Eat Worms Or Be Loved
It's a big question and demands a big answer. In fact, it's two big questions. Has jazz gone horribly wrong? If it has, how can it be fixed? For the sake of the rest of this article, I'll answer the first question in the affirmative. But please note this caveat: my opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the entire UK jazz community, despite what many people think.
As Private Fraser Would Say, "We're All Doomed."
Yes, it has gone wrong. Terribly wrong. Jazz is no longer America's Number One Music (if, indeed, it ever was): jazz acts no longer appear on top nationwide TV shows, although Robert Glasper managed to pop up on the David Letterman and Jay Leno shows in the same month; clubs are closing across the globe; fees are down; CD sales are plummeting; sheet music sales are in steep decline; and piano roll production has almost ceased.
In the UK, BBC Radio 3 has shuffled a couple of its jazz programs about: a move that apparently ranks with Thatcher's destruction of the British mining industry in terms of its impact on the social fabric of the country. It's cancelled the venerable Jazz Library and both moved the timeslot for Jazz Record Requests and changed its presenter, with Jazz Library's presenter Alyn Shipton taking over Jazz Record Requests from Geoffrey Smith, who gets a new show titled Geoffrey Smith's Jazz. In other words, the amount of hours Radio 3 devotes to jazz is apparently unchanged, it's just that one presenter is now on later in the evening and the other is on earlier.
Jazzwise magazine described the BBC's plan as a "disheartening move that will dismay jazz fans": a description that seems to suggest that said fans are unaware of the Internet and the marvelous iPlayer, which may well be true. As someone who rarely listened to either showalthough I always loved the notion of record requests in this digital ageI must admit to a lack of both dismay and discouragement. Jazz-loving DJ Gilles Peterson left BBC Radio 1 recently, a move that may well mean Radio 1 stops playing jazz altogether. I'm much closer to being dismayed by this than by Radio 3's shuffle; even though Peterson is still playing jazz on BBC radio he's moved to Radio 6 Music, a digital-only station with a much smaller listenership than Radio 1.
Faced with such grave problems, certain sections of the jazz communityincluding some who deny such a community's very existencehave rallied to the cause. Tired of being creative, informative or entertaining they are devoting their energies to enthusiastic discussion of the place of jazz in the wider social milieu, its role in shaping the prevailing zeitgeist or, even more excitingly, to questioning the validity of the very word "jazz." I must admit, I'm gripped by any discussion of a prevailing zeitgeist, but I'm not convinced that such a debate is doing much to engage with the potential jazz audience, or with potential jazz musicians.
For the sake of simplicity, I'll avoid adding my two pennies' worth to these debates. I'll accept that "jazz" is a valid term and stick to my own straightforward definition of the musical genre in question: "a form of music that combines the many talents of its performers and composers with the apathy and disinterest of the bulk of its potential fan base." Little to argue about there, I feel. But how can this apathy be dealt with? It's simple.
Jazz Is A Piece Of Cake
"Nobody loves us, everybody hates us, just 'cos we eat worms." So, slightly paraphrased, sang '70s Brit-punk band The Yobs. It's a sentiment that we can all share and a neat summation of the Jazz Conundrum. Eat worms, or be loved: there is no middle ground.
No artistic pursuit was ever loved because of its technical complexity. Admired or respected perhaps, but never loved. Art is loved for what it brings to the lives of its audience. So let's forget about the "jazz is really difficult" angle. Let's stop putting so much emphasis on the travails of the musician, the complexity of the compositions, the sheer life-threatening risks involved in playing a small cellar club in Cleckheaton. Let's remind people how easy jazz actually is: to listen to, to participate in, to talk about and to enjoy.