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The Many Faces of Jazz Today: The Big Picture

Victor L. Schermer By

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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

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