Written by Patrick Jarenwattananon from National Public Radio
Two weeks ago, we published one of our most-read posts, an essay by Kurt Ellenberger about the audience for jazz. The pianist and composer, a college professor of music, argued that it was nearly impossible to create a new mass audience for the music, as it would be an uphill battle for a complex art form against a dominant popular culture. He concluded that it was better for musicians to stop worrying about trying to earn a living as a performer, find other employment and make music on your own terms.
The post drew dozens of comments and counting, and more throughout the web. It circulated rapidly through musicians and journalists on Facebook; it was picked up by, of all places, the video gaming blog Kotaku; it even earned the true mark of a viral phenomenon, a satirical response. Here are some of the responses so far.
Room For Hope?
Obviously, it would be silly to preclude all optimism for audience growth if there exist examples of crowds being filled. Another commenter named Marguerite Horberg (MargueriteHorberg) agreed:
It is enervating to see yet another article on Jazz and audience development written by someone who does not build jazz audiences for a living. I believe that this is because we are taught to value academia and credential as authorities institutional opinions over juke joint operators nightclub owners and festival producers who actually do build jazz audiences. As someone who successfully ran a jazz club for decades, I think there are numerous ways to build and support live jazz. Witness the WInter Jazz Fest in NYC in January with lines stretched around the block – The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest, Vancouver, and my own joint, HotHouse in Chicago. We presented some 90 well attended concerts each year including the Jazz en Clave Fest, Women of the New Jazz Fest, the FMP Fest and South African Jazz fest – All full of young, curious listeners.
More is needed, however, than bringing “butts in seats” — after all, Ellenberger’s pessimism stems from the fact that jazz “is no longer part of the popular culture.” So we need contexts that reframe the experience of improvised music in 2012 — or at least meet audiences halfway to how they consume art now. Of all places, an op-ed by Kirk Hamilton, who writes a music column for the video game journal Kotaku details one of them:
One of the most successful local music outfits in San Francisco is the terrific Jazz Mafia, a collective of ensembles who all merge hip-hop with aggressively rhythmic jazz to make music that is vital, ripping, technically advanced, and fun. They sell out venues all over the city, and their shows are a party—while none of those players make an insane amount of money, I challenge anyone to go to a Shotgun Wedding Quintet show, get neck-deep in the audience, and still feel that the jazz audience can’t grow. And that’s just in SF—in dive bars and clubs across the country, similar fusions of rock, hip-hop and jazz drive modern audiences to come out, buy tickets, and go nuts.
But note his next paragraph too:
All of this is to say that yes, I think Ellenberger is correct: The audience for jazz as he describes it isn’t really going to get any bigger. There’s nothing anyone can do about it. And it is certainly more difficult than ever to make a living playing jazz; not that it was ever really easy. But to say that jazz music begins and ends at the traditional jazz ensemble is to ignore the many ways that the music has evolved, the many ways that players have evolved alongside it, and the ways that listeners have evolved as well.
So can we connect older styles of jazz to cultural practice? I don’t know, but I also don’t see how musicians keep making music without believing it’s possible. After all, as commenter Lazaro Vega (Blue_Lake) points out, it’s not merely a sound that that jazz presenters ask people to acknowledge:
I don’t view jazz as a product, or a commodity, but as a way, an idea about how to live. People in this consumeristic, corporate dominated society are hungry for the very ideas jazz musicians have to offer about how to LIVE.
Taken too literally, this could lead to some awful corporate doublespeak, aka “The Jazz Musician’s Guide To Investment Success” or something. But if you don’t believe that the best early-New-Orleans-style musicians or unrepentant hard-boppers communicate something universally important about what it means to be a well-prepared and improvising human being, then why do you care about jazz in the first place? And as long as that element is there, surely we can find more familiar contexts that better enable communication of that, no?
The Kids These Days
Many comments stated that jazz appreciation needs to start at a youth level. I agree in some level, of course, but I also think it’s more complicated and labor-intensive than it appears. Take this comment from M Melinger (AustinJazzWorkshop):
Audience development for jazz seemingly insurmountable? Gee, somebody forgot to tell us. We just finished playing Miles Davis’ music on 124 public school campuses for 40,000 kids, and they sure LOOKED like they were having fun.
The author appears to represent Austin Jazz Workshop, which brings jazz musicians into elementary school classrooms. It looks like a noble project, surely. But the question that lingers: Will this make those students into future jazz consumers? It probably won’t hurt, but a lot more than this outreach program is needed to get Austin kids interested in a form of music that in many ways is foreign to their everyday realities. Can one jazz show a year make a fourth grader into an adult who will eventually pay to see concerts?
Jazz education in schools, starting at an early age, certainly leads to a fair amount of musicians — in my case, it led to music journalism. One mother, Carol Hall (heymaaaaaa), wrote:
Wow. This belies every experience I’ve had. My son is a jazz musician, he is a product of an amazing 9 years in jazz education through our public school district. I liked jazz before he was involved but since then, our family has spent a lot of money at concerts, for lessons, on instruments, on fundraisers, on travel related to jazz music etc. If my son hadn’t been involved in jazz education, we probably wouldn’t have “stimulated the jazz economy” the way we did. His sister was dragged to years of concerts and now plays cello and piano. We are “stimulating” the classical economy as well. I don’t agree with this blog. Follow your heart.
But again, the question isn’t if jazz education produces musicians — it’s how to create audiences. Will Ms. Hall’s son have anyone to play to other than his parents? That’s not a question that jazz education has proven able to solve.
An ostensibly Japanese commenter wrote in to say that “the young people who listen [to] Jazz are increasing in number these days in Japan.” Yukiko Takiguchi (yukiko_tk) wrote that one of the reasons was that jazz is making its way into an anime cartoon called Kids on the Slope. A clip:
Quite impressively done, and if Takiguchi’s claim is accurate in any way, it makes sense. It’s a way to meet people in a medium where they are, done in a way that doesn’t seem completely ridiculous or tacky. (The same Kotaku writer cited earlier has much more about this series here.) But again, to create even a minor mass stir, this exposure to jazz needs to part of a bigger ecosystem than one cartoon in a hundred. And it might be noted that this cartoon takes place in 1966. Who is telling the story of how to be a kid and into jazz in 2012?
Get A Job
As for Ellenberger’s eventual conclusion that musicians stop worrying about mass audience resurrection and support themselves with other employment, it seems like many self-identifying jazz musicians already do that. The number of such folks who perform exclusively for a living seems to be decreasing every day compared with those who supplement their incomes from other pursuits, music-related or not.
Still, several folks wrote in to complain that day jobs don’t synch with them, creatively. Here’s John Shaughnessy (jmsbass):
I really don’t agree with the author’s conclusions. First off, day jobs suck the life out of you. The LAST thing I felt like after coming home from a day job was playing music…and people are working harder and longer for less and less these days. I’d rather play Misty and Mony Mony 7 days a week than sit at a desk from 8-5.
The Seattle trumpeter Jason Parker (JasonParker) disagreed with Ellenberger’s admonition to “Make money doing something else, and keep your music pure.” If you’ve read his blog, you know he’s pretty proud of being able to make a living as a jazz musician.
My “day job” is playing weddings and casuals. I don’t find it a sell out or artistically draining or any of that. I treat it just like any other day job. The only difference is that I get to play music instead of pour coffee or design bridges or whatever else. Any day playing music with people I love and admire is a good day as far as I’m concerned.
Another musician named Brian Graham (BrianDesmondGraham) also wrote in to say it can be done:
I find this article very interesting. I see the point, but I disagree. I agree that when starting out, you need to find ways to fund your life. I am a 27 year old full time musician/private instructor and although my career isn’t the most profitable job in the world, I am getting by. I co-lead a 19-piece Big Band called The Fogcutters. For the past two years, we have tried a new approach to this music/project. To say the least, it has been highly successful. In December, we sold 750 tickets to see an all original Big Band show produced by us. There are people out there that want to hear real music. The biggest problem is that musicians do not know how to market themselves to those people.
For Graham, it’s still possible to cultivate an audience for original jazz. Of course, Ellenberger might consider private instruction a “day job,” and his point has less to do with possibility than use of time: Is it worth it to concern yourself with so much self-promotion?
Plenty of folks also wrote in to agree with Ellenberger. A one Josef Hoffman (Josefski) wrote unequivocally:
I agree with the author. I’d shoot myself if I had to play at the kind of gigs that hired the majority of live music in the past. Like, “NO, I most certainly will NOT play ‘Misty’ for you, jerk. Why don’t you just download it?” … I much prefer to use my day job to support my music habit. Surviving off of gigs is like dealing drugs to buy drugs.
Jason Davis (musicwriter) earns a living in and out of music, and says he finds time for creativity in there. Though unlike Ellenberger recommends, he plays “a fair amount of function gigs,” he also agreed that it wasn’t worth it to deal with some of the typical conditions of jazz venues:
I agree with the writer about the challenges of the jazz world. There are multiple problems, but a big one is counting on bars and so-called “jazz clubs” to make a living. Forget it. That might have worked, sort of, when people went out drinking more and stayed out all night. Get in to teaching, or get a day job that you like, and start thinking like a visual artist. Audiences can learn to like challenging material – Jackson Pollock anyone? The public has an expectation that they will be challenged by contemporary art. Take your music, your art, out of the bars and into settings that people will be receptive to it – art galleries, museums, schools, and festivals. Don’t expect it to be easy or to make big bucks at it. We creative musicians have a lot to offer the world, but our art is not for drunken patrons hanging out in a crummy bar at 2am.
The saxophonist Aram Shelton wrote in to say that he had already concluded that he won’t be able to make a living as a performer, and that he puzzles over people who play music they don’t believe in. But then he makes an important recommendation:
so, why don’t we change the question from “how do i make a living playing jazz” to “how do i create great jazz music that people want to listen to”?
Putting The Onus On Musicians
One of the common strains of thought when it comes to audience development is that musicians themselves need to communicate better. They need to address their crowds, package their recordings attractively, dress nicely but not off-puttingly so — and most of all, make creatively rewarding music that people will actually pay to see. A fellow named Jon Burr (jonburr) writes that making familiar music is the key:
The most frequent complaints about jazz are “I don’t understand it” – or “it sounds like noise.” There’s a reason for that – There is a fundamental false notion shared by many jazz musicians that repetition is bad, that every idea must be fresh and original. Classic music compositional development leverages the principle of familiarity, which connects deeply to the human psyche, essential for understanding. A motive is introduced, then repeated, then taken through variations, permutation, etc and developed. Great jazz soloists do this. Most jazz musicians don’t – at least, not intentionally.
I don’t know that many improvisers would agree that motivic development is uncommon, but the general point is taken — he feels like musicians need to leave more obvious clues for listeners. A fellow named Ric Harris (RicHarris) had other musical suggestions too:
The expansion of the audience will occur when the jazz world thinks of itself as part of the entertainment industry, not merely an art form. That does not mean the challenge that it offers to either the audience or the perfomers will disappear. The music presented to them must first be seductive before it becomes demanding. The standards eventually must remain in the classroom as a learning tool, not the majority of what the audience hears at a night club. People are tired of hearing “Autumn Leaves” over and over again. The improvisation that is considered by many to be the heart of jazz must become only a part of the music that the audience hears. The melody of the song itself must be as important. People are tired of hearing twenty minutes of solos. In other words, you are there to entertain the audience, not demand that they listen to what you are playing.
What I find most interesting is how he couched this in the language of “entertainment” vs “art form.” Harris seems to think that the current paradigm of approaching jazz primarily as high art is turning people off, or at least limiting its appeal — that it has led to de-emphasizing melody, that it has become too difficult, that it drags on too long.
In other words, many feel that jazz musicians seem to have neglected the fact that they’re actually performing for audiences. Commenters identified structural changes as contributing to this shift. Even Adam Rose (AdamNew1), who otherwise agrees with a lot of Ellenberger’s claims, writes that “I think the public funding of previous decades allowed many artists to become dismissive and indifferent towards the public.”
Certainly, it’s relatively easy to observe the shift from to pop music to art music, from commercial support to public and grant funding, from the “school of hard knocks” to the conservatory. It’s not much more effort to correlate this with a shift in the relative complexity of improvised music in 2012.
But it also seems too easy to blame it all on insulated Ivory Tower mindsets of musicians. For one, correlation doesn’t prove causation; what about all the individual creative decisions of artists to perform in the ways they do? For another, what about all the great music that comes from musicians who have a B.A. in music, who have played publicly-funded venues or won grants, who grew up well after jazz was a mainstream practice? And didn’t these structural shifts happen in part because the commercial marketplace had plenty of sustainability and artistic issues of its own?
As fans, it’s healthy to point out when we can’t connect with a musical decision. But it does seem like we’re collectively eager to blame musicians for making those decisions. Surely I’m not the only one uncomfortable with the implications of that.
Some Final Words
Ellenberger must have known he would have touched a nerve: “I realize that this is not what anyone in the jazz community wants to hear, but I also don’t think it is helpful to continue pretending that there is a solution out there somewhere, just waiting for us to discover it,” he wrote. No matter how overwhelming the odds are against it, the belief that good jazz can touch anybody drives so many hours of study. Extreme difficulty, we can accept, but the language of hopelessness and impossibility is hardly permissible for someone who elects to practice public art.
Frustratingly, if there is hope, it lies scattered in many interlocking parts, often working independently and at a grassroots level: new ways of presenting music, new funding models, new marketing and journalism efforts. Effectively, this scatters the discussion and leads to misunderstandings. It’s enough to make anyone rant wildly, or retreat from the debate entirely out of bewilderment.
But I might again suggest that there are plenty of jazz musicians who have been able to carve out a cultural space for their art in today’s world. Some of them have even successfully established careers as performers. None can claim a panacea for sustainable art — but together, they represent its possibility. So one by one, their stories ought to be told.