Deciphering Culture

Regenerating jazz?

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There is a lot of talk about the need to regenerate jazz and bring back the audience it has lost (a recent NEA study documents the dramatic aging of the jazz audience). Just take a look at the website of the Jazz Audience Initiative (of the Jazz Arts Group), one of the projects investigating the fading of jazz from the American cultural landscape.

Why is this Work Necessary?

Relatively little research has been done on jazz audiences and what they value. We know that jazz audiences are aging, jazz media outlets and festivals are fading, jazz organizations are struggling, and jazz musicians are overly burdened. In addition, the jazz field lacks meaningful opportunities to network and learn as a professional community.

But maybe the problem lies somewhere else — in assumptions implicit in the suppositions of this problem statement. I think a statement by Cicely James, author of the book The New Face of Jazz, in an NPR interview is instructive:

…I came to realize that hardly anyone I knew (and I consider my circle of friends to be well-educated and very cultured folks) could name a single player alive and well on the jazz scene today, I knew something had to be done. As a reader, I was also frustrated with the endless supply of books out there on Coltrane, Miles, etc. Why do we keep hashing their lives over and over again and ignoring the Coltranes of today? We’re allowing jazz to pass up this generation and the next ones by revering the past as if it’s the only period in this art form that matters.

How can a musical style stay vital if it is defined (and perceived) as being in the past? Let’s take an abbreviated, and admittedly cursory look at the history of the creation of this perception of Jazz. Many mention a 1988 opinion piece in the N.Y. Times What Jazz is and isn’t by trumpeter Winton Marsalis as significant. In this piece, Marsalis argued for a narrow definition of jazz that would place many “jazz” players outside of the tradition. Disgusted trumpeter Lester Bowie responded, “If you retread what’s gone before, even if it sounds like jazz, it could be anathema to the spirit of jazz.” Bowie was one of many critical voices but Marsalis’ opinion held more sway, particularly after the success of Ken Burns’ PBS series Jazz (Marsalis was the executive producer of the series). Beautifully done, Jazz became influential in creating the current perception of Jazz as America’s Classical Music. I must confess that I’ve used it in university classes on Jazz history but innovators (after Miles) and iconoclasts have little place in the history it presents. And where does that leave the current crop of innovators and iconoclasts. Jazz has always been busy reinventing itself — at least until now.

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 21, 2010 at 8:41 pm

One Response

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  1. […] Is the future of jazz in its past? THIS IS AN ADDENDUM TO AN EARLIER POST ON DECIPHERINGCULTURE.COM: Regenerating Jazz […]


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