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Searching For Jazz City - The Case for a Jazz Repatriation Movement


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I've read about a hundred articles over the years proclaiming the imminent death of jazz music. I'm truly sick and tired of them. (Perhaps I should stop reading them). Now, don't get me wrong. I do believe that America's jazz culture is dying. But these journalists never offer any solutions. Years of these gloom and doom stories have moved no one to real action.

Certainly there are dedicated people trying to preserve what is left of our jazz culture. Those in this noble fight depend upon grants, donations and volunteers to help them further the cause. These sources are running dry. Just preserving our jazz culture is not enough anyway. It is time to take a new much more aggressive attitude.

Considering all the problems facing America, the future of jazz music probably isn't even on most people's radar screens. However, the demise of the jazz culture in this country is a sad tale. Its loss will have important historical and cultural significance. The slow death march of America's jazz culture is treated much as the U.S. deals with global warming. It's being talked about it, but nobody is really doing anything to stop it. This is just not a jazz-lover's issue. There are good reasons why all Americans should care about the eventual loss of their country's jazz culture, and not the least of these reasons is simple patriotism. It's popular to be patriotic about the battle against terrorism, war and the economic downturn. It should be just as patriotic to care about the art your country offers to the world.

While jazz music itself still remains a vibrant expression in many countries, the only true art form this nation has uniquely presented to the world faces an uncertain future inside its own borders. The well known social commentator and scholar Gerald Early once suggested that two milennia from now, jazz music will be one of the few things that the United States will be remembered. Unless some action is taken, however, Early's words will prove to have been only those of a hopeful jazz fan.

The foundations of jazz are actually of great significance to America. Jazz was first born from the turbulent social and musical clashing of African Americans and immigrant Europeans. Clearly significant negative racial issues swirled around its evolution. To many at the time, the mere thought of whites and blacks playing music together was heresy. But it was this collision of cultures that provided the fertile breeding ground for the creation of jazz music and even helped shape America in the early 20th century. Long before other segments of American society, the jazz world helped bring racial integration into the country's fabric. The chaotic birth of jazz represented American vitality. The history of jazz music in America is literally what people mean when they talk about "the great melting pot."

Jazz music has a deep cultural importance as well. This art form is admired the world over. Hundreds of thousands of jazz fans, including Americans, travel to the great jazz festivals in Asia, Europe and Canada every year. In the past, jazz ambassadors, such as Louis Armstrong, have represented America and traversed the world on goodwill tours. The Voice of America has broadcast its sounds behind the old Iron Curtain through the play lists of the late jazz proponent Willis Conover and others.

Jazz is one U.S. export that is almost universally welcomed. To let such a resource virtually disappear would be yet another foreign policy blunder. Make no mistake about it: jazz music is a natural resource. If you are looking to understand why other some other countries ridicule American culture, you need look no further than our failure to protect our own jazz legacy. We have virtually allowed Europe and Asia to steal it. In fact, we have given it away.

We all know why the jazz culture is dying in America. It is all about money. Record companies do not nurture and develop jazz artists, with very few exceptions. It is much cheaper and safer to re-release older jazz material or to spend promotional money elsewhere. Due to the redistribution of this money and the very limited radio play jazz music receives as a consequence, sales of jazz recordings have been steadily declining to alarmingly low levels for many years. It now represents around 3% of the market—and who knows what lies ahead. People don't buy what they don't hear.

Meager record sales are not the only sign of a declining American jazz community, however. Lagging attendance at so-called jazz events and concerts due to the lack of good venues or marketing is also a problem. This unfortunate situation has actually forced many great American jazz musicians to move to Europe or Japan in order to find work. This is shameful.

In America, despite the well-meaning intentions of some jazz producers, no great or important jazz festival can be found. Europe and Japan produce the finest jazz festivals, drawing hundreds of thousands of fans. In North America, the Montreal Jazz Festival is a wonderful example of what should be happening in the United States. Inexplicably, the American music business has never figured out how to market its own music. The fact that an American has to travel outside the United States to attend a decent jazz festival is a national disgrace.

Some other factors also contribute to the jazz slide. The U.S government does not adequately fund the arts, cutting down on recording sponsorship and concert opportunities for performers and new audiences. Jazz and many other artistic endeavors suffer. Following the federal government's lead, local school committees have been eliminating music programs due to financial constraints. This limits the music appreciation youths may obtain from listening to jazz or classical music. In Europe and Asia, governments and companies quite regularly provide major funding. Perhaps art should not be entitled to government subsidies. This is a philosophical and a political question: here in America, like it or not, commerce comes before art.

Some have even said that jazz music itself has lost its vigor. Recently, Blue Note Records CEO and producer Bruce Lundvall, who has been in the forefront of promoting jazz music for many years, suggested part of the problem is that young jazz musicians are not providing anything new and interesting for fans to get excited about. As strong and important a proponent of jazz that Lundvall has been—and he has been a giant—he is off the mark. The fact of the matter is that the recording business itself, forced by its desire to make profits, has created an atmosphere in which young jazz musicians have virtually no chance of getting a recording contract unless they are female and physically attractive. (Even then, these women will eventually be musically corrupted and stolen away by bigger record companies and made into pop stars). The music these companies release often bears little resemblance to the creative tradition, straddling boundaries with plastic pop and nestling in the easy listening zone. There is actually an awful lot of creative jazz still being played in America. It is just not finding enough ears.

For the past decade, music writers have made many of the previous points ad nauseum as they lazily churn out story after story. (It is interesting not note that these writers seem to take a very parochial view of the issue. They assume that if jazz is dying in America, it must be dying around the world). Rather than complaining about the direness of the situation, let me suggest some thoughts which could help change the perception about American culture, further the jazz music cause and even cater to America's need to make a buck.

We need to create a new jazz industry that honors its roots, but more importantly, enhances its artistic future by improving the financial awards associated with it. If you can't beat the system, why not join it? Let's make jazz profitable. It is the American way. It's not too late to start a new tradition in American jazz. It is time we stopped lamenting the situation and made an effort to re-establish America as the true home of jazz! It can be done.

A "jazz repatriation" movement consisting of concerned jazz proponents is needed to prove that our jazz culture is strong. It would take several hundred like-minded and dedicated jazz fans, educators, journalists and business people to plant the seeds. This repatriation movement would grow to consist of all jazz lovers and those who see the importance of saving this great American heritage and helping it to thrive in the future. Its mission would be to revive America's jazz culture through a campaign to locate a town or a city in America that is willing to become the new center of a profitable American jazz business community.

Think Orlando! Think Las Vegas! Okay, okay, you're right. Those cities are too big. Think instead of Solvang, CA, a town known as the Danish Capital of America. The entire town is based upon Danish architecture and culture. It exists for tourists and draws thousands of them. Think Williamstown, MA, host of the wildly popular Williamstown Theatre Festival. Avid theatergoers have made their homes there and many more flock to this Berkshire city to be part of its exciting theatrical productions. Williamstown has only been presenting plays for about 40 years, but it is now one of the most important theatre towns in America.

The commercial and artistic identities of such towns as Solvang and Williamstown, and many others across America, derive from the commercial successes of the tourist industry. I am suggesting that a page from their playbook be stolen and we search for and create such a Mecca for jazz. The goal of this Mecca, Jazz City, would be to create a working artistic and business environment that would foster the lives and works of an exciting community of jazz lovers for generations to come. Participants would include musicians, teachers, students, fans, writers and publishers, music schools, music stores, recording studios, club owners, restaurateurs, motel and hotel owners and all of the ancillary laborers associated with tourist destinations. Its economy will be based upon servicing its own jazz business population and catering to tourists.

Envision a tourist city in which the number one pastime and business was jazz music of all types. The business in the stores, the bars and restaurants, the streets and the parks would center around jazz. In fact, the city's streets and parks would be named after famous jazz players. (Go down Dizzy Street. Take a left at Coltrane Corner). Statues honoring the international jazz greats would also grace the landscape. Jazz film and art festivals would be held. Jazz lectures and debates would be presented. Jazz City would have its own jazz radio stations. Visitors would be awash in the sounds of Kansas City, Chicago, Swing, Bebop, Modern Jazz and fusion music. Jazz City will become a beacon to jazz lovers from all over the globe.

Such jazz institutions as the Berklee School of Music and The Manhattan School of Music could establish satellite locations in Jazz City. A rented house, a few professors and some students would be a good start. Not every jazz student wants to travel to Boston or New York.

Small independent jazz record labels, doing business on the Internet or through direct mail, could set up shop and help to rejuvenate an ailing jazz recording industry. Jazz City could eventually grow to the point that it would support larger events. Every week there could be a jazz festival and once a year there could be a major jazz festival week, better than any in the world, featuring all of the great American and international artists. After some years, as the reputation of Jazz City grows, it could begin to send its own homegrown stars out on local, national and international tours.

Jazz City will become the destination that every aspiring jazz student or performer and every jazz fan wants to visit and spend some time and money. Younger jazz musicians would travel to Jazz City to be where it is "happening." Older jazz musicians would begin moving to there to retire, entertain and to teach the youngsters. Imagine the music that could be created from such a stew!

It certainly required a great financial investment to build Las Vegas and Disney World. But, Jazz City, like Williamstown, would not be burdened with such a huge constraint. The infrastructure of an existing town would greatly lessen the investment requirements. There probably won't be many millionaires made in Jazz City, but there will be plenty of people making a living doing what they love. Is that not the American Dream?

What type of city would be a candidate for becoming the new home of jazz in America? The usual suspects such as New Orleans or New York City should be ruled out. In fact, all large cities, no matter what their historical contribution to jazz may be, should be ruled out. There are too many other things going on in those places. Jazz City has to be mainly about jazz. And besides, it's too damn expensive for struggling jazz musicians to live in the big cities anyway. Let's give them a break and find a place that they can afford!

Hundreds of ideally located towns or cities that could use an infusion of artistic excitement and commerce. Many towns have lost industry and have far too many empty buildings. Why not fill them up with art? Why wouldn't some of these towns be willing to offer tax incentives to lure businesses? Many industries are constantly being given beneficial tax breaks by communities seeking jobs for their citizens. America has many such "industry" towns. Let's give it another.

Jazz City will never become as large as Orlando or Las Vegas. Jazz has never been a dominant entertainment in America and it never will become one. But, town leaders interested in raising their town's profile by protecting and nurturing America's jazz heritage should look forward to a gradual and manageable growth that will have the added benefit of soothing its musical soul. While it is never too late to start a tradition, it does take time to build one.

So now I signal a call to arms for all citizens, jazz historians, fans, educators, business people, writers and musicians. Let's stop analyzing and complaining about the loss of our music. Let's keep sharing it with the world. But let us also re-establish America as its true home. Let's create a Jazz Repatriation movement. Start the search for Jazz City. A thriving Jazz City would show the world that this country has pride in its artistic contributions to mankind and is not willing to abandon them.

America's jazz culture is a valuable and renewable resource. Let's renew it. When you really think about that, it's the patriotic thing to do.

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