Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hard Times for Jazz Music

A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that jazz audiences have been getting smaller and older, and Terry Teachout pondered the reasons for these stats in a Wall Street Journal article this weekend.

Jazz is now considered a serious art form, but this new status has come at a cost according to Teachout, alienating popular-music audiences that skew young. Once a part of everyday cultural life for the hip, jazz is now a stuffy museum piece, one that shares the problems facing orchestras, museums, and other high-culture emporiums.

Comparing jazz to classical music, I'd say that jazz faces a distinct problem: most of its major art works are recordings. Although there are umpteen-thousand excellent recordings of all major classical pieces, orchestras can always pitch the live performance as the most authentic experience possible of the score. (Whether they do this well or not is another story.)

Jazz presenters, on the other hand, can't present a performance of Kind of Blue; the recording itself is the classic. A similar problem, of course, faces rock music. When recordings are the art works, the live performance simply becomes a celebrity sighting or a nostalgia trip, and new releases never seem to match up to their esteemed precursors.

Teachout doesn't pose any suggestions on how to reverse the trend, but he does note that jazz needs to start from scratch, presenting it anew to intelligent, young people. I would suggest that part of this process should be to make a case for their music as a fresh, live event, distinct from the imaginary museum of recorded jazz masterworks.