JEN and JAI: The Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Audiences Initiative (or, “They’re just not that into you.”)

In January, I attended the 2012 Jazz Education Network (JEN) conference in Louisville, Kentucky. It was my first time attending this (relatively) new organization’s conference. I had avoided going previously because I was still smarting from the self-inflicted spontaneous combustion of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) in 2008. The JEN conference was similar to the former IAJE conferences in many ways–a variety of concerts, workshops, pedagogical presentations, and, of course, the obligatory vendors’ concessions.

Unlike the bloated IAJE, however, JEN’s concert offerings did not feature dozens of “big name” groups; instead, there were a few famous performers as headliners, and quite a few others performing with college groups and regionally known professional ensembles. The situation with IAJE reminds of the quote from Rick Wagoner, former president of General Motors when he purportedly said  “I thought I was going to be running a car company, but instead I found myself running a health care and retirement system.” When I went to IAJE, I often had the feeling that they had drifted from an association of jazz educators running a conference for jazz teachers and jazz advocates, to an organization devoted to putting on a five-day music festival whose main purpose was to provide as much work as possible for jazz musicians. At the New York IAJE Conference that I attended in 2006, this played out miserably because local concert goers were aware that they could pay the registration fee of $150 or so, and then attend as many concerts as they liked. The venues were crowded and seating was hard to find, so many legitimate IAJE members were shut out of many concerts. One of my friends commented that “JEN is like IAJE without the civilians.”

I heard some fantastic music at this conference, and some that was not as interesting. The highlight for me was Ingrid Jensen performing with the Central Washington State Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Chris Bruya. Of course, Ingrid is always a joy to hear, but to hear this  group of young musicians collaborate with her in such a profoundly musical and professional manner was remarkable. The selections were modern and sophisticated, and also rooted in the tradition, and the execution was detailed, nuanced, and entirely professional. There are so many college groups today who perform at a very high level, that I think it is safe to say that jazz education, at least on one level, has far exceeded its goals.

In addition to the concerts, I had a singular purpose in mind–to attend all of the Jazz Audiences Initiative (JAI) presentations. The topic of “developing and maintaining” an audience for various genres of art music is something I’m keenly interested in, as it touches on many of the musical/cultural issues that are topics often discussed on my blog. I’m sorry to report that most of the presentations under the JAI heading were not very informative or interesting (three of them, in fact, didn’t have anything to do with the topic at all, which was annoying).

One of them, however, made up for the rest; namely the presentation by Alan S. Brown, who is one of the founders of WolfBrown, an organization that provides a wide array of arts organizations with research and analysis to assist in development and marketing, among other things. Brown’s presentation was focused, detailed, and backed up by solid research that used data from a nation-wide study of audiences that attended live jazz events at selected, high-profile venues. The study was commissioned by the Jazz Arts Group in Columbus, and was funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. WolfBrown prepared a comprehensive report in which the data was analyzed and sorted, with some very interesting results. (The entire report is available online. For the Segmentation Report, click here.)

The entire report is fascinating (I highly recommend reading all three documents available online). Hard data on jazz audiences is difficult to find, but to see that data assembled so fastidiously, and then analyzed and compiled in such a robust and multi-faceted manner makes this study a unique and useful offering.

As I sat there listening to Alan Brown present this to the JEN audience, I had a strange sense of deja vu, not in the sense of having heard this presentation before, but in the sense of having lived it before. In other words, I recognized the audience demographics, and I think that most jazz musicians would as well. To wit, here are the six “segmentations” of the audience members, with brief descriptions of their demographic makeup and proclivities (all excerpted from the Segmentation Report):

This segmentation aligned well with what I’ve experienced over the years as a jazz performer and working musician. I could never describe it this succinctly with only my anecdotal experiences, but the categories exist as part of the gigging musician’s lore:

  • The university humanities professor who knows every sideman on every Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk recording ever made (and is shocked when you don’t).
  • The guy who played sax with Stan Kenton’s band in 1961 and wants to tell you stories about the tour bus.
  • The lady who loves Chet Baker, but has never heard of Miles Davis.
  • The couple who loves Kenny G and thought they were “jazz fans.”
  • The couple who request tunes from the ‘40s because that’s when they were teenagers.
  • The symphony ticket holders who thought they would “try something different” this weekend.
  • The Big Band fans who like dancing, and are wondering why nothing you’re playing is very danceable.
  • The NPR/CBC listeners who heard a segment about jazz, and are interested and open to hearing some new music.
  • The yuppie couple who just want to be seen at a “cultural” event and are not paying any attention to the music at all.
  • The lady who loves Diana Krall and Chris Botti, and wants to hear some romantic Broadway show tunes, so she’s very disappointed.

(I could go on, but the categories become more caustic as we get closer to actual 3rd set musician banter.)

It’s clear from this study that “building a jazz audience” is very difficult, if not impossible, because “building” implies creating a sustainable audience base, one that is reliable and predictable (to some degree). The sustainability aspect of this “building” means that you must attract new people not only to replenish the ranks as the older generations pass on, but also to grow the audience base, which provides some measure of security for an arts organization as it plans for the future. The splintered jazz demographic as described in the study clearly shows the difficulties faced by any artist or arts group in trying to develop and build their audience.

The main reason for this is that the motivations of the various subgroups in the audience contradict each other, making it almost impossible to find more than a few artists that substantially satisfy each group’s requirements. You might be able to satisfy the desires of the Culture Dabblers, the Jazz-Centered Omnivores, and the Knowledgeable Musicians with a handful of established (and usually late career) artists, but trying to satisfy the other three with the same artists is extremely difficult. (Many artists that appeal to a wider demographic are well-known artists from the 1950s and 1960s, who attract a wide variety of people due to their historical importance and their name recognition, but that list is short and getting shorter as these older artists pass away or stop performing altogether. Furthermore, while jazz musicians were part of popular culture 40 years ago, even the best of today’s groups are not entering the popular lexicon at all.) There are no such crosscurrents in most other styles. If someone who loves country music goes to a concert by a country artist that they aren’t familiar with, they still go home happy. Same with folk music, rock, etc.

Notice also that the pictures used by WolfBrown to identify three of the jazz subgroups are of people who appear to be 50-65 years old. That demographic is not being replenished as it had been in preceding decades. Alex Ross’ graph from his blog post entitled The Fatal X provides a visual of this ominous phenomenon in the classical world which is based on data from the League of American Orchestras’ Audience Demographic Research Review:

(The “Fatal X” refers to the lack of an increase in arts engagement in “Generation X” as its members age, whereas previous generations increased their arts engagement as they entered their 40s and 50s.)

While the study by the League of American Orchestras is focused on orchestra audiences, we should keep in mind that jazz and classical music share a similar percentage of recording sales (2-3% each), and the reason for that dismal percentage is also probably similar (higher complexity). While the audiences may be different, the situation is likely very similar in terms of their potential for audience maintenance and growth.

As I mentioned previously, Alan Brown did an outstanding job of presenting this data in many of its myriad forms, which provided the audience with a comprehensive overview of the “jazz audience” demographics as found in the venues surveyed. He then fielded questions and comments from the audience, which were also interesting. Here are some of the comments:

1. Retired Dentist: “I played jazz in my practice and my patients would always ask me who was playing.”

2. Music Booking Agent: “Jazz musicians need to start thinking ‘outside of the box’ and market themselves better, use the internet and social networking. All the young kids are listening to Lady Gaga, and Lady Gaga says she was influenced by jazz. So, you should be linking your websites to Lady Gaga’s website so that they can get to you when they’re watching her online. You gotta get creative! Like the punk bands do, they write their name and the gig location in chalk on sidewalks, and that gets them an audience.”

A few others chimed in with the usual mantras about education–”if we expose them to jazz when they’re young, they’ll see how great it is and be fans for life.” (I wrote about the education fallacy in one of my early posts.) Someone finally else asked Brown the obvious question “What should be done to increase the jazz audience?” Brown responded: “That’s your job to figure out, we just provide the data and the analysis.”

How to Grow A Jazz Audience

1. Play jazz in doctors’ offices. (No comment.)

2. Get Lady Gaga to link to your website (I’m not exactly sure what her motivation would be to link to a jazz site, or how any jazz musician could get her to do that in the first place.)

3. Get Creative! Think outside of the box! (Done and done!)

4. Write your name and your gigs in chalk on the sidewalks. (No comment.)

5. Education, Education, Education! Get jazz into the school system. (It’s in the school system, and has been for 40 years, so by this theory there should be two generations of hungry jazz fans out there, but there aren’t.)

The real answer, which I think everyone in attendance knew but didn’t want to say or acknowledge, is that there is no way to increase the jazz audience; to put it in modern parlance, “they’re just not that into you.”

That’s my report from my first JEN conference. Overall, a very enjoyable conference with lots of great music and, in my opinion, much improved over the former IAJE.


(There was also a lot of public sleeping going on.)

About FraKathustra

2 Responses to “JEN and JAI: The Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Audiences Initiative (or, “They’re just not that into you.”)”

  1. Alexandra Bonifield Reply April 8, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Ah, satisfying fodder for the grey matter, even if no happy ending looms over its horizon. It makes me pull my Giddins’ “Visions of Jazz” off the bookshelf to re-thumb its pages of contemplation and analysis….merci!

  2. As a former and semi retired foreign language teacher I feel your pain. Been to too many confernces and didn’t want the t-shirt. Am an avid daily listener of Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings, Montana. Am not a ” toe-tapper” and hate Kenny G. BUT I am almost 73!

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