Jazz: A Museum Piece or a Living, Breathing Artform? It’s Up to Us!

by Jason on August 8, 2009 · 23 comments

in Music, Thoughts

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!

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

rentedmule August 8, 2009 at 8:25 am

Good thoughts, MMW really do deserve a lot of credit. And it seems that role reversal has happend, “jazz” went from being the people’s music to something else. Improvisational rock is easy to find in enjoyable settings, jazz not so much. In my area there are only two or three places that regularly book jazz musicians and they are over-priced restaurants for lawyers and doctors.

I looked for Jazz Festivals in NY during August and couldn’t find a single one listed. In the end it comes down to either the promoters, or the musicians themselves to discover a larger audience.

Andrew Durkin August 8, 2009 at 9:43 am


The space you play in really does make huge difference to people’s expectations and how they interact with the music. Often, an audience sitting in a theater will respond differently (polite applause) from an audience in a bar (dancing, whooping it up) — even if they are both hearing the same show.

(Of course, for me, part of the challenge is in trying to get audiences in “art venues” to let down their hair a little. I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I can produce that response consistently, because the built-in expectations of how you are “supposed” to behave are so deeply-instilled. Still, I love that challenge!)

Anyway, I agree with you that the solution to this problem has very little to do with the music itself — and I hope the latest blogospheric discussions about the future of jazz don’t provoke a new trend of jazz musicians arbitrarily and lamely attempting to incorporate the “hip new sound that all the kids are listening to these days”! It’s crucial to stay honest about the kind of music we like, and the kind of music we want to make, and it’s crucial to follow through on that.

As a father of a 5-year-old who hears all kinds of crazy music around the house on a regular basis, and who seems to love it all, I can attest to the fact that there is no inherent reason “young people” should not like jazz. The problems we face are all contextual.

Andrew Durkin August 8, 2009 at 11:29 am

One other thing (sorry for the extra comment!)…

It occurs to me, as I fill out the remaining dates in the Industrial Jazz Group’s upcoming east coast tour, that though I’m all for playing the “venues that are more conducive to a younger audience” — the all-ages venues, the rock clubs, the coffeehouses — one thing that ties them all together is that they tend not to pay very well (certainly not as well as the “high end” jazz venues, which, in turn, cater to the deeper-pocketed (and thus usually older) crowds).

Which is not to say jazzers should not pursue the youngster venues — IJG will be playing a lot of them on this tour, and obviously, part of the challenge for 21st century musicians in general is in coming up with new and innovative ways to get paid — but this dynamic creates a bit of a vicious cycle that, I suspect, keeps a lot of great jazz out of earshot of a younger generation.

You mention that Lucid (which sounds like a very cool venue!) doesn’t have a cover. If you feel like sharing, I would be curious as to how (or if?) they pay their musicians… and if they do, how they make that work? It might be a good lesson for other venues around the country!

Peter Hum August 8, 2009 at 1:03 pm


Man, you are on it early on a Saturday! Thanks for the kind words and for hitting the topic so hard and so well.

I’m going to enjoy family life for a few hours and then burrow into the topic again with new clarity thanks to what you, Andrew and others are saying.


AdamW August 8, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Can I be honest with you? The fact is that is that there’s too many kids “playing musician” these days, along with too many clubs that will book anyone for the least amount of $ possible ..in hopes each new young band brings in their friends for a night (while the club taked advantage of whatever booze sales they can muster from it all).

The idiotic bands playing into this further this despicable process – all for nothing.

Then both parties (mainly bands) dress it all up and try and make it look paletable under the guise of this BS “all inclusive, jam-based, love-fest wrapped in soliderity”. Something any working and experienced musician knows is complete BS in this day and age (any one of these kids would sell their mothers soul for a gig – at min to no pay even….all for a gentle ego stroke).

Another problem is this half-wit “jamband crap” , a mindset that sits like a pariah in the music waters. Half-wit musicians who have to remain “jamming” in one or two keys sinply because they’re not quite talented or driven enough to gain a grasp on furthering their improv/eartraining/and composition skills. They then rely on theatrics to fill the missing void (all the while smiling through their inadequacies…as if the pulic is too stupid enough to care or tell the difference.

Some audiences are too stupid however. They’re their just to play hip – without a real reason as to why. Sheep roaming the jamband realm.

And these jammy turkeys think they’re “moving forward with music”?

Now it’s even carried over to film docs, forexample with the incredibly laughable and egotistic film doc “icons among us” that’s recently out. I’ve played with many of these artists, let me tell you – 20% of the artists (and that’s being generous) speaking in the film have experience and an honest and true love of music and seeing it grow. Consumate musicians who know how to feel the music.
The rest? The rest couldn’t even find what key a certain “jam” is in (I know this firsthand by the way). Kids…posing as influential artists.
No need to name names in this dizzying array of “new music BS”.
I don’t need to, those with brains no how to separate the posers from the players in this doc.

No people – what you’re seeing now is the storm of depression in regard to music, not it’s “evolution” or birthing of a new sound. Not at all.

But remember, before things can get better , it first MUST GET WORSE. This is good news in a sense…it’s on it’s way through “worse” right now. In the meantime, bask in the perverbial BS that is jazz meets jamband at the moment. This living joke known as music.

Maybe these times will lead to new melody and song – there’s always a silver lining.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
August 8, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Thanks for the comments guys!

rentedmule: I don’t think these happen in august, but the FONT festival and the Visions festival both received rave reviews this year. I hope they will both continue!

Andrew: Yes, it is true that most of the Jazz Clubs pay more than the venues catering to the younger crowd. Maybe because the Jazz Clubs are selling wine, booze and food while the indie clubs are mostly selling cheap beer? But I think sometimes we have to pick our battles! And I suppose there’s a place for both. I regularly play both kinds of clubs and get a different kind of satisfaction out of them. But if the question is purely “how do we reach the younger audience”, I say we go find ’em where they live.

As for how Lucid compensates the musicians, I’m not sure it’s my place to go into specifics about this (maybe David will chime in here?), but I can tell you that they do pay a guarantee to the musicians, and while it’s not a fortune, it’s at least as much as I make playing the Jazz Clubs. And, to his credit, David is willing to share the wealth when there’s wealth to be shared. More times than not he has paid me more than the agreed-upon sum, because the nights we’ve played there have gone so well. And he is actively trying to work with the musicians to come up with other ways of generating revenue. He’s created a non-profit record label to help artists get CDs out He even created a signature drink for me and donated $1 from everyone sold to my Micropatronage program! He’s a cool cat trying to do the right thing.

Peter: I look forward to your further comments on the subject. But what’s with this “family life” of which you speak??? 😉

Adam: While it’s true that there are many part-time and amateur musicians out there and clubs a-plenty that will book them solely on their low fees, I’m not sure this is something that is unique to our time. Professional musicians have always had to fight this fight, at least since the time that the Musicians’ Union had any sort of control over the club scene (was there ever a time?). I deal with this by not worrying about it, frankly. There are also plenty of clubs that see the value in hiring professional musicians and will pay accordingly. I don’t waste my time on the other ones…what would be the point?

And as for your vitriol about jam bands, I don’t exactly know where that’s coming from. All I can say is that there are amazing bands out there doing all sorts of things, and there are crappy bands too. To generalize as you have seems counter-productive. The band I mentioned in my post, The Teaching, is an example of amazing musicians who have created music that has elements of all sorts of genres, from jazz to jam to funk to hip-hop. And I have seen audiences young and old go crazy for this band. It’s not a question of them not being “talented or driven enough to gain a grasp on furthering their improv/eartraining/and composition skills”. On the contrary, it is their supreme musical abilities that enable them to play music that is not rooted in bebop and still have it sound like jazz! And for what it’s worth, I play with those cats on all sorts of gigs, from jazz to funk to rock, and they can kill it in any setting. Check out http://lucidliverecords.bandcamp.com for an example of them playing some jazz.

If we are in a period of “worse”, I for one can’t wait to see what “better” sounds like, because worse sounds pretty good to me!

Rhythmaning August 9, 2009 at 4:19 am

From I British perspective, I think I see jazz in rather different health. British jazz – the home-grown stuff, rather than the audience for famous musicians touring the UK – has often had a pretty poor audience. Despite oft heralded “jazz revivals”, the audience has been meagre: I remember going to a gig where the band outnumbered the audience – and it was a quartet gig. It was a young band featuring Julian Joseph, who last weekend played a sellout gig at Ronnie Scott’s. Several other gigs in Ronnie’s “British Jazz festival” have been sold out – as I found out when I couldn’t get in.

A couple of weekends ago, I saw Tomorrow’s Warriors play a sellout (though free) gig to an excited, young audience, and a week before that a gig by the Stan Tracey Big Band that, despite the high quality of the music, was embarrassingly empty. Both these gigs were in concert venues, more used to classical music.

Jazz entertains: it is an exciting musical form. Why would musicians NOT take their music seriously? But their expertise makes it exciting and fun music, too. When I go to hear jazz, sometimes I want to sit and listen, and (if I’m at a club) I’ll sit at tables; sometimes I want to be more relaxed, and I’ll sit at the bar and chat (and hopefully not disturb those wanting to listen).

When I have paid to listen, I get annoyed at people ignoring the music and talking loudly. The attitude of some audiences dismays me – why go to a jazz club if you don’t want to hear the music?

There is an audience there: and there are musicians there, too, playing all sorts of music – as art, as entertainment. Some play to entertain, some see themselves as artists; all, I hope, are doing what they wish to create the music that means something to them.

(By the way, Steve Lawson frequently covers issues like this in his blog – you might want to check it out!)

Russ Sargeant August 9, 2009 at 7:13 am

Excellent article. I totally agree that it is the venue that is the key. Jazz artists shouldn’t feel under pressure to try and ‘perform’ to sway a more ‘traditional’ audience. The energy that a fresh, young audience brings is tangible and artists/listeners can mutually feed from that. e.s.t. is a great example of this. Some of what Esbjörn played was intensly classical and the trio were very involved with their instruments, yet it worked because the music was aired in the right forum. Jazz is hear to stay and of course evolve and diversify!

Michael Owcharuk August 9, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Everyone has excellent points. I would like to add that some of the “museum-ing” or lack of popularity among youth is not just the practitioners/venues fault. Media, the record industry, mainstream culture moguls push so much easily consumed entertainment that has whole lifestyles attached to it. This creates distinct social groups by way of dress, language, mannerisms, that people can align themselves with to feel that they belong. In my opinion, a lot of what makes hip-hop, or indie rock, or country, or folk, or emo, so popular is in fact extra-musical. This is capitalized upon by the industry. For whatever reasons, those kind of marketing options are simply not available with jazz and classical music to the same extent as other genres. Superficially, as Joe Blow on the street, what story would you rather hear: the one about the jazz/classical musician who sits in his house practicing all day, sacrificing for his/her craft? Or the rapper that lives it up with tons of money, clothes, cars, women? Or the country singer kicking ass like a good red-blooded American? Or the long suffering emo star with the ever so precociously complicated 17 year old life? Or the good time, easy living of the rock musicians in a bar band? (Note: I am not trying to disparage any kind of music. I believe there are true artists to be found in every genre. I am commenting on pop culture in general). But, thankfully, take the same people that listen primarily to pop styles, put them in the right context, the right setting, and you find they enjoy the Parkers, Mendelsons, Coltranes, Reichs they are hearing and atmosphere it creates. This is because jazz and classical musics are arts or entertainment of the present and immediate. They are best experienced live, intimately. Their presence, energy, is palpable in the room. And not because of 1500 watt PA’s. It is a feedback loop between audience and performer. Even when the audience member is talking and having a good time with their friends and not necessarily “attentively listening.” Their positive energy still feeds the room. These kinds of things don’t transfer to CD, Video, Radio, Internet… This music’s appeal transcends the base consumer desires we have been shackled with and entertains us on a much higher level; whether we know it or not. A level that a T-shirt or hair style can’t get you to. Thanks for your indulgence! Keep the debate going!

Andrew Durkin August 9, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Wow, Lucid really does sound like an awesome place! Big kudos to the people who make it work — in my experience “no cover” hang-out type venues are much more likely to not pay bands any sort of guarantee, even a small one. The only other example I can think of off the top of my head is Mississippi Pizza in PDX, which offered us a guarantee for every free show we’ve played there. I’m sure there are others. But I suspect that is more the exception than the rule. Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places!

“And I suppose there’s a place for both. I regularly play both kinds of clubs and get a different kind of satisfaction out of them.”

There’s definitely a place for both! I wasn’t trying to poo-poo the all ages, no cover, rock club (etc.) venues at all — I love playing for those audiences and in those contexts, and as I said, our east coast tour in October is going to include more than a few of them. I was just pointing out the fact that the money situation can often be a little dicier if you choose to go that route, which may contribute to the problem being addressed here.

I totally agree with Michael that the “story” that gets told about a certain kind of music, or the people who make it, has a direct bearing on its “success.” So to the extent that jazz has a problem, it is a marketing problem, not a musical one (“marketing” = “storytelling”). But I think blog posts like this (and recent jazz-related activity in the digital/social media realm in general) are going a long way toward re-inventing the stories that get told about jazz — and all of that bodes well for the future.

I heartily second the recommendation of Steve Lawson’s blog, BTW!

Chip Boaz August 10, 2009 at 10:58 am

Hey Jason, great post.  It’s good to see so many interesting ideas come up around this very important idea.

I think that there are some vital points to remember here that really reflects the state of jazz.  More than ever before, jazz has splintered into a ton of different flavor including traditional, fusion, world, free, Latin, jam bands, and more.  It would be pretty difficult to find a club that successfully caters to all of them.  While some venues do a good job appealing to a younger audience with jam bands, funk driven group, or even distinctly modern jazz, they’re going to have problems
drawing in an older crowd.  Likewise, the more established jazz venues charge a fortune and as a result they get an audience that can afford it -which is a majority of older, working adults with an income.  What we really need is a combination of these venues, serving the widest amount of people.

I think the idea that we’ve reached a museum-like state in jazz is pretty ridiculous.  Artistically the jazz world is about as far from the Wynton Marsalis 80s “right way” to play jazz as can be.  We’re in an age of niche music and several of these jazz niches are booming.  In
the Latin Jazz world, we’re seeing a boom of styles and approaches that has to be experienced.  It’s an incredible time artistically.

I think the key to the issue with young people lies in education, but education done from a flexible perspective.  Jazz educators need to recognize more than the big band music of Ellington and Basie.  Don’t
get me wrong – that’s beautiful stuff and kids should know about it – but the modern jazz world is bigger than that now.  Without an understanding of today’s scene, kids will be lost.  Also, the younger generation needs to know how to find great jazz once they leave school.  It needs to connect with their lives outside of the classrom.  There is work to be done on the education front indeed.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post Jason.  These are the types of discussions that we need to have!

Neal August 10, 2009 at 1:25 pm

I saw the Bad Plus at the Monterey Jazz Festival and they put on a cool show. I have also seen a lot of young musicians really into jazz- some festivals like the one in Monterey put on a pretty extensive program to teach the youth. Seems like there’s a pretty good program up in San Jose too.

Both putting on a show and moving forward with music- mixing in riffs from other styles and that sort of thing seems to help keep jazz alive.

I would say a lot of people don’t understand the variety within “jazz” it goes from bebop to big bands to the latin side, and the real jazz musician is a master of music that can play many styles.

To change the perception, we can tell more people about jazz! Maybe start with something that’s more current- Joshua Redman, World Saxophone Quartet, groups like that.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
August 10, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Thanks so much for all the comments and the great discussion, guys! This is why I started the blog…so we could hash out the issues. I’m so thrilled to see that my little corner of the blogosphere is doing it’s thing. As Andrew said, it’s blogs and Twitter and us in the trenches shouting it to the rafters that can help bring more people to Jazz in all it’s forms.

And I checked out Steve Lawsons blog, whoa! GREAT stuff. Thanks for hipping me to that.

Twitter: arodjazz
August 10, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Excellent take, Jason! Thanks for coming over to Lubricity to chime in on my post as well. I was gone for the weekend when the Teachout article came out but I am delighted to see you and others finding worthwhile things to say in defense of the state of jazz. My take can be found at http://lubricity.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/canada-and-beyond/ and the bottom line for me is that jazz is always changing, and it’s a big world with room for lots of people of all ages. You’re right to point out that there are ways to take what we dig about our favorite jazz to the places where younger folks will hear it.

Scott McLemore August 15, 2009 at 5:09 am

Thanks for the great post Jason, and it’s great to see the response you, Peter and Teachout have generated.

I’m going to try to give my take without starting my own blog. I think the main problem is the fact that we (jazz musicians) play in restaurants. Jazz clubs are great, and I don’t think we have any chance of being museu-fied. The only way that could happen is if it stopped growing, and after living in NYC for a while you see that the music continues to progress whether people pay attention or not.

The problem is the economic reality of trying to make a living as a jazz musician these days. Jazz clubs are dying out and background music in restaurants usually pays decent. Add to that the different business model that jazz musicians have – individuals vs. bands in the rock/pop world.

Of course MMW and the Bad Plus are bands, which is unusual in jazz, and what we need more of – but they also can attribute much of their success to their musical hybrid, which goes over better in different venues rather than say Hank Jones for instance.

But if we’re only talking image and not musical differences my prescription (as unrealistic as it sounds) would be for everyone to stop playing in restaurants (or in situations where the music is not fully appreciated), and focus on playing more concerts which are promoted well. Hire a good graphic designer who understands the music and the box we’re try to break out of. Release recordings that don’t look like every other CD on the rack. We need to reclaim our cool, and we don’t need to cover rock tunes to do it… not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Basically, this is a huge problem and to change it we all have to invest one way or another.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
August 16, 2009 at 8:34 pm

Thanks for checking out the blog Scott…but I see no reason why you shouldn’t start your own! We need to know what’s going on in Iceland. 😉

I think I get where you’re coming from when you talk about jazz being background music and us needing to reclaim our cool. We’ve all been in that restaurant where the jazz band is just going through the motions and not adding anything to the moment.

However, that’s not how I approach restaurant gigs, which I do play from time to time. Even if we are expressly told that we are “background” music, I still try to bring life to my performance. And I can’t tell you how many CDs I’ve sold, fans I’ve made, and future audience members I’ve cultivated through those gigs.

And beyond that, I think one of the larger problems we face as jazz musicians is that people are exposed to jazz on a regular basis anymore, unless you call 30 seconds of nondescript swing in a commercial or Kenny G in the elevator exposure to jazz. Anything we can do to get the real deal in front of people is good, as far as I’m concerned. It just needs to exemplify all that is good in the music and not be fluff.

But I do agree that we need to promote ourselves better, market ourselves better, and distinguish ourselves better.

What you y’all think?

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