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

Walter Kolosky By

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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.


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