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What Is the Future of Jazz in New York?

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Being a jazz musician in New York City has never been easy. For most of its century-long existence, jazz has gotten by on the margins, and so have those who’ve played it. But the gloomy consensus last night in a panel discussion at the CUNY Graduate Center was that being a jazz musician in the city has never been harder.

“In every decade, New York has welcomed, housed and encouraged jazz,” said Gary Giddins, a former jazz critic for The Village Voice and the director of CUNY’s Leon Levy Center for Biography. Now, Mr. Giddins noted, that no longer seems to be the case.

Mr. Giddins was moderating a talk called “Jazz and New York: A Fragile Economy” in the Proshansky Auditorium. It featured the pianist Jason Moran, Motéma Music founder Jana Herzen and Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of the Tisch School of the Arts. The audience skewed old, white and male—a pretty good representation of the kind of listeners jazz attracts. (Make of that what you will.)

There are any number of reasons why jazz might not have the same foothold in the city’s cultural milieu as it once did. Venues, for instance, are disappearing, rents are rising, critics are being cut from newspapers and the recording industry is in flux.

Mr. Giddins pointed to particular periods when the city’s cultural infrastructure supported a thriving jazz scene, like the bebop era of the 1940s and the 1970s loft scene, an economically trying time for musicians but also an artistically rich one for music. (See Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D.) What was it about, say, the loft scene that fostered—and allowed—such creativity?

“It’s a real paradox,” Ms. Campbell said. “New York was on the verge of bankruptcy then, so there was abandoned real estate and artists could squat and lay claim to that.”

“The poverty of the city,” she added, “in an ironic way, worked to the advantage of artists.”

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