Saturday, September 19, 2009

Can jazz be saved? Can anything?

There's been a lot of ink spilled in response to a column by Terry Teachout in an early August issue of the Wall Steet Journal titled "Can jazz be saved?"
Teachout's column reviewed statistics collected in a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, measuring participation in various cultural events and activities. I haven't read the entire column, but one summary notes Teachout reported on the decline in stated attendance at jazz concerts, and the increase in average age of said attendees.
Here's a graf in the NEA's summary of the survey's findings, which show it ain't just jazz that's in dire straits: "Between 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."
I don't know how the survey was conducted, but my question is how was or is a jazz concert defined? Sure, it's easy if it's a Pat Metheny or Dave Brubeck show, but did they reach the fans of Modeski, Martin and Wood, or Charlie Hunter? Moving even further from mainstream jazz, we find the definitions getting even more blurred - if yo define jazz as music incorporating improvisation, syncopated or swing rhythms and advanced harmony, then doesn't the Dave Matthews Band fall under the jazz heading?
There are dozens more examples, but the point is jazz is so broadly interwoven in modern music that it's hard to see where the lines of distinction may be.
So let's parse it further: the question is can mainstream jazz or be-bop be saved?
If "saved" means maintain sales quotas, or draw crowds of certain sizes, then no, it most likely can't. Outside of the growing list of has-been singers getting a quick sales bump by doing a collection of songs from the cliche-ridden Great American Songbook (Willie Nelson? Really?), mainstream jazz releases are not goign to ignite Billboard charts.
But there's a lot of excellent, exciting and innovative jazz that's doing very well, thank you very much. And if we really open our ears, we'll find jazz living and thriving under many rocks ... including rock.
So, save your worries for Bach and Beethoven, and add Brubeck if you want. I think art will survive because it is fine art.

But don't write off jazz yet -- like an adaptable virus, jazz has a way of permeating all kinds of hosts. Many people have been infected and don't even know it ...

1 comment:

  1. Jazz is like plant life... okay like nature, but it's easy to relate to plants. Some years the tomatoes are great, some years it's the green beans. Certain plants do well most every year. But to say why and because is almost impossible. I love what you said about how jazz is inclusive of so many styles and genres. Some people say they are performing jazz because they are using material from the 'G. A. Song Book', but that isn't what makes it jazz. It's the approach and committment to the moment, be it simple or complex for one small thing. I believe jazz must embrace all musics to keep it alive and viable.