December 28, 2012

The Jazz Glass: Half Full or Half Empty?

Next week I will travel to Atlanta for the annual JazzEd Network conference. This association quickly stepped in when the International Association of Jazz Educators went bankrupt in 2008. If a journalist wanted to write an article about the healthy state of one of America’s original art forms, this would be the event to attend. Educators, performers, students, and entrepreneurs will convene for four days of concerts, clinics and commerce. The jazz glass will be overflowing.

Players and promoters know that this vibrant scene is sadly not mirrored in other areas. Rick Tessel, the publisher of JazzEd Magazine, recently authored “The Paradox of Today’s Jazz Scene.” He pointed out the inequalities, citing statistics and focusing on the fact that high schools, middle schools, and conservatories have students studying jazz more than ever before. At the same time, the jazz audience is shrinking, especially under the age of 45, according to the Jazz Audience Initiative. The record industry is suffering as well, and jazz recordings account for less than 3% of total music sales. Mr. Tessel cites possible reasons, including the proliferation of music on the internet, and the fact that “younger buyers seem to be more actively involved in the full range of music activities, especially downloading and organizing music.” My reading of this statement is that downloading and organizing have replaced purchasing and attending. I don’t think any observers of the jazz scene are surprised by this paradox.
Saxophonist/composer Jane Ira Bloom recognized the situation with recordings back in 1998 when I interviewed her for the Jazz Archive.
MR:    Yesterday I overheard you talking about recording albums and the business of finding labels, and you had mentioned that the business for records these days is not too healthy in the jazz world and that the time you’re getting to make records is getting smaller.
Jane Ira Bloom
JB:    Yeah. Well this is the middle, the jazz trenches, we’re not talking about the major jazz labels, we’re talking about all the independent jazz labels that live and operate in this kind of middle ground, on very small budgets. And the fact is it’s become so easy to make a CD now, everybody can make one, anybody can make a CD and get it out there and reproduce it and get it in the record stores. And I’m not entirely sure what that says about the quality and the content of what’s in those CD’s if they’re so easy to do, how carefully we think about what it is that we record and want to put out there. There is also a lot of other entertainment options for people who buy CD’s now, you know the computer and internet has changed all kinds of things. And entertainment options people have, not just listening to records. People can barely listen to 60 minutes of music, they don’t have that amount of time. An LP used to be 40 minutes. People could handle that. Jazz critics say today that they don’t even have time to listen to an entire CD when they’re evaluating new albums. It takes a lot of time.
MR:    Yeah. You get a stack of CD’s on your desk that you’re supposed to review and each one of them is an hour.
JB:    Yeah. It also brings up the point of, you know, how carefully are you thinking about what you are recording, how special you want to make those musical moments.
Bob Kinkel, a founding members of the TransSiberian Orchestra, and my most recent interviewee, succinctly addressed the easy accessibility of current technology:
Bob Kinkel
BK:    My view of technology and the way it’s gotten so much easier to do it in all forms — like graphic design, art, music recording — it’s really easy to get to high mediocrity. And unfortunately that is where a lot of people stay and it’s very rare that people are popping above that with any kind of design. It’s like I’m happy that a lot of the top architectural schools are making everybody do stuff by hand again before they’ll let them take whatever design they did by hand and put into CAD programs. So it’s more using it as a tool instead of the creative crutch, because it’s so easy to get to get high mediocrity.
It’s hard to imagine that the connection between slumping record sales and concert attendance is not one of the consequences of the astounding leaps in technology. Recently I related to my most accomplished saxophone student the thrill of seeing Cannonball Adderley in live shows in the late 1960’s. His reply was “oh yes, I’ve seen him on YouTube.” My saxophone teacher about that same time would recommend to me different artists to listen to and absorb. My process would be to save up money from my allowance and go to the record store to pore through the offerings, making my most informed choice possible. The prodigious liner notes on the album jackets assisted in my selections. I also listened to my transistor radio late at night where I heard the all-night jazz station in Rochester, New York. All of the above are now just a click away.
Very few young musicians would ever need or want to recreate the effort that Phil Woods talked about in our interview from 1999.
Phil Woods
PW:    Before I graduated, I was still in high school. And we’d come down, we’d take the bus to New York and we’d have to take another subway out to Long Island and then a bus to Lennie’s [Tristano] house, and I forget what it was, it was $15 a lesson or something, which seemed like a lot of bread in those days. I’d take a lesson then go back to Manhattan and go to Romeo’s and get a bowl of spaghetti, and you knew it was fresh because it’d been sitting in the window all day, and then we’d go to Mainstream Records and get the latest Bud and Bird and Diz, whatever we could afford. They were 78’s of course in those days. And if we still have a dollar left over we’d go to 52nd Street. I could get a Coca Cola for a dollar and I could sit there all night man. And that’s where I first heard Charlie Parker. I think he was sitting in with Milt Jackson I believe and Howard McGhee.
If I suggest to my saxophone students today that they would benefit from listening to a certain artist, my expectation used to be that the student would seek them out and purchase select recordings. Suppose I suggest that John Coltrane is the important artist. My Google search yielded the following on the first page offering: A live recording of John playing “Naima,” a live recording of “My Favorite Things,” the full version of “Blue Trane” with moving photo gallery, and a version of “Giant Steps” with an animated solo, the notes appearing one after the other, in real time, complete with chord changes. Most Coltrane fans would agree that these four songs belong on the short list of his notable recordings. Will the average student feel compelled to purchase this music? Why should they?
Let’s look at a current artist. Eric Alexander is an accomplished saxophonist, influenced by John Coltrane amongst others. Eric’s Google search offers a treasure trove of video and audio. One particular link has 32 different videos of Eric performing. What about live concerts? If a student desires to see an actual live performance, he/she can visit Small’s website, and for $5 a month live jazz from the club can be viewed every night. Is the experience the same as actually being in a jazz club? Of course not. However, it’s very close, and costs next to nothing. Let’s face it, the days of going to extraordinary measures for your jazz education are long gone, except for paying extraordinary tuition.
My intention here is not to sound like a “moldy fig,” the term used to describe purists who dismissed any attempts to modernize jazz in the 30’s. The discrepancy between the separate sides of jazz provide a fertile topic for music journalists and the occasional sociology paper. I believe most of the situation can be explained by the adage “what we receive too cheap, we esteem too little.”
There is little doubt that the JazzEd conference at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta will be stimulating and upbeat. If you attend, please consider my presentation on Friday, January 4, 2013, at 10 a.m. in the Learning Center. I will host a screening of the film “Joe Williams: A Portrait in Song.” Hamilton College produced this concert documentary in 1996, featuring Joe with the Count Basie Orchestra. Expect a review on the conference in our next posting.