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Book Reviews

Is Jazz Dead? Or Is It Just Pining for the Fjords?

By Published: October 5, 2012
Ted Gioia's Roadmap, or Just Hit The Road, Jack

It is clear that there are problems facing North American jazz and, indeed, jazz elsewhere in the world. If anything, the situation has worsened in certain key respects since Is Jazz Dead? was published. The decline in the sales of CDs has affected jazz extremely badly. The general decline in public enthusiasm for recorded music, or at least in a willingness to pay for it, has seen major labels cutting back on recording new jazz artists on the simple grounds that they cannot make a profit.

The big four—Sony, Warner, Universal Music Group and EMI—are shortly to become the big three, should UMG absorb EMI's music division. These are vast media conglomerates, not far removed from joint stock holding companies, with interests in all areas of entertainment, as well as in telecommunications, finance, electronics and computer technology. EMI is, for example, currently owned by Citigroup, a major force in the financial services industry, which at point of writing is seeking to sell EMI off to UMG. Warner Music is owned by Access Industries, a company with interests in chemicals and petroleum, as well as in media. Universal Music Group is owned by French company Vivendi, which is itself linked through two French TV channels to NBC, in which General Electric own 49% of the shares. In fairness to Nicholson, a number of changes of ownership of these companies have taken place since Is Jazz Dead? was published. However, this pattern of sell-offs, acquisitions and mergers is nothing new within the industry and to expect capitalist companies to continue to fund a marginal music like jazz, in so volatile a market, seems increasingly naive.

Nicholson offers two answers to this problem, public funding and a greater responsivity on the part of jazz musicians and those involved in its business to the wishes and desires of the consumer. We will come to the latter point later, but note in passing that Nicholson seems to be advocating a kind of niche capitalist solution based perhaps on the model of successful German labels such as ECM and ACT.

With regard to the question of public funding, even in those countries that have previously been willing to support minority arts, this is coming under increasing pressure, whether due to ideological considerations as in the UK or economic considerations arising from public debt, such as in Italy. In the context of the USA, the suggestion that public funds might be allocated to jazz appears utopian for several reasons. Firstly, both innovative and mainstream American jazz is already publicly funded—by German, Italian, British, Scandinavian, Australian and Irish taxpayers amongst others—just not by its own government. Why should the American taxpayer pay for something that the rest of us already are subsidizing? Secondly, American jazz has developed very nicely and, as we have seen, has continued to prove innovative post-1970. How would one, therefore, justify to America's political and economic elite and their opinion formers a need for such funding based on arguments themselves based on notions of importance of innovation and cultural diversity? Finally, Nicholson's proposal is utopian because it has no real basis in a political and economic analysis of American society. His position is essentially idealistic, in that it is ultimately based on a kind of act of faith that with the right (or rather left) people in positions of power and influence and the right (or, rather, left) kinds of argument these problems can be remedied. At no point does he ask whether power and its basis in economics might actually be the problem.

Nicholson's second solution is for jazz to embrace musical developments from popular music and other forms that are fashionable. Specifically he refers here to the emergence of vocal jazz, though here he seems very ambivalent about some of the artists he notes. Again, the conservatism of Nicholson's position is clear. His solution is for jazz to take on innovations from pop music to make it more relevant to music fans, young and not so young. However he presents it, relevance for Nicholson is about relevance to the consumer choices of the wider audience. That has nothing to do with anti-globalization but rather its opposite. The decline in the audience for jazz began some time ago. Previously it might have expected to attract those fans of pop and rock, who as they aged might once have "put away childish things." Instead, those fans cling Peter Pan-like to their youth. Others who might have come to jazz out of what we might call ideological-cultural reasons or curiosity have gravitated to other forms such as roots and world music.

Perhaps, then, one of the things that might be seen to have precipitated this situation is a crisis of relevance in the music. This does not lie in a gulf between jazz and popular forms and its solution will not be found in jazz musicians taking on aspects of popular culture. Rather, it will involve the jazz musicians, writers and fans reconsidering their positions on both those issues that Nicholson raises and those he ducks. His answer, sadly, amounts to little more than—"If we all 'glocalize' together globalization won't be so bad." That is not good enough. In its place, we need to communicate to its potential audience a vision of jazz as a socially relevant and radical music—a difficult and challenging music for difficult and challenging times.

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