Glendale College's Student Magazine
Wednesday June 20th 2018

The Future of Jazz in America

Sal Polcino

With the advent of the celebrity-as-musician trend in the 21st century, artistry is quickly going by the wayside. Many of today’s popular artists can’t sing or play an instrument. They are all image and attitude. Jazz, always touted as America’s one true art form, is struggling to survive. The major record labels shy away from niche markets, and promotion and marketing money goes with the youth demographic, which is generally under-educated about the art of music. This presents a cultural and ethical problem.

In this age of political correctness, many children are taught that everyone is special  — everyone can sing, dance, write or be a top athlete. Pop culture reinforces this idea with reality shows like America’s Got Talent and the Voice, where one can win success in a contest.  These shows are far from reality. Musicians, particularly jazz players, spend years honing their craft and still are not assured of a successful career.

Jazz Sales This chart shows the rapid decline of the music market share for jazz records from 2003 to 2013.

Jazz and classical music were never top sellers for record companies. Both genres have been considered “highbrow” and have mostly appealed to relatively small, sophisticated audiences, but with changes in how markets are exposed to music, the decline has become more rapid. In 2008, the National Endowment for the Arts, in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau, conducted a survey of public participation in the arts.  In 2002, 10.8 percent of all adults had attended at least one jazz concert. That number shrank to 7.8 percent in 2008. On top of that, jazz fans are aging as well, with the median age jumping from 29 in 1982 to 45 in 2008.

With the average person over 45 less willing to go out to concerts, this does not bode well for the future.

Bloomberg Business Week’s Devin Leonard said few genres have suffered more during the record industry’s meltdown than jazz. Bloomberg also reports that jazz record sales have plummeted in the past 10 years by 50 percent.

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue”

Sony’s Columbia label, the former home of Miles Davis’ recordings, no longer signs jazz, even though Miles Davis’ 1959 Columbia recording “Kind of Blue” is still the biggest selling jazz album of all time with more than 20 million sold to date. However, last year Sony Records resurrected the OKeh jazz label, after dropping the former subsidiary of Epic Records in 2000. Okeh plans to release as many as 20 albums this year.

Even the prestigious jazz label Blue Note Records is changing its profile, releasing genre mash-ups like Roseanne Cash meets Wayne Shorter. Verve, part of Universal’s music group, has gone in the R&B direction with acts like Ruben Studdard from “American Idol.”

Don Was, former member of Was Not Was and long-time record producer, is the current president and CEO of Blue Note records. In an effort to keep jazz alive, Was has teamed Blue Note with an artist funding organization, ArtistShare, which will assist select jazz artists in funding their recordings. Blue Note would then lend its promotional expertise. Was said that this is a low-risk development for the record company and artists would retain all rights to their music with full control of individual projects.

“Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it.” —George Foreman

Another up-and-coming label, Origin Records, was started in Seattle by jazz drummer John Bishop 14 years ago and has visited the Grammy’s repeatedly.  Origin has signed 240 artists to date and focuses mostly on young jazz artists.

There have been many resurgences in jazz over the years with constantly changing adaptations. Miles Davis led the electric jazz revolution in 1969 with, “In a Silent Way,” which featured many of the  ’70s generation players to follow. Chick Corea and Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters and, most importantly, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter who formed the incredibly popular Weather Report, whose 1977 release, “Heavy Weather,” has been re-released 17 times, mostly by Sony and Columbia. Even then, the record did not go gold until 1994.

It’s a sad state of affairs when a relatively unknown hip-hop “artist” like Iggy Azalea can sell more than 50,000 units in one week, when Weather Report, arguably one of the greatest bands of all time, took 17 years to get a gold record, even after winning countless Grammy awards.

Young people buy music, so to sell jazz or any other “high art” music, one would have to capture that elusive demographic.

Is there a solution? Jazz critic and historian Terry Teachout doesn’t have one. In his article “Can Jazz Be Saved,” he said, “No, I don’t know how to get young people to start listening to jazz again. But I do know this: 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.

If you’re marketing Schubert and Stravinsky to those listeners, you have no choice but to start from scratch and make the case for the beauty of their music to otherwise intelligent people who simply don’t take it for granted. By the same token, jazz musicians who want to keep their own equally beautiful music alive and well have got to start thinking hard about how to pitch it to young listeners — not next month, not next week, but right now.”

Weather Report. "Heavy Weather" Weather Report. “Heavy Weather”

Some of the older jazz artists still have faith in the current generation of youth. Longtime jazz artist Terence Blanchard recently remarked, “There are younger people in the audience. When people have that argument that the audience is graying, I think that is because some artists are trying to uphold tradition. We have to constantly move forward.”

Jazz trumpet player Wynton Marsalis travels the country speaking to young musicians. His approach is to liken rhythmic structures to sports, chasing pets or shopping malls, making cute and popular analogies to stress a point. Marsalis, however, is one of those traditionalists of whom Blanchard speaks and may be part of the problem and not the solution.

Jazz does not have the exposure it once had. The genre has been relegated to college and NPR stations. However, most young people have confusing ideas about what jazz is. Smooth jazz, while fairly popular by today’s standards, is a watered down version of the art form and has syndicated shows on commercial FM stations. When jazz is mentioned to many 20-year-olds, they think of John Legend or maybe Alicia Keyes, both talented artists, but not jazz artists.

Teachout has it right. The only way to reach young people is through music education. Yet how do we pull students into the realm of jazz? Many high schools and most colleges offer jazz history courses. That’s a start. If one is truly a music lover and learns how to listen, he or she will learn to appreciate the art behind the music. Unfortunately, young people are deluged with pop culture and celebrities every day and a decision to take the classes in the first place can only come from an outside influence like parents or teachers who are fans of the music.

The jazz history class at Glendale College always seems to reach capacity, but this may be because students need the units or think it will be an easy class.

Gil Scott Heron, "Pieces of a Man" Gil Scott Heron, “Pieces of a Man”

Maybe the actual history of rap music should be taught in a way that mentions beat poets and the development of spoken word in jazz. In the ’50s beat poets “rapped” to jazz beats. (thus the name) and one of the first true rap artists, Gil Scott Heron, incorporated the style into his music. Heron, known as the “Godfather of Rap,” started playing the piano at a young age and developed into an accomplished jazz artist. In 1970 he released his first album “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” featuring spoken word that was regarded subversive at the time. The record propelled him into stardom. Most of today’s rappers probably don’t even know his name.

Even if young listeners learn to appreciate jazz, they might never actually purchase or download a single tune. Streaming services, Internet radio, piracy and satellite radio all offer free or cheap access to every type of music.  So what incentive does a jazz artist have to continue producing new music?

A writer must write, a painter must paint and a musician has to play, but they all have to eat and pay the rent as well. While rappers and rock bands can fill giant stadiums to make money performing and sell millions in merchandise, jazz players are lucky to fill a small club. Yearly jazz festivals are few and far between and extremely hard to book. Even the jazz festivals are booking R&B artists and smooth jazz artists these days. Only a handful of jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea still have the ability to fill a room, but nobody buys Herbie Hancock T-shirts or coffee mugs.

Maybe jazz needs to take a step back to the ’70s and get louder and funkier again instead of living as an esoteric art form.


Photos of the Jazz Punks at Jax by Kathy Bakowicz


For those who think the revolution will be televised, please consider the work of Gil Scott Heron:

About Sal Polcino
Sal Polcino is a jazz guitarist and jazz blogger who has been the editor of El Vaquero for the past two semesters.

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