In his article “Can Jazz Be Saved?” from the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout poses a question about the potential death of the art form of Jazz. A well thought out read the article highlights the decline in both age and frequency of jazz concert-goers and album buyers, and speculates that jazz may very well be in jeopardy of struggling for funding and a listening base as it is most likely being viewed as a higher art form akin to ballet and opera.
Mr. Teachout makes some great points in the article and I’d like to expand on his thoughts. Take for instance this excerpt:
Jazz has changed greatly since the ’30s, when Louis Armstrong, one of the supreme musical geniuses of the 20th century, was also a pop star, a gravel-voiced crooner who made movies with Bing Crosby and Mae West and whose records sold by the truckload to fans who knew nothing about jazz except that Satchmo played and sang it. As late as the early ’50s, jazz was still for the most part a genuinely popular music, a utilitarian, song-based idiom to which ordinary people could dance if they felt like it. But by the ’60s, it had evolved into a challenging concert music whose complexities repelled many of the same youngsters who were falling hard for rock and soul.
Reflecting back on this time period we recognize the 1930′s and Louis Armstrong marking the beginning of jazz as a new type of music. Back then, while the music may have been labeled as jazz, it was simply the popular music of it’s day. Is Louis Armstrong appearing alongside Mae West any different than J. Lo appearing alongside Ben Affleck? Granted the talent isn’t comparable but certainly the relationship is very similar. These days we see loads of popular musicians on TV, in films, and even launching their own product lines.
Let’s also consider where Mr. Teachout marks jazz beginning to repel youngsters. Was it really that young listeners hated the sounds of jazz, or was it because they were moving on to the next big thing as the jazz listeners of the 30′s had moved from classical through dixie-land and onto jazz?
Something else to consider is the very basic principle that a lot of jazz, even today, is based on standards; songs from musicals and songwriters from the time period of jazz’s highest popularity. These standard tunes are repertoire to every jazz player alive and are played with and explored regularly, but part of jazz’s issue may be that we’re not looking for new standards. Most of the standards were considered ‘old’ in the late 60′s to rock’n'roll’s youthful listeners – how are we to expect today’s youth to bond anymore closely, if at all, with those same tunes?
Perhaps jazz will see a resurgence when more artists go the path of using some rock’n'roll songs as standards. A few artists that come to mind doing this now are Norah Jones, Kurt Elling, and The Bad Plus who draw on everyone from David Bowie to The Zombies to Nirvana.
So in the end perhaps it isn’t that jazz needs a new pitch, but the same pitch with different repertoire. A retooling of the jazz standard catalog may be just what the genre needs to stay alive, and potentially even thrive like it once did.