(Note: I'm trying to start blogging again, but that means I may not write all that well at first, so please check back for edits and corrections often, and comment if I am out of line, or just spelling things wrong... or even if you agree.)
While I've been away making a living and pursuing my other career as a yoga teacher, the jazz blog explosion of the summer came when Terry Teachout wrote a dismal prognosis on the state of the jazz scene, based on a census survey about who listens to what. Kelly Fenton wrote a nice summary with links, and Darcy has continuing coverage over on his blog. I've followed this debate with only one eye, and don't want to restate the obvious, but I had a few random thoughts that I hope are useful:
- There's been a lot of back and forth about the methodologies of the study Teachout mentions, and I'm not competent to get into that. But what I see from the commentary critical of Teachout speaks to the perceived (often anecdotal) health of the scenes in various towns. In what I see from friends online and in person, there are certainly strong scenes in cities like NYC (duh), Boston, Portland, Seattle, and Chicago. (All of the above would qualify as the bluest of "blue cities" politically. Coincidence?) I would be interested to hear about the state of scenes in smaller cities with strong scenes historically that aren't exactly media hubs or perceived as cultural centers, and may politically run "purple or red"- places like Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Kansas City, Atlanta, Cleveland, etc. What Sarah Palin calls "real America"- and I'm not trying to get overtly political here, believe it or not. To me, that would serve as a interesting and important litmus test of where we are as a jazz economy (and that's really what Teachout is talking about), more than who is hearing some cool shit in Brooklyn. This ties into my education rant below...
- I don't know why I though of this- I can't remember the last time I heard an honest-to-God instrumental solo on pop radio (John Mayer the notable exception). Not indie rock, pop. My memories of pop radio as a kid are littered with solos, good, bad and everything in between. Pop nostalgia for me isn't complete without the opening guitar madness of "When Doves Cry", the awful sax glop on "Careless Whisper", and a dozen others not worth mentioning. Not to mention the pop tunes that sit more meaningfully on my brain- the sax intro to "What's Going On", Herbie on Stevie's "As", Brecker on "Still Crazy..." And remember the outpouring of interest when Darcy counted down sax solos? But outside of Mayer, whatever you think of him, I can't think of an honest to God guitar or sax or anything solo on I've heard on pop radio in at least a couple of years. I don't know if its that radio edits are getting shorter, or that's just out of favor, or the triumph of the producer over the songwriter or what. But I think it matters.
I am a reluctant proponent of the "gateway drug" theory of musical interest. Kids hear instruments, they get interested in playing, and some eventually find improvised music and become players and fans. I see it as a teacher. If kids aren't hearing solos on the radio, they're less likely to seek out instruments to solo on, or as listeners seek music where solos are a focus.
- While I don't agree with everything Teachout says, like everyone else I'd love to see a larger audience for all kinds of art music in this country. If I had to put all my eggs in one basket as to how to "solve" this crisis, I feel like the answer is education. Not music education, education as a whole. I worry as I watch politics, the state of the newspaper, the fate of my peers that we are living in what local writer Charlie Pierce semi-satirically calls "Idiot America", a country that can't think in a paragraph longer than a tweet, where citizens are born on third base and think they hit a triple. If we don't create a citizenry who can think in paragraphs and form and process somewhat complicated arguments about anything, we're sure as hell not going to find an audience for a twelve minute jazz composition, no matter how well it's written or how sharply it's played.
The heyday of jazz in this country, at least as a commercially viable meduim, came at the height of the American educational system, when at least a plurality of middle-class kids came out of high school able to form a geometry theorum and comprehend Shakespeare. When Bernstein could produce a young people's concert where the text doesn't sound like Barney the purple dinosaur, and get an audience. God knows this wasn't a utopia, and there was a ton of inequity, but without wider access to an education where critical thought is valued, I don't us getting anywhere beyond where we are now.
Speaking of Bernstein, this clip isn't as textually eloquent, but Dolphy is amazing: