Peter Hum over at Jazzblog.ca has become one of my favorite writers in the jazz blogosphere. He writes consistently thoughtful and insightful pieces on the issues we face, the music we play and the personalities that make up the jazz community. His latest post raises the question of why jazz is not appealing to a young audience and he promises that he will posit some opinions on the subject in his next piece.
On the same day, Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece called Can Jazz Be Saved?. Teachout takes a more pessimistic view than Hum when he states:
[I]t’s no longer possible for head-in-the-sand types to pretend that the great American art form is economically healthy or that its future looks anything other than bleak.”
Both men cite the recent NEA study on arts participation in the US, which has been making it’s way around the jazz world since it was released last month. And while the numbers are indeed disconcerting, I take them with a grain of salt. I live in the jazz world in Seattle and have seen first-hand a growing number of young players and fans supporting and championing the music. I have some ideas on why this is, which I’ll get into in a minute.
Before stating some of the common “cures” put forth for the jazz-youth malaise, Hum writes:
Since the NEA study was released last month, and indeed, prior to its release, there’s been a fair bit of handwringing about jazz and its apparently dwindling appeal to young listeners. Some commentators have proposed solutions that are marketing moves. A few venture that some kind of esthetic capitulations changes are required to make kids dig jazz.
I am in the camp that believes that jazz doesn’t necessarily need to change much esthetically to appeal to a younger audience. Sure, “fusions” have always helped bring in some younger fans, and the new breed of jazzers experimenting with hip-hop and other forms is welcome and refreshing.
But to me the crux of the problem isn’t the music itself, but the perception that jazz is a music that must be enjoyed while sitting at a table sipping a glass of red wine and staring at a band on stage that has their heads buried in their music stands. How many 20- or 30-somethings do you know who want to do that? Jazz is not thought of by the general public as the vibrant, celebratory and exciting music that it is when it’s at its best.
Which leads us to the inevitable art vs. entertainment argument which I’ve addressed previously here and here. I won’t retread that ground (feel free to read my previous posts if you’re interested), but Teachout alludes to it when he writes:
I suspect it means, among other things, that the average American now sees jazz as a form of high art. Nor should this come as a surprise to anyone, since most of the jazz musicians that I know feel pretty much the same way. They regard themselves as artists, not entertainers, masters of a musical language that is comparable in seriousness to classical music—and just as off-putting to pop-loving listeners who have no more use for Wynton Marsalis than they do for Felix Mendelssohn.
This is what I call the “museum-izing” of jazz. And this is where I think we can effect some change and reach out to the younger audience without changing what we do, just where we do it.
The success of bands like Medeski, Martin and Wood, The Bad Plus and EST can be traced in a large part to the fact that these groups decided to get out of the Jazz Clubs and into venues that are more conducive to a younger audience. Here in Seattle we have a new club called Lucid that is presenting a program entirely made up of jazz music, but it is a bar atmosphere instead of a club atmosphere. There is never a cover so there is always a built in audience, there is an energy in the room because people are up moving about and hanging at the bar, and it is full of 20-somethings because it is located near the University of Washington. Every time I’m there, either as a player or an audience member, I hear more than one young group remarking about how cool it is to be hearing live jazz in a setting that makes them feel comfortable. And every Thursday they host The Hang, where the house band, The Teaching, hosts a non-traditional jam session that is part jazz jam and part jam frenzy. The young folks come in droves, both musicians who want to sit in and others who just dig the energy produced.
I think we can all learn from this. We need to put ourselves in situations where young people will feel comfortable. We need to go find the younger audience and then give them something that will excite them. And we don’t have to play Phish covers to do it (although that’d be cool!). We can play what we want as long as we present it in a venue and a way that is attractive to the under 40 set.
Let’s bring the life back to jazz. It’s up to us!