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