Jazz in Crisis: Part II

Jazz in Crisis: Part II

Yes, jazz is in a state of crisis; “the fabled days of yore are gone,and no amount of education or archaic posturing is going to bring them back by attracting or enthralling an obviously disinterested public.”  And yet, I do think that we live in a time of remarkable creative growth for music in general, and for jazz in particular. With the ability to record and distribute music independently and inexpensively, and the resultant unlimited access that this provides, we’ve seen an explosion in musical activity in all genres, jazz included. Visit CDBaby (for example) and search for jazz, and you’ll find a staggering number of accomplished jazz artists, mostly unknown, making music of all kinds under the “jazz” umbrella (including genre descriptions that defy description like “Industrial Fake Jazz”). And look at the tremendous quality and quantity of European jazz being produced, with its unabashed blending of styles which has led to many heated discussions on how jazz is defined at this juncture in the 21C. There are so many amazing musicians creating such a fantastic smorgasbord of new jazz, that one can hardly even keep up with a small percentage of it.

Yes, the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) is gone, which is really unfortunate given the organization’s unique position as a legitimate academic society whose sole focus was jazz. Academia must play a large role in sustaining the art form, both intellectually as a branch of musicology and music history, and also as a performance venue with the necessary infrastructure and resources to embrace an art form with little commercial appeal. On the bright side, a new organization, the Jazz Education Network (JEN) appeared quickly to take its place; time will tell if JEN will be able to navigate the difficult terrain between academia and jazz performance better than the hapless IAJE. Similarly, magazines have disappeared, but new media outlets (like the blog you’re reading) are ubiquitous and, like recording technology, inexpensive and accessible to all.

In short, this era exhibits unparalleled creative activity and creative potential for jazz and for the arts in general.  I’ve found my own experiences in the last decade or so have reflected this in many ways.  The playing and recording I’m doing is more varied than ever before and the projects I’m involved in are much more interesting and creative than ever before. So, despite the issues I wrote about previously, there are reasons to be very hopeful about the future of jazz from a creative viewpoint.

Economically, the situation is not good. Between 1978 and 1988 (when I was playing professionally in the Detroit area), the average pay per engagement was around $100–casuals, church gigs, weddings (a little more), clubs (generally a little less). Today, the pay might be a little higher, but it would have to be a lot higher to keep up with inflation, and even more for musicians to get a raise in pay.*

Add to that the fact that dedicated jazz clubs are only found in major centers, and that there are usually only one or two in most places other than New York City, and the economic problem is further exacerbated. This means that there are (if the club books groups seven nights a week) only 30-60 possible engagements available each month. The rest of the work is casuals (weddings and parties), which tend to be clustered on weekends and holidays. (Is that why we pursued a career in jazz?  To play weddings and office parties?) With the thousands of qualified musicians in any major center, it’s easy to see how an oversupply of labor combined with diminishing demand have worked to keep fees near where they were in nominal dollars 30 years ago.

Other factors have weakened the live music scene as well, such as increased quantity and quality of home entertainment options, less alcohol consumption, stringent non-smoking laws, unlimited free music via file-sharing (see The MP3 Filesharing Fiesta: Party like it’s $9.99), and our incredible ability to script our own life soundtracks in a fine-tuned manner due to all of the inexpensive technological gadgetry at our fingertips.  I don’t think live music is ever going to disappear, but I can’t help but remember Glenn Gould’s prediction from 50 years ago that “recordings will make the concert hall obsolete.” Today, this appears more and more prescient rather than kooky. (The situation is, however, not limited to jazz, it applies equally to classical music as well.)

Economically speaking, there’s nothing encouraging to report; creatively speaking, however, there’s nothing but encouraging news to report. So what’s the problem? The problem is that some of the strategies for career development that worked in 1960 are no longer functional, and haven’t been for a long time. In fact, I submit that they may be downright harmful for career development because they hinder creative development while at the same time watering down the brand and demeaning the music.

So, I’m not pessimistic about the future of jazz, broadly defined, as an enduring creative force. I am, however, concerned that the fascination with (and romanticization of) jazz history and jazz culture has calcified into a neoconservative fetish that would make Adorno blush.  This stance will likely hamper its opportunities to flourish as a fully marginalized  and noncommercial musical genre that would otherwise have far greater potential for growth and innovation.

For Part I, click here.


* $100 in 1978 equals $325 in 2010 dollars. To view this in another context, the average home price in the US in 1978 was approximately $40,000; as of the latest figures available, it’s about $160,000.

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5 Responses to “Jazz in Crisis: Part II”

  1. Another great post, Kurt, and a hopeful pirlecue to Part 2, from an artistic standpoint if not a financial one. Your blog has a lot to offer in terms of broadly informed, thoughtful, and thought-provoking content.

  2. Okay, so it’s more hopeful than in part I. Although, it’s funny, but this post on the “upside” is a lot shorter and the writer seems to warm up a lot less to his topic. He really got off more on the negative side, it seemed to me but be that as it may. I remember a friend of mine who worked with the Art Ensemble of Chicago telling me: when we couldn’t find places to play we made our own venues. Personally, my work life is about 30 to 40% on the road in other countries + two main teaching gigs–I teach at a school in Holland and full-time at a University in NY. I am definitely a lucky person, doing what I like and getting paid for it. It’s very hard to keep the performance part working and profitable, no doubt. I have (what other people might consider) sacrificed for this, financially and personally. But you need to find your own way in this world and having a sense of what a “jazz musician’s life” is–that’s just another image–another impression of what the world owes you. The real life (as an artist, a phrase I hate because it sounds so pretentious) is what you make of it and I have a lot of friends and peers who are doing it–some more successfully than I am, some less so. Onward, jazz musicians. I’ve traveled a lot around the US doing clinics (more so before I was teaching as much as I am now) and I’ve hit up a lot of schools. (By the way, not answering someone’s query about doing a concert/clinic at your school is a lousy way to handle it in my opinion. Just call or email and say no we can’t afford it. That puts an end to the matter a lot faster than not responding and allows the guy that’s trying to build a tour to move on. It does take up some of your time but help a brother out, so to speak. That’s my perspective, anyway.) I’ve never taken 400 for a quartet clinic personally but hard-core road warrior fill in gigs are just part of the picture. Always have been. When I played with the Woody Herman band on the road, we filled in at Elk’s club, shopping malls, etc. I think it was always thus, although, I wasn’t around for the heyday of that sort of gig, although my 6 months of one-nighters on a bus gave me enough of a taste for my satisfaction. So now I am rambling. But really folks. Let’s stop doing yet another autopsy on the state of jazz and create something new. Open a jazz club. Curate a series. Talk a local club owner into starting a jam session. Good luck.

  3. One of the most intelligent analyses I’ve read. Times change, why should things stay the same?


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