[Dixielandjazz] Wall Street Journal - "Can Jazz Be Saved?"

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Aug 8 13:58:50 PDT 2009

Note especially the last paragraph. Where have you heard that before?  

Steve Barbone

Can Jazz Be Saved?   - Wall Street Journal 8-8-09
The audience for America’s great art form is withering away

New York

In 1987, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring jazz to be “a  
rare and valuable national treasure.” Nowadays the music of Louis  
Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis is taught in  
public schools, heard on TV commercials and performed at prestigious  
venues such as New York’s Lincoln Center, which even runs its own  
nightclub, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

Here’s the catch: Nobody’s listening.

No, it’s not quite that bad—but it’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.

The bad news came from the National Endowment for the Arts’ latest  
Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the fourth to be conducted  
by the NEA (in participation with the U.S. Census Bureau) since 1982.  
These are the findings that made jazz musicians sit up and take notice:

• 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  

• 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.

• 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.

• Even among college-educated adults, the audience for live jazz has  
shrunk significantly, to 14.9% in 2008 from 19.4% in 1982.

These numbers indicate that the audience for jazz in America is both  
aging and shrinking at an alarming rate. What I find no less  
revealing, though, is that the median age of the jazz audience is now  
comparable to the ages for attendees of live performances of classical  
music (49 in 2008 vs. 40 in 1982), opera (48 in 2008 vs. 43 in 1982),  
nonmusical plays (47 in 2008 vs. 39 in 1982) and ballet (46 in 2008  
vs. 37 in 1982). In 1982, by contrast, jazz fans were much younger  
than their high-culture counterparts.

What does this tell us? 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.

Jazz has changed greatly since the ’30s, when Louis Armstrong, one of  
the supreme musical geniuses of the 20th century, was also a pop star,  
a gravel-voiced crooner who made movies with Bing Crosby and Mae West  
and whose records sold by the truckload to fans who knew nothing about  
jazz except that Satchmo played and sang it. As late as the early  
’50s, jazz was still for the most part a genuinely popular music, a  
utilitarian, song-based idiom to which ordinary people could dance if  
they felt like it. But by the ’60s, it had evolved into a challenging  
concert music whose complexities repelled many of the same youngsters  
who were falling hard for rock and soul. Yes, John Coltrane’s “A Love  
Supreme” sold very well for a jazz album in 1965—but most kids  
preferred “California Girls” and “The Tracks of My Tears,” and still  
do now that they have kids of their own.

Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to undo the transformation of jazz  
into a sophisticated art music. But there’s no sense in pretending  
that it didn’t happen, or that contemporary jazz is capable of  
appealing to the same kind of mass audience that thrilled to the big  
bands of the swing era. And it is precisely because jazz is now widely  
viewed as a high-culture art form that its makers must start to  
grapple with the same problems of presentation, marketing and audience  
development as do symphony orchestras, drama companies and art museums— 
a task that will be made all the more daunting by the fact that jazz  
is made for the most part by individuals, not established institutions  
with deep pockets.

No, I don’t know how to get young people to start listening to jazz  
again. But I do know this: Any symphony orchestra that thinks it can  
appeal to under-30 listeners by suggesting that they should like  
Schubert and Stravinsky has already lost the battle. If you’re  
marketing Schubert and Stravinsky to those listeners, you have no  
choice but to start from scratch and make the case for the beauty of  
their music to otherwise intelligent people who simply don’t take it  
for granted. By the same token, jazz musicians who want to keep their  
own equally beautiful music alive and well have got to start thinking  
hard about how to pitch it to young listeners—not next month, not next  
week, but right now.

—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, writes “Sightings” every  
other Saturday and blogs about the arts atwww.terryteachout.com. Write  
to him at tteachout at wsj.com.

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