The 9% Solution
If I was indeed heading towards a point (and that's never altogether a certainty with me), it would be that while jazz may have to change in order to garner popular attention, the changes need not be pronounced nor far-reaching. We must simply understand how to manipulate the perception of our music so as to cause the masses to relax their guard against the unfamiliar. Well why the hell didn?t I just say so?
One of the defining characteristics of jazz has been its adaptability. You could drop jazz in the middle of Wyoming in the dead of winter, blindfolded and with only a can opener and four raw veal cutlets and it would not only survive, but come back to avenge its father's death and marry its high school sweetheart. Starring Tobey McGuire ( Spiderman ) as Blue Note founder Alfred Lion, Mila Kunis ( That 70's Show ) as Norah Jones, Norah Jones as Mila Kunis ( That 70's Show ), and Mitzy the Wonder Pony as Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White. Rated R for language, adult situations, and this one part where a guy gets disemboweled by a tenor saxophone.
It is not unthinkable that jazz should change, even if only slightly. In fact, it does it all the time. Jazz is about spontaneous invention, drawing from everything going on around it. You could release an album of six different versions of Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" and no two versions would be alike. The music exists in the moment, a snapshot of the instant of its creation. Compared to that, the burn-rate of the MTV attention span is interminable.
One of the primary faults of most jazz fans, myself especially, is the tendency to pick our favorite moment in jazz and stop right there. My own collection tails off right at the point where Coltrane's conversations with God started to get a little fuzzy (perhaps He was on a cell phone) and Miles decided that the idea of a trumpet as lead instrument in a rock band was just crazy enough to work.
We also get very defensive of our music, and very clannish when it comes to the influence of outsiders. We sometimes love to look down our noses and use words like "plebeian" and "bourgeois," all while throwing our shoulders out of joint patting ourselves on the back for how Not Like Them we are. And by "we," of course, I mean "you people."
I?m almost 96% certain that was a joke.
Seriously, if we perceive pop fans as 15 year-old girls with cable modem attention spans, they perceive us as snotty elitists who traffic in obscurity like Chik-Fil-A traffics in, you know, Chik-Fil-A (they?re 15 years old, they haven't exactly perfected the art of the simile). Here's where I propose a diplomatic option. As a duly-authorized representative of jazz (I am, after all, the Dean of American Jazz Humorists®), I would be willing to meet with a representative for 15 year-old girls, such as the preternaturally attractive Hilary Duff of TV's Lizzie McGuire. We could meet at this little Italian place in Salem called Mama Maria's, over chicken saltimbocca and a carafe of Chiantion second thought, maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea, having just consulted certain portions of the penal code of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Be that as it may.
Now that we know what the problems and difficulties facing us on both sides of the argument, perhaps it would be apropos to ask why there is an argument in the first place. Why would we want the sort of flash-burn hype lavished upon pop music, regardless of rationale? Why expose ourselves to the indignity of flavor-of-the-month status, the shallow and impatient notice of a group who apparently don't have enough concentration to dress themselves completely before leaving the house? All for just 9% of record sales, an ever-shrinking pie, the table scraps of an increasingly outmoded distribution system.
Gale Sayers, the great Chicago Bears running back, once said, "Just give me 18 inches of daylight. That's all I need." He wasn't bragging, he was that good. I'm saying that all jazz needs is 9%. That, combined with Sayers' 18 inches of daylight (he's not using it, he retired in 1970) should be enough to get jazz into the ears of even the most intransigent sort. Once there, all the tinselly blandishments of the temporarily fashionable will fall away and our music will do as it has done since the day jazz was invented by chemists at Eli Lilly and Company who were researching a cure for squareness.