Adam Spangler on 21st-century Jazz
"It's not jazz that is dying-clearly there are musicians worth seeing, producing music worth buying-it's the audience that's on life support."
Bob Dylan once made his way from Minnesota to New York in search of himself and, so the myth goes, to find his musical hero on his deathbed. In his poem "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," Dylan concludes, "You'll find God in the church of your choice / You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital… You'll find them both in the Grand Canyon / At sundown." Meaning, whatever it is we are looking for on this journey called life, many of us find it in church, more find it in music, and Bob Dylan found it in folk troubadour Woody Guthrie. Maybe you find it in Marilyn Manson or Britney Spears. Me? I find it in jazz-instrumental jazz, where words don't complicate the emotion. Jazz was the reason I wanted to go to New York.I've seen the pianist Jason Moran, my preferred jazz musician, too many times to count. My wife calls me a stalker; others like to say I'm on the jamo tour. While my college friends, following in the infinite steps laid in front of them by Deadheads, used to hit the road to follow Phish, I traveled to see jazz in New York. Ten years later, my tour continues.After years of concerts, it finally dawned on me as I surveyed a crowd one evening: It's not jazz that is dying-clearly there are musicians worth seeing, producing music worth buying-it's the audience that's on life support. As the filmmaker Ken Burns recently explained while promoting his latest documentary, on World War II, if he didn't make the film now he never could, because in five to 10 years, all the war's veterans will be dead. While they may not be dead, jazz fans seem more likely to be members of AARP.But it's not that simple. Certain artists, of course, draw certain crowds. That fact was laid bare at a recent concert at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, where Moran shared the bill with the Bad Plus, whose improvised cover songs and merchandise booths attract the college-aged jam-band crowd. Moran, on the other hand, tends toward the more traditional jazz fan-older, intellectual, and preferring a white button-down to a band T-shirt. The juxtaposition was startling, and confusing for some: The majority of elder patrons thought the Bad Plus was the band playing behind Moran, not after him.While artists obviously dictate the fans more than any other factor, a venue can also have an impact. Depending on the setting, the same artist can draw a wildly different crowd. As happened this year, one evening might find Moran debuting a program to hundreds at Duke University. The next, he's playing solo piano over a cappella Ghostface Killah rhymes in front of a handful of people in a nonprofit artists' space tucked away in Manhattan's East Village.These days, if you're under the age of 35, odds are you're not a jazz fan. Which doesn't mean you don't like jazz music-some of your favorite music likely takes samples or at least inspiration from jazz. It just means that you aren't actively seeking it out, and thatit isn't being marketed to you. Think about it. Have you heard about Moran? Maybe. Troy Andrews, also known as Trombone Shorty? Doubtful. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble? Probably not, but you no doubt know one of their clients, Mos Def, who hired the musicians as his backing band for recent tours where they continually stole the show. Jazz, beyond the backing band or hip-hop sample, just isn't out there with today's pop music.Just because jazz isn't marketed doesn't mean it doesn't exist or isn't thriving. It does mean, however, that expectations for success have to be tempered. Moran's last album, Artist in Residence, for example, sold about 3,000 copies. The merchandise-minded Bad Plus can sell upwards of 100,000-still a far cry from is-that-jazz superstars like Norah Jones, who outsell all jazz labelmates on the order of millions of copies.You won't find a platinum record on the wall of Moran's Harlem apartment, but neither is Norah Jones being offered a United States Artists fellowship or a teaching position at the Manhattan School of Music (both of which Moran recently received). Indeed, jazz is different-it's a cultural institution, which may in fact hurt its popularity. But musicians can still earn a livelihood through a mix of recording, performing, teaching, and patronage-a unique formula used for decades to support the genre and one that will ensure its survival.Even in a culture where any nobody can become a famous somebody, the chances of jazz returning to center stage are probably gone. "I definitely don't think it's popular," Moran told me one evening. "Nor do I think it will ever become popular again. That time is gone." Now it's Britney's world; Moran is just living in it.
More 21st-century jazz:
Hypnotic Brass Ensemblehypnoticbrass.blogspot.comOnce a hip-hop group called Wolf Pack, these eight brothers now blow brass beats on the streets of New York. Hypnotic's albums are all self-published and hard to find, so the best way to hear them is live (luckily, they tour extensively). Part marching band, part rap group, these boys could hold the key to a mainstream future for jazz.
Troy Andrewstrombone shorty.comWynton Marsalis says he's Andrews's biggest fan. Allen Toussaint says, "He is just better." The 22-year-old New Orleans native (better known as Trombone Shorty) is a horn player breathing life back into the post-Katrina jazz scene. The virtuoso has played with everyone from the jam band the String Cheese Incident to Lenny Kravitz.