Gaming Reviews, News, Tips and More.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Growing the Jazz Audience 'Can't Be Done.' Maybe That's Okay?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Look, I'm under no illusions about jazz music's unpopularity. I grew up playing jazz, went to school to study jazz, made a living as a jazz musician for a while out of school. Jazz is beautiful, jazz is the best. And people, by and large, don't care about it at all.

Here at Kotaku Melodic, I'll write about jazz sometimes. (See: This very article.) Every time I do, even when it's in the context of a great game like Grim Fandango, it's a niche post, something I'm writing because I had something to say. I've begun to joke that putting 'Jazz' in a headline is traffic-poison - since no one cares about jazz, no one will read.


"How do we make jazz vital once more?" is a question frequently raised by the jazz scene's various curators. The mission statements of many jazz educators' organizations, from the now-defunct International Association for Jazz Education to the still-fledgling Jazz Education Network, contain at good amount of the following mantra: By educating people, mostly high school students, in how to play and understand jazz, we are building an audience and ensuring the art form's future. Jazz education is not just musical education for its own sake, it's an investment in the preservation of an art form and of a vital piece of America's culture.

Of course, that's not the only reason we teach. Every jazz player was once a student, and therefore holds onto the belief that some of our students will go on to become musicians just like us. I taught jazz for seven years at a lovely independent high school in San Francisco, and in my time there, I saw a handful of students who were talented and driven enough to get seriously good, to go on to music school, to enter the beginnings of life as a professional musician.


But the vast (vast!) majority of students I've had were never going to become pro saxophonists, or pianists, or guitarists. They liked music, they wanted to play music during the day, but even after four years of Monk and Dameron and Mingus, they never really liked jazz. They didn't listen, they didn't care. My co-director Scott and I would beat our heads together getting these kids legitimately excited about playing jazz music.

Despite our best efforts, results were mixed. (I'll certainly allow that this was because we simply weren't very good teachers, but I don't actually think that was the case.) I should update to add that in terms of numbers, we were doing great—we tripled the size of our program in about five years, and had more kids than ever playing jazz at school. But did we create jazz enthusiasts, or did we just give kids something fun to do for a few years during high school? (And does it matter either way?)

As difficult as it is to get a friend or significant other interested in jazz, it's much more difficult to get a high schooler to care. Some people—including my own Indiana high school band director—have a gift for this, and it's remarkable. It's a demanding type of music to listen to; the sounds and textures are rich and often unpalatable, and the melodic language requires understanding to appreciate. When Sonny Stitt quotes Charlie Parker on 'Confirmation,' its a cheeky bit of historical riffing locked within a four-bar phrase. But it takes such a high base-level of knowledge to even notice that!

Over at NPR's terrific (though questionably named) jazz blog "A Blog Supreme", pianist Kurt Ellenberger has written an essay titled "'It Can't Be Done': The Difficulty Of Growing A Jazz Audience."


Given the preface and tone of his article, Ellenberger maybe should have gone with "The impossibility of growing a jazz audience," since when it comes down to it, that's where he's suggesting things stand. And he's got a point: the task of convincing modern listeners to get excited about jazz is Quixotic at best.

"When we ask 'How do we develop and maintain a strong jazz audience?'" Ellenberger writes, "what we are really saying is 'How can we convince millions of people to alter and expand their aesthetic sensibilities and their cultural proclivities so that they include jazz to such an extent that they will regularly attend concerts and purchase recordings?"


There's a lot of truth in that. Ellenberger goes on to point out that within that question lies another, even more difficult question: "How can we convince people to embrace music that is no longer part of the popular culture?"


That hits the nail on the head, I think, at least in terms of why modern audiences mostly don't care about traditional jazz. Jazz music is no longer relevant to popular culture—music has simply evolved beyond it, and like any outdated musical style, it's now the province of niche interest groups. (I realize this is an oversimplification, and that there are myriad other contributing factors to jazz's decline.) That's not to say that it is any less vital, lovely, exciting or fresh today than it was then—by its very nature, Jazz can never become stale or routine—but it does go a long way towards explaining why modern audiences are no longer particularly interested.

But you know what? Jazz's constant evolution is precisely why "How can we make jazz vital once more?" is in some ways the wrong question. As I see it, jazz has had no problem keeping itself vital—it's just that it's evolved beyond the musical paradigm we typically associate with 'Jazz.'


As Ellenberger sees it, we can't get audiences re-interested in jazz, no matter how hard we try. And I agree, at least insofar as we're talking about straight-ahead, piano/bass/drums/sax/trumpet jazz—short of a few outlying exceptions, it really does feel as though there's no way to get people excited about that again.

Can the reigning jazz cultural curators really hope to come up with a way to package this music in a way that will make it exciting and vital, that will circumvent decades of musical change and pop-cultural movements? Here's Ellenberger again:

That's a tall order that seems insurmountable. Frankly speaking, it can't be done, at least not as part of a prefabricated "strategy" to build an audience. You'd no sooner be able to create a sustainable audience base for jazz as you could for medieval plainchant. If a solution existed, wouldn't one of the thousands and thousands of creative artists, agents, managers and the many jazz collectives, societies and alliances have found it? I realize that this is not what anyone in the jazz community wants to hear, but I also don't think it is helpful to continue pretending that there is a solution out there somewhere, just waiting for us to discover it.


Yeah. The closest we'll come to a resurgence will be cultural aberrations like the swing-craze of the 1990's. But that obsession was surface-level at best. People who went to swing-dance balls and cut a rug to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy were enjoying being caught up in a retro zeitgeist, but they weren't all that stoked about hearing saxophone players navigate altered dominant chords. (Just guessing here.)

This all seems like a lot of doom and gloom. And I can't say that I disagree with anything that Ellenberger writes. When he reaches the conclusion that jazz musicians should remove "making a living playing jazz" from "being a jazz musician," I understand how he got there. When I stopped doing saxophone gigs for a living and started teaching, I found that I could focus on learning new instruments and exploring new types of music without constantly hustling for gigs and shedding tunes that I wasn't all that interested in or inspired by. (And hey, now I'm playing guitar and singing while writing about video games for living! Who saw that one coming?)


But there is one thing that Ellenberger doesn't really take into account in his piece, something I alluded to earlier. That's the fact that just as music has evolved, so too has jazz. He's right that acoustic bebop on traditional jazz instruments will never again rope in big audiences or lead to huge album sales. But jazz itself has diversified beyond that until it's essentially unrecognizable.

Today's jazz musicians (and jazz-program graduates) are versed in so many different types of music, from straight-ahead bebop to electronic trance to pop to heavy metal, that labeling them "jazz musicians" feels like a misnomer. Jazz may be the root of most modern musical training—it's where rock, hip-hop and funk all came from, after all—but to pretend that musicians who can play all of that music must or should make a living playing jazz feels like a narrow viewpoint.


Most of the working musicians I know make a living not by playing jazz, but by bringing their jazz training to bear on other more current or popular styles. And those styles certainly attract enthusiastic, passionate listeners. A bassist friend of mine tours with a number of terrific acoustic groups playing baltic and bluegrass-influenced improvisational music while accompanying a singer. A drummer friend toured with a great blues band for several years, and before that was touring with a successful experimental jam band. Horn player friends have wound up in horn sections for Muse and the Mates of State; a violinist I went to high school with plays with Esperenza Spalding. (Spalding is a poster child for the type of musical evolution I'm talking about—one of a cadre of musicians, like bassist Meshell N'degeocello before her, whose work is so fabulously far-reaching that it defies categorization entirely.)


All of these guys and gals can play the pants off of a jazz standard, and the music they're playing is demanding, harmonically complex and difficult, but with the exception of some of Spalding's more straight-ahead stuff, it isn't really "jazz," not by the standard definition.

One of the most successful local music outfits in San Francisco is the terrific Jazz Mafia, a collective of ensembles who all merge hip-hop with aggressively rhythmic jazz to make music that is vital, ripping, technically advanced, and fun. They sell out venues all over the city, and their shows are a party—while none of those players make an insane amount of money, I challenge anyone to go to a Shotgun Wedding Quintet show, get neck-deep in the audience, and still feel that the jazz audience can't grow. And that's just in SF—in dive bars and clubs across the country, similar fusions of rock, hip-hop and jazz drive modern audiences to come out, buy tickets, and go nuts.


All of this is to say that yes, I think Ellenberger is correct: The audience for jazz as he describes it isn't really going to get any bigger. There's nothing anyone can do about it. And it is certainly more difficult than ever to make a living playing jazz; not that it was ever really easy. But to say that jazz music begins and ends at the traditional jazz ensemble is to ignore the many ways that the music has evolved, the many ways that players have evolved alongside it, and the ways that listeners have evolved as well.

Viewing jazz education as a means toward growing an audience has always struck me as a somewhat misguided approach in the first place. Even if the student in question is not going to go on to be a legendary player, I prefer to think of 'jazz appreciation' as life-enrichment for its own sake—it will make their lives better!—rather than an effort to groom future concertgoers and album-buyers and ensure the financial future of the art form. That task falls to artists, not to educators; if we can't get people excited about our music simply by playing it, maybe it's time for a change anyway!


Audience enthusiasm for straight-ahead jazz may have reached a low point, but jazz itself is doing just fine—its influence can be heard all around us, in every kind of music, performed by players well versed in the jazz tradition and beyond. However we define it, jazz isn't going anywhere. It's just music, right? And music isn't going anywhere either.

(Top image | svetlin rusev/Shutterstock)