AC, organ and harp; Leroy Jenkins, violin; John Blair, violin; Julius Brand, violin; Joan Kalisch, violin; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. String arrangements by AC; transcription by Ornette Coleman.
“Is jazz dead? That all depends on what you know.” –Lester Bowie
“A higher consciousness is attainable to all.” –Alice Coltrane
Hey, we’re back. How’ve you been?
Seems we’ve missed a lot of renewed talk lately about that old saw, The Death of Jazz. It started with Terry Teachout’s salvo in the Wall Street Journal, where he noted some alarming findings from the NEA’s most recent Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. (You can also check the survey questionnaire as used by the pollsters.) Teachout called out two themes: the rapid graying of the jazz audience, and the ever-shrinking jazz audience. He also noted jazz’s migration — completed long ago — from “pop” to “art” (damn, these labels are tired), on a cultural par with classical music, and facing many of the same challenges. And the discussion continued on various blogs and even spilled onto the radio airwaves, where Teachout and Vijay Iyer, among others, discussed the problems facing the form.
We agree and acknowledge that these aren’t the brightest times for jazz — and traditional culture consumption in general — but not it’s because there’s a lack of outstanding music being created right now. There’s no shortage of superlative work coming in from all generations – countless younger artists including Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Taylor Ho Bynum, Darcy James Argue, The Bad Plus, Ben Perowsky, Tyshawn Sorey; established godhead figures like Henry Threadgill and Matthew Shipp; and the titans who still stride the earth such as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and Ornette Coleman. Not to speak of those musicians who are simply not our our radar yet.
Teachout harps on figures showing that jazz’s audience is rapidly graying, but what he neglects to mention is how the music has started to seep into more populist forms as never before. But it’s not the classicist Lincoln Center brand of the music that’s proved robustly viral, but a strand of jazz that has almost been written out of the tradition altogether. Its most recent avatar: Alice Coltrane.
It’s true: Radiohead has cited Alice Coltrane’s music – and her album Universal Consciousness, in particular – as a primary influence on their experimental textures and inventive string arrangements. They also played her music before some of their concerts.
Stranger still: Metal drone masters SUNN O))) pay direct tribute to Alice Coltrane on “Alice,” the blissful last track on their excellent new album Monoliths & Dimensions (Southern Lord) — which features performances from trombonist Julian Priester, among other guests.
While it’s obvious that jazz isn’t getting enough of the institutional support it deserves, or the grassroots swell it needs, that isn’t any indication of the genre’s sterility. We agree wholeheartedly with Vijay when he states that the problem isn’t the music’s lack of accessibility, but lack of access to an audience. There’s a shameful dearth of clubs and other venues across the country for jazz musicians to court new audiences.
And potential new – and young — audiences for jazz are out there. They’re absorbing the music filtered through the prisms of Radiohead, SUNN O))), OM — as well as others like Yo La Tengo, Fourtet, Yoko Ono, and countless electronic and hip hop acts. The so-called kids are responding to the fragments of jazz they hear (just like always), but they don’t often know where to go next.
There’s no one easy solution to this problem. But here’s a modest proposal to institutions like Lincoln Center — instead of thinking the kids will thrill to some Count Basie, how about appealing to them through the jazz they’ve already been exposed to? Where’s something like the Alice Coltrane program? Where’s the weeklong Electric Miles events? Why aren’t we taking advantage of the bridges that already exist? There’s obviously nothing wrong with Basie but you’ve got reach people where they’re at, not where you want them to be. They’ll get to Basie in their own time, provided you win them over in the first place. As Teachout wrote, “Any symphony orchestra that thinks it can appeal to under-30 listeners by suggesting that they should like Schubert and Stravinsky has already lost the battle.”
Despite Teachout’s strenuous attempts, during the radio program, to keep the focus on the inarguable data from the NEA survey rather than stooping to emotional appeals or mere anecdote, we heartily invite you to bring on the mere anecdotes! What do the audiences look like at jazz shows you’ve gone to recently? What are your recommendations for bridging the gap between audience and artist? Kids and Kalaparusha?