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Jazz Is Dead . . . Again


In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout issued yet another obituary for jazz, citing findings from the most recent Survey of ­Public Participation in the Arts conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts.

On first reading the numbers seem alarming. I’ve been in marketing for 30 years (what, you thought I make a living writing about music?) and I believe in research. But I don’t always believe research, and I believe that most problems have more than one right answer. Let’s look closer at the statistics Teachout cited:

• In 2002, the year of the last survey, 10.8% of adult Americans attended at least one jazz performance. In 2008, that figure fell to 7.8%.

This I believe, but during a year in which the economy slid into . . . well, whatever we’re calling the downturn, might attendance at all sorts of live entertainment events have seen a decline? I’d like to see some context for this metric.

• Not only is the audience for jazz shrinking, but it’s growing older—fast. The median age of adults in America who attended a live jazz performance in 2008 was 46. In 1982 it was 29.

So that 29 year old in 1982 is now 57, proving, I suppose, that much of that age cohort who came to the music in the 1970s (I’m one of them), is still following it, though perhaps to a lesser extent than they used to do so. This is not a terrible thing, though this measurement certainly shows that this audience is not being replaced by younger people who came to the music in, say in the late 1980s — coincidentally a time where much of the action in recorded jazz was in reissues. It’s tough to build audiences when marketing muscle is being directed to music by dead artists, however worthy they may have been. But more about that later.

• Older people are also much less likely to attend jazz performances today than they were a few years ago. The percentage of Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 who attended a live jazz performance in 2008 was 9.8%. In 2002, it was 13.9%. That’s a 30% drop in attendance.

And that’s worrisome. I wonder, though, if the audience disappeared because many of the venues that presented jazz — an urban art form — also disappeared due to economic factors associated with the urban real estate boom of the early part of the century. This is certainly the case in New York where Manhattan jazz clubs are all but a memory, and the music has shifted to spaces in the outer boroughs.

Finally, I wonder what the survey means by “jazz.” Did a Medeski Martin and Wood performance qualify? A Norah Jones show? The music that younger listeners label as jazz may not be the same music that the NEA, John Chacona or Wynton Marsalis might consider to be in the canon. Were survey respondents free to self-identify jazz as they saw fit? This is the biggest question I have with the data.

Look, I’m not about to suggest that jazz is as healthy as it was in 1999, to say nothing of 1959. But I have observed that large jazz festivals still seem to attract crowds, that younger, adventurous listeners are showing up in the least likely places, like concerts by Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone or the hardcore kids who, I’m told, have adopted the Vision Festival as their own. These aren’t big crowds, but they are loyal. More importantly, they point to a future audience that is committed if not mass-market massive. These days, is there any genre of music that has the near-universal appeal that rock’n’roll had in the 60s or jazz had in the 30s and 40s?

Face it, it’s a world of micro-market niches, cultivated and developed online, which is where young people — the audiences of the future — live. On Thursday, I took my daughter to a show by Mayday Parade, a pop-punk band with a teen following. If I had a buck for every time the band mentioned MySpace, I could have paid for both of our tickets. Like it or not, that is the future.

How else might that future look? A lot more like America would be my guess, with more contributions from people that had not been invited to the jazz tent: hyphenated Americans from Asia (think Rudresh Mahanthappa and Hiromi) and Latin America. If drummers drive jazz, the most exciting music is coming from the Caribbean basin, a place where rhythmic subtlety and horns (to cite just two elements of what purists identify as jazz) have always been part of the musical culture.

Jazz will look a lot less American, and what’s wrong with that? Show of hands here for those who think that rock’n’roll died when the Brits took it, changed it up a bit and brought it back to us.

Jazz will get bigger — big festivals should thrive because they are fun, full of life and attractive to sponsors — and it will also get smaller, too. Jazz artists will get in vans and work small rooms, just like punk bands now tour, building grassroots support online. It’s less comfortable than star soloists making run-out gigs with local rhythm sections might be, but if I’m not mistaken, it’s how the music began.

Will jazz ever be a mass-market phenomenon again? Probably not, just as rockabilly, doo-wop, four-hands piano and barbershop quartets — all genres that once had wide popularity — will never again take center stage. We can lament that situation (and that of the hundreds of highly trained players that university jazz programs crank out annually), or we can listen to what’s out there. Maybe even take in a show. The music being made to day is as interesting as that of any period of jazz in my memory. You just have to work a little harder to find it.

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