“Jazz is Dead!” That’s what we are told time and again by the media, music publications and the general public. To satisfy my own curiosity, I frequently ask people what they think of jazz. Many don’t know what jazz is, but they are sure they don’t like it.
As you can see looking around our annual conference, jazz is anything but dead, but what are we doing to not only preserve this great art form, but continue to grow our audience and the music itself?
Not so unlike its much older big brother, classical music, jazz appears most at home in academic institutions. Often our audience is comprised of other musicians and students of the art. Is it possible we have gotten so wrapped up in the academic aspects of the music that we have forgotten the role of the music in the first place?
Jazz exists to make us feel—feel happy, feel sad, feel excited, feel heartbreak, feel elation, feel anything. But for some reason, somewhere along the way, it’s almost as if we collectively decided that the music had a more important role than simply existing for enjoyment and betterment of the audience and the performer. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to identify what that higher purpose is.
It is not uncommon for jazz musicians to be accused of holding a lingering attitude of entitlement that they are owed an audience due to the countless hours of work required to master the craft. Listening to jazz and appreciating it requires an investment of time on the part of the listener. Instead of alienating our listeners, we really need to consider what we are doing to foster that required investment?
Those jazz artists enjoying the most success and widest reach of their music today understand that jazz is meant to be enjoyed and to allow the listener and musician to have an emotional experience. That doesn’t mean selling out or pandering with their music. In fact, many with the most visibility and success have also won critical acclaim.
It’s no secret that many jazz festivals no longer feature jazz. The headlining spots of these festivals have been filled by crossover, pop, or rock acts that can draw larger crowds. In a bit of a twist, this past summer I was able to catch Snarky Puppy at a concert. They were on the main stage of a huge festival playing for a massive crowd of thousands. The catch? It wasn’t a jazz festival. They were a headlining act on a pop festival, and you better believe the audience loved them.
This has been a year where our world seems so set on “otherization” of people who are different and perhaps see the world in a different way. This fear widens the chasm that makes the building of bridges toward community difficult if not impossible. In fact, we seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of this problem. Can the jazz community be the exception? Can we stop spending so much of our energy trying to define what is jazz and what isn’t?
JEN is a diverse community where inquiry, exploration and innovation are nurtured and encouraged to grow through education. We respect and accept all backgrounds that reflect love and passion for jazz, and we welcome interests and perspectives that reflect the diversity of the world.
It’s time to take jazz outside of the tiny, carefully-guarded box we have placed it in for so long. The beauty of jazz lies in improvisation. THAT is the connecting thread of the music. That improvisation takes many forms—ones that find their origin 100 years ago as the first jazz recordings were being made, as well as new forms birthed in the last few years, months and even minutes. That same spirit of improvisation—the ability to create and adapt on the fly—is what we need to do now to not only preserve our music, but also launch it to the forefront of our global culture.
I see a future where instead of simply taking its place as a dusty museum piece, jazz is once again culturally relevant. I see a future where audiences embrace the tradition, legacy and sound of the greats as well as groundbreaking jazz recordings of new music drawn from a myriad of styles. I see a future where instead of pop acts taking over jazz festivals, jazz acts make their way onto the main stages and headlining spots of pop and mainstream music festivals. I see a future where we don’t have to shy away from the word ‘jazz’ to describe our music because it might cost us the gig. I see a future where jazz continues to carve new ground, push boundaries, and evolve beyond anything we can even imagine today.
This article was an edited excerpt from JEN President Caleb Chapman’s speech to the 4,000 delegates of the 2017 Jazz Education Network conference held in New Orleans. )