Friday, August 14, 2009

A Return Might Do You Some Good

I knew Terry Teachout (casually) when he lived in KC. Today he’s in New York, and an article he wrote last week for The Wall Street Journal is creating quite the stir. Titled “Can Jazz Be Saved” and subtitled “The audience for America’s great art form is withering away,” the piece can be found here.

The refrain is nothing new, despite the attention its Wall Street Journal locale attaches this time. Of course jazz is not popular music today. When Andy Kirk’s KC-based band recorded “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” it was the #1 song of 1936. 1936. Nearly three quarters of a century ago. Of course music has moved on since then.

Want more well known evidence that jazz is not popular music? For most of the 30 years I’ve enjoyed it, jazz has claimed about 3% of recorded music sales. Chicago’s web site touts the number of jazz fans residing in their town. Compare that figure to the total population of Chicago elsewhere on the site and -- surprise! -- it’s 3%. So, all together now, what percentage of music fans do we think are jazz fans?

Jazz is not easily found on radio. It’s featured in relatively few clubs. It must be discovered and then, like any music, will not be loved by many. Its day as popular music has long passed. But its day as a relic is nowhere near. All of this has been the case for at least 30 years. Developing jazz audiences is a challenge. That’s not going to change. Neither is it a revelation.

Here’s where Terry, in his article, gets it wrong: He cites figures from an NEA report on the decline in the number of folks attending jazz performances. But he neglects to also quote this sentence from the report: “There are persistent patterns of decline in participation for most art forms.” Or the figures that the percentage of U.S. adults going to arts performances declined from 40% in 2002 to 35% in 2008.

My conclusion would be that jazz is not immune to fewer people going out due to, oh, I don’t know, maybe the recession?

And here’s where Terry really gets it wrong: He writes, “...the average American now sees jazz as a form of high art. Nor should this come as a surprise to anyone, since most of the jazz musicians that I know feel pretty much the same way. They regard themselves as artists, not entertainers, masters of a musical language that is comparable in seriousness to classical music....”

Terry, my friend, I don’t know just what you’ve been exposed to in New York, but perhaps it’s time for a trip back to Kansas City. Because here you’ll rediscover the most open, most friendly and least elite family of jazz musicians you could desire. You’ll find -- just like when you lived here before -- extraordinary talent ready to welcome anyone and perform just about anywhere. You’ll find 92 year old Myra Taylor and 75 year old Alaadeen, and the spectacular young talent described in my last blog post, and a whole lot of people in between.

It’s not easy to develop an audience with a keen interest of jazz. I know of no better way than to expose people of all ages to the music then draw back those with whom it sticks. That was a key goal when I was helping to stage jazz festivals and the method is still valid.

But to suggest that jazz today is in worse shape in relation to other arts, or that jazz musicians all over are elitists, is not valid. That’s just plain wrong.

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