There has been quite a fallout in the jazz blogosphere (and remaining print media outlets) over Terry Teachout's Wall Street Journal Column about the health of jazz. So I felt I break my own blog silence to drop in my two (or maybe 12) cents. Yes, it is verbose, but give it a read anyway.
By the time Wynton Marsalis’s article “What Jazz Is—and Isn’t” appeared in the New York Times in July 1988, the twenty-six-year-old trumpet player was already one of the few recognizable figures in modern jazz. Beginning in the early 1980s, Marsalis had been a media sensation. Not only was he prodigiously talented, having won eight Grammy awards in both the classical and jazz idioms, but he was an anomaly in the African-American community: a young, talented musician that elected to play jazz over Funk, R&B, and Hip-Hop. In the New York Times article, Marsalis presented his philosophy of jazz. According to Marsalis, Jazz is not a music defined by its historical context and whose innovators were just talented “noble savages,” but is a kind of music that requires a dedication to the study of musical craft and jazz tradition. While Marsalis is certainly correct to claim jazz as a serious art form, as jazz students spend large amounts of time transcribing, analyzing, and practicing solos of previous greats, he took this concept too far and restricted the definition of jazz. For Marsalis, there is only one kind of good jazz—jazz that is explicitly and noticeably rooted in the genre’s traditional aspects of the blues and swing.
This approach, used not only by Marsalis but a host of other musicians and critics, has become known in the jazz community as “Neoclassicism” for its emphasis on earlier styles of jazz and its labeling of jazz as “America’s Classical Music.” This view of jazz has stirred up great debate within the jazz community over the past twenty years between Neoclassicists and modernists, but Neoclassicism has taken a lion’s share of the media spotlight. Jazz musicologist Scott DeVeaux in his 1998 essay “Constructing the Jazz Tradition” theorizes that the media visibility of Wynton Marsalis will yield an increased Neoclassical influence on jazz and the music’s popular perception. If jazz’s popularity has declined in the years since the rise of Neoclassicism, then the proponents of this philosophy, because of their high stature outside the jazz community, may bear much of the responsibility for this trend. While Neoclassicism was a positive development for jazz in the late 1980s, as it reasserted artistic seriousness and spread this jazz to a wide audience, its philosophy has become overly dominant in the public sphere, creating the perception that jazz is an antiquated, high-brow, dead form of historical-museum music, paradoxically causing its decline in popularity in the past decades.
Before it became a destructive force in jazz, Neoclassicism indeed helped spread the music to new listeners, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s. In an analysis of National Endowment for the Arts Study of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) from 1992, Scott DeVeaux traces the changes in the jazz audience from 1982 to 1992. During that time, counteracting a larger trend in jazz’s decreasing popularity since the swing era, jazz’s popularity among American adults increased. One third of Americans claimed to like jazz in 1992, up from twenty six percent in 1982, and a quarter of Americans mentioned that they would like to attend more jazz performances than they do now, up from eighteen percent. Much of this increase can be attributed to the expanded media coverage of jazz during that time. Jazz was once again thrust into the national spotlight, with major record companies devoting unprecedented resources to the promotion of young jazz artists. This trend culminated in Wynton Marsalis’s visage gracing the cover of Time Magazine in October 1990. Aware on some level that this privileged time in the spotlight would not last, young Neoclassicists like Marsalis sought to use their newly-found stature to educate the public about jazz and assert the genre’s artistry over the commercialism inherent in the rapidly growing “Smooth Jazz” subgenre, a much watered-down version of the style that took emphasis away from improvisation and musical virtuosity in exchange for pleasant, nonaggressive timbres and accessibility. Such public education and artistic assertion of “true” jazz over the diluted “smooth” kind were vital for jazz in the 1980s and ‘90s if the style was to continue to exist well into the future as a serious art form. As shown by the 1992 SPPA, “Mood/Easy Listening” music (another name for smooth jazz) was consistently more popular than jazz in every education demographic, even in the college graduate and graduate school brackets where jazz typically attracts the most listeners. Smooth Jazz thus became jazz’s principle economic competitor in the music industry. Young serious jazz musicians that did not sacrifice artistic integrity needed to pull in listeners from Smooth Jazz to be successful economically. By a promoting Neoclassicist agenda with its emphasis on music education and a set definition of what jazz is, and is not, serious jazz musicians could help new listeners relate to their music and promote jazz as a serious art form, above the vulgarities of popular music and smooth jazz.
However, though Neoclassicism was successful at simultaneously building the jazz audience in the 1980s and early ‘90s and keeping its artistic integrity, its harsh views on other genres and its self-designation as “America’s Classical Music” alienated some potential listeners. For example, in 1982, according to the SPPA, eighteen to twenty-four year olds made up the second highest percentage of people who liked jazz, at twenty-one and a half percent of the total fans of jazz. However, this percentage dropped to about twelve percent in 1992. So, while Neoclassicism was developing new fans ages twenty-five and up, it did not attract new, young fans. By failing to bring the youngest demographic into the fold, Neoclassicism set itself up for a downfall as the music would not be passed down to new generations. The fervor of the Neoclassicists also created a strong “us vs. them” mentality between traditional jazz and every other form of jazz. While Neoclassicists played “authentic” jazz and hoped to modify the consumers’ tastes toward their serious and tradition-rooted music, most other musicians (except those few who played free jazz) were lumped into the “accessible” category, musicians willing to do anything to satisfy the listeners’ changing preferences. With Neoclassicism, there was no middle ground, making it impossible to create serious and authentic jazz that was also relevant to modern audiences. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the shifting music industry and national media would help accentuate the authentic vs. accessible paradigm, leading to Neoclassicism’s great influence over the public perception of jazz.
Just as Neoclassicism was becoming the dominant philosophy in jazz, the jazz world was going through another transformation from a music centered around live performance to one emphasized recordings, a transformation aided by and supportive of Neoclassicism. In his essay “Musical Analysis and the Social Life of Jazz Recordings,” jazz musicologist Matthew Butterfield explains how the growth of the recording industry has affected the decline of local jazz scenes in different metropolitan areas. Back in the early days of recorded music, jazz records were a mere novelty for listeners, a poor substitute for a live performance. However, with the quality of digital recording technology, the sound quality of jazz recordings was good enough to be a replacement for live jazz performances. As more people bought records and went to fewer concerts, jazz musicians needed to move to cities with extensive recording scenes, New York City in particular, in order to make a living. However, it was not just recording technology that made jazz listeners seek out recordings over live performances. Neoclassicist philosophy places great importance on a jazz’s recorded legacy to show the difference between good and bad jazz. For Neoclassicists, jazz improvisation is not a completely free and fleeting act, but a craft, as the best improvised solos do not disappear into thin air, but are permanent edifices. For this to be true, the solos must be recorded and played back for future listeners. So instead of leading listeners to the nearest jazz club, Neoclassicism leads them to a past jazz recording deemed important in some way. As recordings became the preferred method of hearing jazz from both a practical and philosophical standpoint, people’s conception of jazz came not from local creative musicians, but from the recording industry and popular media.
The increasing power of the popular media in transmitting jazz to Americans helped Neoclassicism cement its place as the dominant philosophy in jazz. Although jazz received much media attention in the early 1990s, media coverage of jazz has decreased substantially into the 2000s. In a 2003 study of arts coverage in large metropolitan newspapers, only 222 of the 2916 articles on music were about jazz, less than eight percent. Most of these stories would have been found in New York papers because of its active jazz scene, meaning most Americans get little coverage of current jazz. Because of the decreased media attention on jazz, the few stories Americans would read about jazz would have an overriding influence on Americans’ perception of the music. And since Neoclassicism is the dominant jazz philosophy and its practitioners like Wynton Marsalis are media-friendly, this conception of jazz would be the only one known by the majority of Americans, causing them to think of jazz only in Neoclassicist terms.
The biggest media coup for the Neoclassicists, however, was the ten-part documentary film series by Ken Burns, Jazz. When it was first aired on PBS in the spring of 2001, PBS’s primetime ratings more than doubled for each episode in forty-eight different media markets. Beyond the original airing, Jazz was a marketing phenomenon, featuring boxed sets of videos, DVDs, CDs, and a slew of best-of compilations from some of the artists featured in the film, many of which topped the Billboard Jazz Charts in 2000 and 2001. Jazz was in the national spotlight once again, as it had been in the late 1980s. And once again, the Neoclassicists were at the center of it all. Two of the major players in the film’s production and presentation were Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, a Neoclassical critic and ardent supporter of Marsalis. As consultants to Burns and interviewees during the program, Marsalis and Crouch effectively imbue the film with a Neoclassicist slant, spreading this philosophy to a large audience. Because this documentary brought jazz music and history to many viewers for the first time, the slant of the film had a significant impact on the audience’s perception of jazz, causing many to make to form an opinion about jazz for the first time.
So what makes such an untempered spread of Neoclassical philosophy potentially detrimental to the public perception of jazz? Firstly, the Neoclassicist view of jazz is too narrow to reflect the music’s true nature, giving the audience a false sense of homogeneity in the genre. In his article “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz,” musicologist George Lipsitz criticizes the biases in Jazz. Lipsitz’s first criticism is that the film has a limited temporal and geographic scope, suggesting that jazz could only have happened in 20th Century America, promoting the Neoclassicist idea that jazz is “America’s Classical Music.” In Jazz, the genre is depicted as a pure aesthetic, not permeated by other styles, therefore suggesting a set canon of the best jazz. The film goes so far to tell the audience to consume this canon through the companion books and CDs, and not to support contemporary jazz or jazz education. In Jazz, the genre is portrayed at having reached developmental maturity, with no important innovations happening since the 1960s. This view is made obvious by the fact that the last forty years of jazz were reduced to a single episode, a mere footnote to the real music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In this way, the film shows jazz to be a static, historical form of music, suggesting jazz’s irrelevance in the 21st century. This view is particularly detrimental to the perception of jazz by young people, as jazz becomes the music of their parents and grandparents, making it both boring and severely “uncool.” Casual, potential jazz listeners who went out and bought one of Jazz’s companion albums would be most taken by the poor recording quality of the original takes used, not the musical innovations present. Divorced from its cultural context, the jazz presented in Jazz is merely a memory, a history lesson. While Wynton Marsalis may say in the film that listening to jazz is good for Americans, telling them who they are, listening to jazz becomes the musical equivalent of eating one’s vegetables, and no one has to listen to jazz to be physically healthy. Quite simply, Neoclassicism takes the fun and enjoyment out of the music, alienating many potential listeners and once again relegating jazz to the backwaters of American popular culture, much as it was in the early 1980s.
In the time since the broadcast of Jazz, the genre’s popularity has decreased precipitously. In another SPPA from 2002, jazz’s gains in popularity throughout the 1980s and early ‘90s had largely been erased. In the poll, only twenty-six percent of responders said they liked jazz, down eight percent from 1992. Jazz radio listenership dropped by five percent and the percentage of those who listened to jazz recordings dropped by four percent. Some would argue that this falling popularity is due to factors other than Neoclassicism and the film Jazz. To many, jazz, with its emphasis on complex improvisation, is an inherently cerebral genre, making it hard for the average listener to understand and enjoy. This perception could account for jazz’s low popularity, but not its decrease, which would suggest that jazz today is more cerebral than in previous decades. This is certainly not the case, as the many Neoclassicist jazz musicians play music that sounds much like music from previous decades. Also, some would argue that the rise of new genres like hip-hop has pulled listeners away from jazz. Again, this could account for jazz recordings’ decreased market share, but not for the decline in people’s enjoyment of jazz; liking hip-hop does not stop someone from liking jazz. So, it seems that the pervasiveness and narrowness of Neoclassicist philosophy has played a commanding role in turning many Americans away from jazz, a philosophy emphasized by the Neoclassical music of Wynton Marsalis.
However, a person does not usually become a fan of a particular style of music by accepting an abstract musical philosophy, but by whether they simply enjoy listening to the music. Because of his media status, Wynton Marsalis has a creative platform from which to preach his Neoclassicist philosophy to a wide audience through his music. In this way, simply because of marketing and name recognition, Marsalis’s music is quite possibly the only kind of modern jazz non-jazz fans know. On his last major album, “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary,” Marsalis attempts to keep his music fresh and relevant by using it to offer social criticism. On the final track, “Where Y’all At?” Marsalis does something unexpected: he raps, in addition to playing trumpet. No governmental organization, social group, political event, and cultural icon is left uncriticized in the tune, from Fox News to the War in Iraq to Rap music to the Baby Boom generation. However, Marsalis’s attempt to make his music relevant to modern listeners through social commentary is subverted by the music itself. Instead of embracing a contemporary hip-hop groove, Marsalis raps over an antiquated, New Orleans-second line beat. The horn lines he plays in tandem with the tenor saxophonist hearken back to Dixieland. His muted trumpet fills combine a perfect replica of the intimacy of Miles Davis’s sound with the vocal quality of Louis Armstrong’s. In the end, Marsalis’s music reflects his Neoclassicist artistic philosophy, creating an amalgam of what he considers essential jazz styles. However, this mix does not make the music sound fresh and new, but rather a dated imitation of the old. To any casual listener, “Where Y’all At?” will sound just like an old-time jazz tune and the listener, who has no predilection toward jazz, will therefore dismiss it.
Fortunately, Marsalis’s rapping is not the only strategy out there for jazz musicians to relate to today’s audiences. Another performance practice that has been embraced by many modern jazz musicians is the covering of modern popular tunes. While Wynton Marsalis would decry this technique, as it is used by many smooth jazz musicians to make their music more accessible, this practice has its roots in the jazz tradition: most of the tunes played by Marsalis’s hero, Louis Armstrong, were the popular songs of his day. One musician that has helped reinsert this technique into the jazz community is pianist Brad Mehldau. Mehldau’s covers of modern pop tunes cannot be dismissed by critics like Marsalis as mere muzak because his playing is strongly rooted within the jazz tradition and uses the songs as vehicles for improvisation, not as cheap imitations of popular trash. On his most recent album “Live,” Mehldau plays a particularly stirring version of the 1990s Oasis number one hit song “Wonderwall.” Mehldau plays the tune like he would any other jazz standard. He begins by playing the composed melody, with some slight reharmonizations, common in renditions of jazz standards. He then solos over the form of the tune several times, returning to the main melody at the end. Underneath Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard play a jazzed-up variation of the original rock groove, just as bebop rhythm sections would play around with the swing rhythms of the popular songs they covered. Overall, the song is recognizable to the casual listener, a trait that will draw the listener in, not push him or her away. However, like any great performance of a jazz standard, Mehldau plays with the expectations of his audience during the solo, ratcheting up the intensity with virtuosic runs, but keeping the original groove and form readily apparent. As opposed to turning jazz into a commodity, which neoclassicist critics would accuse, Mehldau is extending the jazz tradition into the twenty-first century, making it relevant to today’s audience, and in particular, young people that know the original version of “Wonderwall” and the other pop tunes Mehldau covers.
Though jazz musicians like Brad Mehldau are playing both serious and accessible music, will potential listeners, turned off by the dated music of Neoclassicists and the more cerebral and complex forms of jazz, ever tune in? Defying the popular notion that jazz is dead, jazz has proven that it can still attract new listeners today, if it reaches the people where they are and is then publicized to a wide audience. A prime example of this is pianist Herbie Hancock’s 2007 album, “River: The Joni Letters.” Hancock’s album shocked the music industry by winning the 2008 Grammy award for album of the year, beating out more popular artists like Amy Winehouse and the Foo Fighters. With this free publicity, the album’s sales jumped almost 1000% from the week before the Grammys to the week after, sending Hancock’s album to the number five spot on the Billboard chart. Although no one, not even Hancock, expected “River” to win such an award, what is even more shocking is that “River” is no mere pop-crossover album (though it does pay tribute to a pop icon) but is rather a very serious jazz album and one of Hancock’s best in recent memory. However, by exploring modern pop tunes with a jazz mindset, Hancock’s album is also very relatable for a novice jazz listener that may not know Hancock’s previous work, but would recognize the tunes he plays. The album’s success shows that Americans will listen to serious jazz, if they know about it and can relate to the material, meaning a jazz artist does not need to dumb down one’s music to sell records. If jazz musicians received the same publicity as their rock and hip-hop counterparts, Hancock’s story would be much less of an anomaly, and jazz would not be discussed as a genre on the verge of collapse.
But even without such a fortunate combination of quality, accessibility, and publicity, jazz can still expand its audience through music education. While Neoclassicists recognized this importance and aggressively promoted jazz education, their narrow vision of jazz subverted any attempt to revitalize the genre with new and young listeners. For example, in a clinic for young student musicians, Wynton Marsalis disparaged rock and funk music after a student asked him about his playing in funk bands as a teenager, saying that “…there’s no way that that music is on the same level [as jazz],” potentially turning off that student to jazz. As music education has become increasingly common in American schools, jazz has the potential to reach many young listeners. While thirty-five percent of adult responders in 2002 SPPA mentioned they had taken a music class in their lifetime, ninety-seven percent of primary schools and ninety-four percent of secondary schools offer musical instruction. If jazz is integrated into the music curriculum, either through a jazz history class, or afterschool groups, the music will be spread to young audiences who are potentially more open to different forms of music than adults. But importantly, this jazz education must promote new music alongside the classics, and creativity alongside tradition, in order for it to be effective at teaching young people to love jazz.
Nowadays, jazz musicians frequently visit high schools to perform clinics, adjudicate competitions, or even just perform. Some musicians, like big band leader Gordon Goodwin, have made a career of catering to this high school audience by publishing their compositions for high school groups to play. His compositions are clever, fun, and in the jazz tradition, making them particularly adept at helping young people learn to like jazz. Goodwin’s recently popularity (his last album hit number six on the Billboard jazz record chart) stems from his devotion to education and reaching out to young audiences in a positive way.
Though jazz’s popularity and commercial prospects are on the decline, it is far from a dead genre. The fact that there is such a heated debate over the tenets of Neoclassicism suggests that there are a lot of people out there that care deeply about the music and its artistic and economic survival. Neoclassicists are well intentioned, trying to keep jazz both artistic and relevant, not sacrificing the music to the whims of listeners and instead trying to introduce Americans to the wonderful possibilities of jazz performance, just as Leonard Bernstein famously did for European classical music in America. Unfortunately, because of Neoclassicism’s narrow mindset of what constitutes good jazz and its omnipresence in the genre, it has unfortunately turned away listeners it wanted to attract, a classic case of trying too hard. In the end, it is not the audience’s knowledge of blues forms and bebop runs that will attract them to the music, but rather if the musicians can use their immense musical prowess in an expressive way, making music that the audience can connect to. Brad Mehldau does it through the playing of modern pop tunes. Guitarists like John Scofield and Bill Frisell do it by integrating the sounds of rock and roll. Pianist Robert Glasper does it by playing over hip-hop grooves. Jazz does not have to just be acoustic and feature swing rhythms. By integrating new sounds, new rhythms, and new material, jazz can remain a relevant force in modern popular music, and not become a dead stuffed elephant in an American history museum.