07 September 2009

Perfunctory "Death of Jazz" Tantrum

I've tried really hard over the course of many weeks to resist joining the ongoing fracas over Terry Teachout's now-infamous Wall Street Journal article. I'm utterly burned out on the "death of [music]" discussion, I'm tired of reading about it on other people's blogs, and I'm tired of devoting time to it here because I think it's generally a waste of time. Nonetheless, I eventually caved and read through some of the responses it has elicited, which inevitably led to a flurry of thoughts about how this whole mess relates to little old me. As DJA would admonish us, this is precisely what blogs do; here, then, is what I've got to say.

First of all, while the present post is weeks late, the initial news of the NEA survey findings reached me rather early on by way of an e-mail from Pamela Espeland, and against my better judgment, I not only acknowledged its existence here, but shared two immediate thoughts I had about what it might mean, which are worth reviewing as a jumping off point for further discussion:

First, lost in this whole brouhaha, I think, is the very intriguing fact that the survey reported a substantial increase in adult participation in classical music while attendance at classical concerts continued to drop. So many of us have blindly accepted for so long that participation in music equates more or less directly to attendance, but what if that's not the case? This I find to be a far more intriguing question than anything related to the jazz data, which I think (yes, anecdotally, but bear with me) is so obviously flawed, but that discussion deserves it's own thread, so it would be best to table it for the time being.

The other thought I had relates to both the classical and jazz discussions, in particular the idea that classical concerts are too formal, and that this is responsible for turning young people off. What, then, do we make of the fact that the audience for jazz, which is by and large presented in significantly less formal settings than classical music, aged even faster than it did for classical music? If what we're seeing truly represents a rejection of formality, then one would expect a pattern to emerge in the NEA data whereby the attendance at and participation in very formal arts events charted differently than that for less formal arts events. That, however, does not seem to be the case, at least with respect to classical music and jazz. To the contrary, the pattern emerging seems by all interpretations to be one of across-the-board decline in arts attendance and participation, regardless of formality, and in one case (jazz), very much in spite of it's conspicuous absence.

In light of this, it is less surprising than it may have been otherwise that one of the many responses to Teachout's article actually advocates, in one sense, for more formality in jazz. In his letter to the editor, Ramsey Lewis writes:

I will take some musicians to task respectfully if I might—about wardrobe. Too many musicians and groups (not only in jazz) dress in such a way that it seems they don't care about their appearance and the impression they make on stage. A poor appearance lessens the audience's enjoyment. But if the musician took pride both in his appearance and his music, it would add to the overall experience.

So, while the classical punditry is hard at work excoriating orchestral musicians for overdressing, one of the most respected voices in jazz took the time to write a letter to the editor decrying the opposite phenomenon. Perhaps we can save the music simply by arranging a massive wardrobe swap between the two groups of musicians: who wouldn't want to see The Bad Plus in monkey suits and the New York Philharmonic in space suits? Or, just maybe the problem is deeper than wardrobe.

I myself am a notoriously poor dresser. If anyone who came to my jazz shows dressed any better, I'd be forced to keep up...but they don't, so I haven't. In fact, I generally fit right in, and even feel distinctly uncool when I up the wardrobe ante to include things like button-down shirts or nice(r) shoes (not to mention that I get some sideways looks from my bandmates, who are both surprised to see such a thing in the first place, and also mystified as to what exactly brought it about). If, as the classical music punditry would have us believe, it is important not to put oneself on a pedestal apart from one's audience by outdressing them, then I've been achieving near perfect marks in the audience development category for as long as I've been on the scene.

Lewis sees it differently, but still, in my mind, not correctly. His comments do less to further the audience development discussion than merely to lay bare a jazz culture clash that has both generational and racial issues entangled in it. Much like jazz itself, sharp dressing has long served as a significant expression of resistance and solidarity in the face of discrimination for many African-Americans, and such sartorial predilections among early jazz musicians (as well as these underlying motivations) are well documented. Where asserting their dignity was a rebellious act, this meant dressing up, not dressing down, but suffice it to say that there are substantial chunks of American society where the very opposite was and continues to be true, and if you come from one of those segments, you're likely to bristle at the suggestion that you should straighten up and fly right (not least because you've probably heard it before).

There are many who see rebellion and subversion as the very essence of what jazz is. Though I wouldn't necessarily count myself as one of those people, it's obvious that jazz has both attracted and created an interesting assortment of rebels of various stripes. For this reason, I'm afraid we'll just have to forgive the white kids their dirty laundry and poor grooming because that's largely what rebellion is in their world. As for this particular white kid, I can't legitimately claim this exemption, since my parents were hippies. The only way for me to rebel against them would be to become an accountant and start wearing $1000 suits to work. There are a variety of reasons that's not going to happen, the most important one being that none of my friends (who are all young and went to at least one jazz performance last year) would never talk to me again.

That brings us back to the Teachout Fallout. What's readily apparent from the ensuing firestorm is that many many people took his comments personally, especially those who have invested everything they have in making music in spite of its small following. I, for one, found his original article to be rather innocuous at first, merely par for the course from a publication that has also employed the likes of Greg Sandow. It certainly wouldn't have inspired me to write something of this length had there been no further blogospheric back-and-forth about it, but since that's exactly what has happened, I've latched onto one particular element of the discussion that I do take quite personally, and which disturbingly enough seems to actually have become the primary area of common ground for both sides. What I'm referring to is the assertion that it's not the music that's the problem but how it is marketed and presented.

This sentiment seems to be on the tip of everyone's tongue, not only in jazz, but also in classical music. It feels good to say it, and it sounds harmless enough until you really think about what it means, namely that we need to do a better job of fooling people. It's telling that the buzzword is not "promotion" or "organizing," but rather "marketing." Marketing is fundamentally about deception. If marketing was not fundamentally about deception, then the very concept of marketing (the word, the field, and the act itself) would not exist. To make clever marketing the centerpiece of our plan to save jazz is to say that we intend to fool people into showing up and paying money for something they, at best, don't need, and at worst, don't even like. That's the function of marketing elsewhere in the economy, and as best I can tell, that's the function being advocated for by well-meaning commentators on both sides of the Teachout fiasco.

For many of us, this sort of approach would mean working quite hard to paint ourselves as cool when we're really not all that cool, nor do we particularly desire to be cool, or even think it's cool to be cool in the first place. It brings us back to the rebellion thing in a way, but also to the more universal and desirable concept of honesty, which would be necessarily sacrificed were we to appropriate the conventions of American capitalist marketing to our music careers. Seriously, how many scatterbrained hippy-dippy jazz writers (and quite a few musicians, too) have pronounced over the years that jazz was first and foremost about "truth" or "honesty"? Too many to count! Now for me personally, the music isn't "about" anything in particular; honesty and integrity are human qualities, and a music cannot be either of these things any more than a rock can. I certainly didn't get into jazz because I was looking for honesty or a chance to rebel or any of that BS; I got into it because it was a natural high. But now that I'm here, I certainly have embraced the ways in which a music career offers a refuge from the unmitigated train wreck that is mainstream American capitalist society, and I don't look particularly fondly on the idea of appropriating what is perhaps the very most vile and destructive feature of it, namely deception.

Perhaps I'm overreacting, misinterpreting, and/or being a sourpuss for no good reason other than that it's my natural temperament. You'll just have to forgive me for not giving a flying hoot what anyone else thinks is "unhealthy" about being honest. Fortunately for them, I do not own jazz, and they can do whatever they damn well want to about it's perceived crisis. To paraphrase the popular bumper sticker, it's your crisis, you fix it. Regardless of what that entails, you'll find me doing pretty much exactly what I was already doing, and if popular consensus determines that my particular approach is "unhealthy" for the jazz world, then all the great hordes of new young jazz fans have the irrevocable right to not come to my shows, not buy my recordings, and not play my compositions. That possibility doesn't concern me in the least because I'm having too much damn fun, with or without them.

Let me be clear that I have no vested interest in jazz remaining uncool. I'm not any happier about it than Terry Teachout is, and I'd certainly love to play for more people in better rooms and get paid more to do it. Anyone would. But what's truly addictive about performing isn't the sheer size of the audience, but rather their engagement with the performance. That's why I've often said that I'd rather play for one person who cares than for a hundred who don't. Buzz cannot be simulated anymore than boredom can be hidden, even (especially) when it's your friends and family in the audience. It's rather implausible that I could market myself as being just that cool in the first place, but even if I could, the payoff isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be. If there's something unhealthy about feeling that way, then I've got no one to blame but myself, and I've got no right to complain about it.

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