The Many Faces of Jazz Today: The Big Picture

Victor L. Schermer By

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Now that I think of it, the bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius created events like this during Weather Report concerts. He moved around the stage and shifted his musical focus, disrupting the flow as a kind of personal statement. Some of pianist Uri Caine's startling unique performances have had the force of a disruptive event. Indeed, all the arts must allow for novelty and disturbance in order to flourish. Let's allow for these happenings. But somehow, we must find our way back to the center.

The Jazz Biz

Despite the egalitarianism of the musicians, jazz is a capitalist enterprise. Like any commodity, music must be bought and sold, packaged, marketed, and valued by consumers. That's the last thing I want to think about when I attend a performance, but it affects what I hear, and as an advocate for excellence, I need to be aware of the impact of business on the music. For example, in Philadelphia, where I reside, the number of jazz nightclubs has declined over time. That means I have fewer choices of what I can hear, and the musicians have fewer opportunities to play. It is a tight squeeze situation which limits the variety and scope of music available in a small, intimate setting which used to provide a space for a musician to get on the bandstand for creative woodshedding and stretching into new musical territory.

It is a testimony to its power and resilience that jazz remains vital and stimulating despite the decline in nightclubs, record labels, radio stations that feature jazz, and exposure to jazz in family settings like the home record player and radio. I think jazz thrives today because the musicians have begun to take matters into their own hands. They create their own record labels, and, with the help of business-wise fans, establish small clubs and in-home concert venues. They teach jazz in public schools, conservatories, and universities, stimulating interest in young people and mentoring aspiring players. With organizations such as Philadelphia's Jazz Bridge, they bring jazz to local neighborhoods. They find agents and public relations representatives who are dedicated to promoting them. A spirit of entrepreneurship has developed among jazz musicians and their fans that is compensating for the decline in opportunities that big businesses and large audiences provided in the past. Sonny Rollins' long-time public relations manager, Terri Hinte, sums up these developments as follows:

"Obviously the landscape is radically different today. Record distribution, retail, and radio are not the robust, competitive fields they used to be. Print media is much diminished. Labels themselves are fewer in number, leaving an opening for artists to function as their own labels, which can be a liberating opportunity but also a heavy, costly burden. Artists are now entrepreneurs, producing their own music, responsible for every aspect of package design, sales and promotion, distribution, and career as well as the music. Some artists welcome this challenge; some would probably be happier with an actual label performing these tasks—if only there were enough labels currently in operation to serve the music community."

These changes in the business aspect of jazz go back to the 1950s, when rock 'n roll and the so-called British Invasion (The Beatles, etc.) replaced swing bands and vocalists as the predominant form of popular music. Even top jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald had periods of trouble getting work. Work in Europe and royalties from record sales kept them off the bread lines. After that, the economics evened out until the New Millennium and digitalization set in.

As Hinte says, digitalization has created something of a crisis in the jazz world: "The main change in the jazz industry has been the rise of the Internet, and of digital music, and of so-called free music and free everything. How is this economic model sustainable?" If I want to buy a new car or lawn mower, I still have to pay good money for it. But, today, if I want to hear a CD that used to earn big bucks, I can stream it for free on the Internet. In the language of the economists, the "surplus value" (profit) of jazz music as a recorded product has declined sharply. This presents a crisis for creativity in jazz. Long hours dedicated to composing, arranging, and getting a group ready for a recording date net next to nothing financially for the musicians. The greatest jazz was formerly created by composers (George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk), arrangers (Tadd Dameron, Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer), and innovators (Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman) who earned much of their income from record royalties. Today, the financial incentive is towards tours and festivals delivering familiarity and excitement rather than the transformative effect on the audience that requires long hours innovating new musical expression. With important exceptions, the lack of financial incentive for time-consuming off-stage creative processes is homogenizing and compromising the music we hear.

Jazz Education and the Aspiring Musician

Even for the most naturally gifted musician, jazz is an acquired skill that requires many hours of practice and takes up a huge amount of time. I would estimate that the number of hours and years invested in becoming an excellent jazz musician is greater than the amount of training time for a medical doctor or an airline pilot. Jazz education occurs mostly "off-line," i.e. in ones home, on gigs, with informal mentoring, and just listening. Since the 1970s, the educational process has been formalized and institutionalized in schools and departments of jazz. Very few young musicians today sidestep the process of conservatory or university jazz programs. (By contrast, very few of the early jazz masters had a college education.) Today, formal jazz education is a natural result of the evolution of any profession: there is now so much to learn that it needs to be carefully organized for you in a planned program with a knowledgeable faculty.

Formal education puts the young musician in a difficult place jump-starting his career. Having invested in education and acquired great skill and knowledge, he has virtually nowhere to go! A doctor or a pilot can get a decent paying job at a hospital or an airline. A jazz musician has to find a group with some gigs, with an income that is totally unpredictable. Any job as an entertainer is like that, but jazz is one of the hardest fields to break into. It may take years before you find steady work. Sadly, many of the finest students in jazz programs spend several of the formative years of their lives preparing for a career that they later have to abandon.

Another difficulty with formal jazz education is that learning jazz in a classroom environment is quite different from developing a unique voice and approach. Too often, jazz departments encourage homogenization—becoming skilled in doing what others have already done. Saxophonist Bobby Zankel, who has devoted his career to innovation and creativity, advises recent graduates, almost in exasperation: "Take a chance, walk on the edge of the mountain, walk out on the ice." In the past, the mountain and the ice were on the bandstand where you showed your stuff or you were dissed by the other players. Four years of jazz classes isn't going to do that for you. To their credit, a fair number of the students in the jazz schools know that well, and they play gigs and interact informally with their peers and mentors while in school.

Immersion in formal jazz education is essential in giving the current and future generations of jazz musicians a strong grounding in the skills and knowledge base they need to succeed as jazz becomes a global and increasingly complex enterprise and art form. What is getting lost, however, is the development of the unique voices who make profound music that makes a difference. There is a point where, to become a potent force, a jazz musician must scuttle his ties to the shore and devote himself to a passionate search for his own musical truth. I know of no exception to that imperative in the history of jazz.

Taking action: Fostering the Future of Jazz

Thus concludes my sharing of impressions about the "Big Picture" of the jazz scene today from historical and contemporary perspectives. It is based on my fifteen years of experience as a jazz writer, listening a lot, talking at length to many of the musicians and entrepreneurs, and gleaning insights and information from the five interviews in "The Many Faces of Jazz: Critical Dialogs" series. Is my portrayal accurate? That is for you to decide. I'm sure there is research being done that is relevant to each of my points. And the musicians and fans certainly know what is happening in their own bailiwicks. Assuming I have said something valid and useful, others will voice agreement. Then, when we get our bearings, we have to ask, what can we do to help jazz thrive and flourish in today's fast-changing and complex world? I do believe there is a worldwide jazz community—that we are all connected in one way or another, especially with All About Jazz bringing us together. So what can we do? I can only provide a few suggestions that might stimulate your own thinking and sense of purpose.

In my opinion the most important thing we can do is really listen! That means going to the shows, not for just a quick fix of music and excitement, but with the intent of internalizing with our minds and hearts something that might affect and transform us. This not only supports the musicians on stage, but it creates an audience with good judgment and sensibility about the kind of music we want to hear. That in turn affects both the quality of the music and the economic bottom line, because we're going to choose shows and recordings that are of the highest quality, so that they will become more frequent and financially viable.

Second, we need to periodically go hear jazz that is unfamiliar to us: it might be a young player we never heard of, an older one who slipped by the cracks of fame, an avant-garde player, a big band performing the music of, say, Tadd Dameron, a singer who pushes the limits of improvising like JD Walter, a jazz opera like Daniel Schnyder's Yardbird Suite. Going for the unusual or neglected jazz experience stretches your own appreciation and encourages innovation while compensating for the "star system" which feeds the already well-fed high visibility musicians.

Third, we should encourage interest in jazz among young people. We could go back to the wonderful family experiences of listening to music together in the home! (Who does that anymore?) School teachers can play jazz to illustrate creativity, history, emotional intelligence, modern culture. Jazz musicians should donate time playing in the public schools. Those with sufficient space in their homes can host jazz events. In other words, we must bring jazz back into our daily lives where new generations will hear it and come to love it.


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