visual arts for that matter. Jazz is dead as pop music. There’s no debate there–at least among those outside of jazz. But as a musical form it attracts students just like sculpture, poetry, and harpsichord.

  3. Great post, Kurt, albeit a disturbing one. You’ve got a thoughtful, clever, and literate style, and obviously–judging by your other posts as well as this one–you have plenty to say. Nicely done!

    Makes me wonder, is there hope anywhere? At a severe weather conference at the College of DuPage last November, I listened as two legendary meteorologists and storm chasers advised meteorology students to, in effect, find a different career. Evidently the mark of unsustainability also hangs over jazz like the sign on the entrance to Dante’s Inferno. Guess I’ll just curl up in a fetal position in a dark corner and eat worms.

  4. On my last trip to Germany I was sitting next to a Dutch immigrant, who’s a jazz enthusiast. He’s mostly whining about the lack of life jazz festivals in the States these days whereas in Europe (Germany, Netherlands) jazz seems to by very popular across all ages, perhaps even more popular than classical music.

    Funny, it seems that people seem to gyrate away from their musical roots to embrace something foreign.

  5. Ironically, I opened my email and saw that you had a blog. As I was listening to 88.9 playing some jazz music I come across your article about its death. I never listen to the radio while at home but tonight I needed a change. I think people will eventually turn to other music but first their immediate gratification from the mp3 has to run its course. There’s only so many times you can listen to the same stuff before it creates a music famine unless you turn to something different.

  6. Kurt,

    To add to my previous [off-line] comments:

    I believe it’s in the best interest of improvising musicians to stop worrying about the state of ‘jazz’. Especially as it begs a common definition of the music.

    Perhaps the next stage of evolution for jazz musicians is globalization – not unlike trends in many other areas of our lives. One of the healthiest trends in music in recent times has been the cross-pollination [dare I say fusion] of world musics.

    And maybe this is what’s been going on with jazz all along! Africa meets …

    The ‘jazz business model’ is certainly in a poor state. But the music continues to thrive in the hands of artists that bring their individual voices to bear, as well as their own [old or new] cultural traditions to the music.

    It’s time to recognize that jazz is not America’s classical music, but rather a universal and joyous way to create music that speaks to all people. This mindset seems to be more the norm in Europe where the music is doing much better from a business perspective.

    It also seems to be keeping the music culturally vital – and attractive to audiences.

    • When I was in Italy a few years ago I talked to some young jazz musicians in Florence and they were bemoaning the jazz scene in Italy and looking forward to doing a gig in Kansas City. They told me that the headliner for the Umbrian Jazz Festival the year before was Elton John. Don’t kid yourself, jazz is not as popular as it use to be in Europe. This article speaks volumes about what has happen to the music and I think the point that all popular music is cultural is right on.
      When I grew up jazz was the music of the beatniks and very hip. When the 60s came along it was pushed aside for rock & roll by the young people. When I play gigs now most of the people I see in the audience are gray hairs living out the music of their youth. Great article.

  7. it is a great idea to take your kids in art lesson workshops because it helps them develop _

  8. “Jazz in Crisis: Part I | Also Sprach FraKathustra”
    was honestly enjoyable and useful! In the present day world that’s very difficult to achieve.
    Regards, Quentin

  9. I am a 74 year-old drummer and lover of Jazz Music since I was in my teen years. It saddens me to hear people comment on the fact that “Jazz is no longer in vogue,” or that “Jazz is dead!” As far as I am concerned, Jazz is very much alive and well. One need only listen to Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Trilok Girtu, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Methaney, Al Dimeola…etc., etc.
    It just saddens me to read such negative comments about Jazz, the Jazz World, and its musicians. I believe that these negative comments only serve to downgrade the Jazz Community and its musicians…very deplorable, sad commentaries…SHAME ON YOU ALL FOR BEING A PART OF THE HYPE!!!

    • Thanks Joe, I appreciate the comment, but I really don’t think jazz is dead at all. It’s thriving, but it is very far outside of the mainstream, which is probably the healthiest place to be in terms of artistry. As you say, there are so many amazing musicians making incredible jazz of all kinds all over the world.
      I don’t see my article as negative, and I’m sorry you see it that way. As I said:
      “My aim is not to depress an already beleaguered and marginalized subculture, but rather to draw attention to the fact that these strategies (if indeed they are intentional, which I doubt) are not working anymore. The culture that created and supported jazz has long moved on to other things, and there is no way to persuade or manage a culture to go in the direction we might like it to go.”

      I was sincere about that, but I know that the analysis of the scene that I present is, to put it mildly, quite sobering. I was trying to provide my perspective as a jazz musician, on a scene that was no longer viable, and that musicians and jazz education needed to move on from the earlier styles and paradigms (I think that the jazz education system, with its focus on bebop, is part of the problem, but that’s another story.) With 10 years retrospect on this article, I can see that many of the younger musicians have indeed changed tack, which is a good sign in my opinion.


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