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Jazz Popularity and You

Douglas Groothuis By

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Ambassadors of jazz love to initiate souls into this wonderland of incomparable music.
Twenty years ago I read in a William Bennett book that jazz made up only 3% of the music market. I often lamented that when jazz came up in any of the classes I taught. I further wondered if that lamentable percentage included sales by Kenny G. If so, all the worse, since, as Pat Metheny said, G is either not jazz or very bad jazz. I opt for not jazz, since a necessary element in America's classical music is improvisation, and G merely has a backup band placed many feet behind him. But 3% percent! Something is not right in the world, thus jazz lovers should get to work for the common good.

Ambassadors of jazz love to initiate souls into this wonderland of incomparable music. I cast the spell in several ways. I often play "Alabama" by John Coltrane to illustrate the feeling of deep lament over the evil of black children being murdered in the civil rights movement. I also teach in a jazz spirit—mastering chops, growing big ears, and improvisation within a tradition—and have written about it at All About Jazz: Swinging in the Classroom. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis is the recording I recommend to students eager to behold the jazz pantheon. For a jumpier bebop, I suggest they listen to Giant Steps by John Coltrane.

Best of all initiatory activities is taking friends to Dazzle Jazz in Denver, Colorado. I act as a musical docent for my companions, giving background on the musicians and the tunes and by calling attention to the musicians' techniques and patterns of improvisation. We leave larger than when we arrived, and my charges always want to come back. We often do. I have a long list of friends I still want to accompany there.

And yet, after twenty years of jazz advocacy, I read in The Economist (July 30, 2016) that jazz now makes up but 1.2% of the music market. This was a sad fact in a fine story, which mentioned hip new trends in jazz, such as the work of Kamasi Washington, whose three CD release, The Epic, awakened ears last year. (You can count on The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to likewise report on jazz.) But the percentage is down by about 70%. Rap, so often soulless, sexist, scatological, and mindless, makes up 24% of the market. (The hip hop artist, LeCrea, is an exception.)

Once again, I find that quality is often not represented by quantity. In 2012, I took in four sets over two nights of Pat Martino's trio at the historic Jazz Showcase in Chicago. One of the sets had only 35 people in attendance, which left many open seats. I marveled at this. I had flown from Denver to Chicago to take in every note of his guitarist's guitarist and his stellar band, to sit in the front row of every set, and to even converse a bit with Pat and his organist. But the Giver of every good gift often must sometime leave gifts left unopened under the tree of life.

But the music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Pat Martino is there to be unwrapped, received, and savored. As Duke said, there are only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. Good music is good for people; it is a tonic for despondency, a reminder of beauty, and a place for human comradery within aesthetic excellence. I will continue in my unofficial ambassadorship whatever the numbers may be.


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