O Jazz Fans, Where Art Thou?

Trying to attract younger listeners, jazz is its own worst enemy. The Smith Center’s ‘Jazz Roots’ program provokes questions about how to turn it around.

Photo by Hernan Valencia

Illustration by Hernan Valencia

What the hell is that?

Hopscotching around the FM dial on the car radio several decades back, this pop-addled music lover happened across some dude named Dave Brubeck, pounding piano keys with the subtlety of a crane operator on some tune with a fifth beat tacked onto the usual four. Oddly … compelling.

“Take Five,” the announcer called it, which would explain that screwball 5/4 time signature, this discovery demanding further investigation that uncovered the Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk”—in 9/8 time.

Near-constant exposure—via casual clubs, gritty dives, street musicians, freebies in the park and only the occasional formal concert—followed for this listener, revealing aural treasures and pleasures from artists and styles throughout the wondrous world of jazz.

I felt invited in. I was 19.

How often does that happen anymore, at least to anyone not within sight of an AARP membership? How bubble-wrapped, vacuum-sealed, amber-encased—and flat-out exclusionary to young ears—has jazz become? Jazz lovers are handwringers over the genre’s survival, and its marginalization is culturally alarming. More than a historical footnote as an original American art form and progenitor of rock and R&B, jazz challenges listeners with a deeper level of expression, a safeguard against the musical infantilism of pop that threatens to overtake us.

Given that, is The Smith Center’s program for high school students called “Jazz Roots”—the latest installment of which happens January 17 in Reynolds Hall—a genuine step toward assuaging the apocalyptic-minded?

Let’s examine—first, the program, then, the problems.

“It’s such a delight to see these kids’ experiences onstage with some of these people whose music they’ve heard and have tried to emulate, it’s such a treasure,” says Candy Schneider, The Smith Center’s vice president of education and outreach.

Kicking off its Vegas version in April with vocalist Al Jarreau and composer/pianist Ramsey Lewis, “Jazz Roots” is a national traveling program. Created for performing arts centers by jazz producer Larry Rosen, it unites student musicians from local schools and noted jazz musicians and singers performing at the center. Attending the pre-show sound checks, the teens also participate in Q&A sessions and lectures and even improvise with the jazz cats, then cap it by going to the show.

Following Jarreau/Lewis were Brazilian legend Sergio Mendes and saxophonist Candy Dulfer in November. This time around, famed “vocalese” jazz group Manhattan Transfer, singer Jon Hendricks and the New York Voices will chat up about 130 kids from Durango and Rancho high schools, and the Las Vegas Academy.

“The first one with Al Jarreau, some of the kids brought their instruments,” Schneider says. “[Jarreau] said, ‘Who has their instrument?’ One kid shot his hand up and up onstage he went. [Jarreau] said to him, ‘Play anything you want, my guys will join you, they know everything.’ And off they went. For Al Jarreau to be scatting underneath what he was playing, it was picture-perfect, I was crying. It was magical.”

Encouraging future jazz players? Bravo!

Examine the larger picture, however, and one long-range question emerges: For whom will they eventually perform? How much is gained if you don’t put young fans—those who don’t want to re-create a Charlie Parker sax solo, but might learn to like hearing one—into the seats by providing them the same exposure? Without it, jazz is talking (and scatting and improvising) to itself, and no one else. Cultural suicide.

Referring to jazz education en masse, including college and postgraduate jazz programs, noted pianist/composer/educator Kurt Ellenberger took aim last year in the Huffington Post:

“After over 40 years of jazz education … we see no indications of a surge in supporters and fans, but we have seen a huge increase in the number of practitioners,” he wrote. “Hundreds of millions [possibly billions] have been spent on jazz education since 1970, but those untold sums did not deliver a sustainable jazz audience.”

Consider some stats, as reported by The Wall Street Journal: Comparing audiences in 2002 and 2008, the last survey by the National Endowment for the Arts shows the number of American adults who attended at least one jazz performance dropped three percentage points the music can hardly afford to lose, from 10.8 to 7.8 percent. As the audience dwindles it’s also graying: In 1982, the median age of a jazz concertgoer was 29. By 2008, it was 46. Even among oldsters, the numbers are nose-diving: In 2002, the percentage of people ages 45 to 54 taking in a jazz show was 13.9 percent, plummeting to 9.8 percent in 2008—a 30 percent plunge in a half-dozen years. Jazz in free fall? No new news there, and the music isn’t disappearing tomorrow, but neither is a fresh audience appearing. If you’re a fan … you’re fretting.

“[Promoters] say, ‘We’re reaching out to the jazz community,’ and I say, ‘That’s the problem,’” Rosen says. “‘You’re reaching out to 1 percent of the population. Why don’t you reach out to everybody?’”

Solid advice, but fixes begin with up-to-date analyses of music-consumer trends, and while he’s a major jazz impresario, Rosen’s is suspect. Exhibit A? This comment about teaching young people how early jazz contributed to the evolution of the music they listen to in 2013:

“You have to look at jazz as a wider spectrum,” Rosen says, “as when young people listen to Eric Clapton.”

“Young people,” at least as a group, do not listen to Clapton. Aging, balding baby boomers who get regular colonoscopies listen to Clapton. (No offense, Eric.) Clapton devotees are “young” only to those who saw action at Guadalcanal.

Fresh perspective is job one. Expanding “Jazz Roots” to include nonmusicians is a good goal as well. “Because this is such a new opportunity for us with kids who are searching and striving for this style of music, that’s the first choice,” Schneider says. “Once we have the program in place and can build up support , I’d love to bring kids who don’t know about jazz.” We’ll hold you to that, Smith Center.

Another aspect: Location. One survey called the Jazz Audiences Initiative, conducted in 2011 by the nonprofit Jazz Arts Group, pointed out that younger concertgoers are less open to unfamiliar music that’s formalized in a concert hall—say, Reynolds Hall, the site of the next “Roots” performance—where they have to shut up, sit still and listen. Informal, “socially oriented” venues, i.e., clubs or outdoor events, are apt to make them more open to exploring new sounds, rather than feeling they’re being force-fed their musical vegetables. At The Smith Center, that’s the Cabaret Jazz room or even Symphony Park.

Large-hall concerts also are often too pricey for teens and twenty-somethings, who cough it up for rockers and rappers they know are sure things, but not for music they consider a crapshoot.

Attitude—particularly the performers’—is also a factor. When viewed as cultural currency, jazz has lost a lot. Once the popular music of America, especially in the big-band era when people danced to it, jazz has assumed an elitist aura, becoming a boutique form—a “fine art,” alongside classical music and ballet.

Musicians largely boxed themselves in, no longer considering themselves entertainers, but artists. Many noodle introspectively on their instruments onstage, lost in their own zone of bliss, backs to the audience, confounding the crowd with musical navel-gazing. Concerts become about what they want to express, not what people want to hear. (Trace it back to that surly jazz genius, Miles Davis.) Jazz grew exclusive. Taken to the max, exclusivity breeds extinction.

Aggravating that are modern realities of shrinking attention spans and young audiences accustomed to vivid personalities and sprawling spectacle in their pop/rock live shows. Little patience is left for the quiet collaboration of a jazz quintet taking eight minutes to improvise around a Thelonious Monk composition.

Over the years, several black jazz musicians have spoken out on the necessity of reintroducing the music specifically to the black community. After turning rap and hip-hop into tent-poles of contemporary pop culture, they claim that reawakening jazz there through school programs—with reminders of how black jazz pioneers built the foundation for R&B, soul and rock—would energize pride in the genre. Jazz is regularly eulogized. Jazz devotees regularly ridicule the eulogizers. Jazz, they say, is still around, despite declarations of doom. Death, however, doesn’t have to come in one massive, cultural heart attack. Death can come from audience malnutrition, slow and withering, an inexorable clock to cultural flatlining.

Time for a wake-up call. Or at least a few intrigued teens, wondering: What the hell is that?

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