It Don't Mean a Thing

Terry Teachout has decided to tell us that a recent NEA survey tells us that jazz is dying, and that jazz musicians must do something about it, namely market it better. Really? Gosh, thanks Terry. Now, you’ll permit me to call bullshit.

It all started with his article “Can Jazz Be Saved?” in The Wall Street Journal, his employer. Teachout tells the reader that the NEA results demonstrate that the jazz audience in America is both shrinking in size and also growing older, and that jazz must bring in younger audiences to literally survive. In a WNYC interview, Teachout is adamant that the NEW results are hard numbers, non-anecdotal statistical evidence that proves this. Well, no they aren’t. Just because something is a number doesn’t mean it’s real.

On WNYC, Vijay Iyer disputes this, pointing out that the survey shows an audience decline in all areas, and doesn’t parse out the jazz audience as being somehow exceptional. Also, the entire country is aging, so statistically the audience for anything would be aging as well. He is correct, Teachout’s interpretation is just that, it is a conclusion that is not directly supported by these numbers. The survey also marks not a trend but a difference to previous trends, i.e. something has changed but there is insufficient data through time to draw a particular conclusion. But another problem, more fundamental, is that the questionnaire (which you can see here), mentions the word “jazz” but doesn’t actually point out what it is. Since not many critics could identify jazz, we cannot assume that a randomly selected questionnaire recipient would be able to identify it either. This is not an idle point. If you went to see Cecil Taylor, or Joelle Leandre, or AlasNoAxis, or Allen Toussaint, or Francisco Aguabella, or John Scofield, did you see a jazz concert? Did you go to a club, or restaurant, eat and drink and listen to someone play? What the thing that is being measured actually is matters.

The fact is that since Benny Goodman started separating swing from dance music, and turning jazz into a concert and club music where audiences sat and listened instead of taking a turn on the floor, jazz began an economically difficult and aesthetically fruitful balancing of art and popular music. Jazz is many things, but for the past 70 years it has fundamentally been a music that seeks some popular audience through an essentially individual, introverted path. Jazz can be insanely grooving and exciting, and it still requires an artist to reach into themselves and explore, in an absolute and abstract sense, and offer that exploration to the audience. That it succeeds at all and grabs listeners is amazing to me.

I would argue that it is inevitable that jazz would become essentially a cult music. Music that not only includes idiomatic improvisation but is based on it offers a continuous challenge to audiences, which means that its audience will always be limited. Add to that the non-existent musical literacy in America and a commercial culture that is based on selling as much of something as fast as possible, and one should only expect jazz audiences to be small. Teachout is essentially wrong when he writes that “as late as the early ’50s, jazz was still for the most part a genuinely popular music . . . to which ordinary people could dance.” It was no longer a genuinely popular music, and those people who did dance to it were . . . the older audiences, that wished back to the days of jazz being defined by dance bands like Fletcher Henderson’s. So, the jazz audience has been aging, and jazz has been dying, for decades. And yet it lives.

The bottom-line in his argument is that jazz has become a high art and has thus distanced itself from audiences. Where have I heard that one before? To call this lazy thinking would be to too generously praise the effort that went into it. Jazz has gone through many changes through the decades but is not a palimpsest; it has accumulated ideas and possibilities, all of which are available to musicians. A Cecil Taylor performance is indeed a challenging concert of music, an Ornette Coleman one is deeply bluesy, one from Jason Moran is full or rocking and rollicking good times while a Bill Charlap date is for quiet, intimate thoughts and cocktails. Jazz is not one thing, nor are its audiences monolithic. Teachout sees only one audience, however, and that to me reveals a real flaw in values. He writes that “it is precisely because jazz is now widely viewed as a high-culture art form that its makers must start to grapple with the same problems of presentation” as other high culture institutions like museums and opera houses. Here the anecdotal wins out over the false-claim to statistical certainty; just because Jazz At Lincoln Center has institutional, including NEA, support (and Teachout himself has been the beneficiary of NEA support), and just because those concerts are the stiff, overly-reverent jazz-as-museum-object result of the baleful influence of Wynton Marsalis (himself anointed by institutions like the NEA and NPR as America’s Jazz Musician), does not mean that all jazz is like this; preserved, precious, transformations through accrual of patina of the wonderfully vulgar music of the past into High-Art-Which-Must-Be-Admired. I would expect this critic to see only that, and nothing else; the culture pages of The Wall Street Journal exist to offer possibilities for edifying diversion for the oligarchy of America, as the intellectual core values of the paper hold that material privilege and power must be held in the hands of a very, very few and any application of community thought, generosity, mutuality, etc. (Christian values, in other words), must be fought in every possible way. The Journal is a defender of people like Angelo Mozilo and Ken Lewis, who have done severe, material harm not only to people but to our nation’s security, and also of people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and Dick Cheney, who literally advocate violent harm of other human beings simply because there is opposition to their benighted values. If this is the ultimate line and logic of the institutions, then jazz should shun them, and do it itself – jazz is the original punk, DIY music.

So how could Teachout understand that there is, for example, an entire generation of young people who are making themselves musically literate, in a pain-staking way, and are finding their way through technology and music with relative mass-appeal, like Spring Heel Jack and DJ Spooky, towards things that are happening now in jazz? Because if jazz is High Art, Challenging Concert Music, then what are all those drum-and-bass beats doing on that new Steve Lehman CD. How did they get there? And why, when I go see Jordi Savall play, do his kids break out into a little contemporary jazz playing? A flawed report does not define a trend, and one man’s limited view of the world is not wisdom.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

2 thoughts on “It Don't Mean a Thing”

  1. Terry Teachout’s Twitter entry goes like this:From the sublime to the contemptible: breakfast in a Frank Lloyd Wright dining room, lunch in an O’Hare Airport departure lounge.

    How can anyone who draws this obviously aristocratic conclusion know anything at all about jazz? Hmmm?

    1. Well, the only things I’ve drawn from his tweets is that he writes boring tweets. However, his focus as a critic is on what is acceptable to a certain socio-economic class of American society, i.e. WSJ readers. He’s knowledge of and taste in jazz is exceedingly narrow and shallow, which means he’s not professionally competent to be writing about jazz in the paper or talking about it on NPR. Yet, he is!

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