A Rebuttal: ‘It Can’t Be Done’: The Difficulty of Growing a Jazz Audience

It Can’t Be Done: The Difficulty of Growing a Jazz Audience is an article by pianist, composer, and music professor Kurt Ellenberger surveying the connection, or as NPR refers to it, the lack thereof, between jazz education and growing new audiences. 

This post took me a while to formulate because the advancement of jazz as a genre is something near and dear to my heart. It’s no secret the mass exodus of jazz students isn’t necessarily growing the jazz audience, but the idiotic notion that growing a jazz audience is near impossible is absolutely the kind of negative thinking that will surely doom the jazz genre. Cut the gloom and doom, and play.

Now as it will become apparent quite quickly, I disagree with most of what Ellenberger and NPR discuss in their articles and I’m going to do my best to briefly outline my reasoning behind this disagreement.

“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?”

I truly despise the word convince in this particular setting. You don’t convince millions of people to do anything. To me, convince in this case, more closely resembles coerce. It’s not like the intention here is to force people to see the error of their musical ways, and metaphorically ‘come over to the light.’ We shouldn’t be convincing anyone to expand their musical horizons. Your individual musical tastes are your own. We share music because we want others to hear it. Music is meant to be shared, to be enjoyed. Not to be thrust upon people like some sort of tyrannically mandated religion.

The problem that we as jazz lovers must address is finding a better way to allow fans of other musical genres to get a taste of the more digestible jazz and improvised music genre (or getting their feet wet) without being fully submerged in some of the more dense and less digestible aspects of jazz. Roland Kirk’s eccentric compositions irks even some of the most hardened jazz listeners, and that’s not even “out” music (in my own opinion). The problem oddity with jazz is that musically speaking, it’s fairly dense. This harmonic and melodic complexity often leads many to speculate that jazz as a genre is superior to others; a musical genre enjoyed only by those with the most sophisticated of taste and refined ear. While personal opinion may cloud an individuals belief, the previous sentence is both true and false (and yes, I’m quite aware of the principle of contradiction. What’s it to ya?).

I hate to break it to you, but jazz is not like caviar. To enjoy jazz, you don’t need to be the happy recipient of Bush era tax cuts. If you’re familiar with some jazz history, you’d know that it didn’t originate as the music of the elite. Though it would later be adopted as parlor music, to say that jazz itself was ever the music of the elite would be incorrect. A subgenre of jazz, yes, but the genre as a whole no. The diversity and varied musical elements of ‘jazz’  make the notion that jazz is somehow impossible to spread and relate to near laughable. Forgive me, but it’s complete and utter crap.

To expand a jazz audience, the first thing that must be done is to never stop playing. The suggestion by Ellenberger to restrict public performances because of dismal pay and poor attendance is both foolish and misguided. That’s not to say that I don’t understand where he’s coming from, but to stop the flow of live music is to cut the carotid of a living, breathing being; It’s suicide.

The venues just aren’t there.

Pre-recorded electronic music and DJs are quite a bit cheaper than hiring a full big band, or even some small jazz ensembles (except maybe DJ Pauly D or Skrillex). This, however, is only a problem in so far as a DJ is seen as a substitute to a live musical group. To this, many may respond “well, that’s how people feel today.” This is also, true and false. There is no substitute for live music. In jazz, this is especially the case. I could blame it on the economic depression our country faces and give the frequently used cop out and say that the arts are hardly comparable to commodities such as water and food, but that’s also not true to an extent. To some, that exhilarating experience on stage means more to them than anything: food, water, and sleep included. These people, for the most part, are the musicians I hope to direct this article towards. So, the venues aren’t there; Create them. The lack of venues performing live music doesn’t simply effect the musicians who so desperately need a place to perform. It also affects the individuals like myself who still *crave* that live setting. This is not an easy task, but it’s also not as difficult as it seems. There are many people doing just that. They’ve found a gap and filled it. If you can’t find performance opportunities, create them.

For jazz to survive, it must be allowed to live beyond the institution. Jazz education is great, but what’s the point when the music itself is institutionalized? Beyond college and university walls, jazz lives and grows. If we allow it to shrink from clubs and performance halls and crush creativity and originality in the name of tradition, what are we left with? The same old stuff.

Tradition is important, but not so important that we discourage others from carving their own way. Every musical genre must have room to grow and evolve. This is how you allow others to enter in. And jazz as a musical genre has evolved quite a bit. Currently, there are far more sub-genres  than I care to name. By crossing over into other music styles, we allow others (who may not originally have thought they enjoyed jazz) to experience something new, something exciting, and something strangely familiar.

The Nazi-esq purification frequently found in jazz, is one of the first things that should go. Arguments that include the phrase “that isn’t real jazz” should be stricken from our vocabulary. There are plenty of artists combining jazz music with more modern, pop sounding music all the while paying homage to the greats before us. The notion that tradition must be upheld at all costs, is at best an embarrassing little problem and at worst, costing viewership.

I do agree with Ellenberger in that we must seek to engage with popular culture and that it must be occur in an “organic, visceral and culturally relevant” fashion, but that’s about all I concur with. There is a solution, and it’s simply to let listeners in. Make it a hospitable environment. I’m not asking for you to skimp on musical quality or sacrifice the moral principles you hold dear, just be willing and open to other musical forms. Allow for others to enter into your musical world. This will not solve the economic crisis nor will it make you a millionaire, but it will get others interested in what you have to share.

If you don’t believe me, check out Search and Restore.

2 thoughts on “A Rebuttal: ‘It Can’t Be Done’: The Difficulty of Growing a Jazz Audience

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