Whats wrong with Jazz today?
Why has the Jazz audience dwindled with little renewal? Why is the audience at most festivals and clubs the very same one as 20 years ago?
I believe the root of the problem is how Jazz has been learned since the 70s.
Prior to this period, jazz was primarily learned on the bandstand. Veterans would share their knowledge, craftsmanship, and ideas with each other live on the bandstand – the ultimate workshop of the idiom – and youth would soak up the experience by hanging out and sitting in. It’s hard to believe today but every major American city had myriads of clubs featuring jazz 6 -7 nights. I’ve seen listings of clubs in the 60s for Detroit which looked like a phone book. But by the 70’s, Jazz venues were vanishing rapidly. For most musicians learning the craft, the bandstand was replaced with recordings and play-along records.
Why wouldn’t recordings be sufficient to learn how to play Jazz?
While the student can transcribe solos and even learn to play them with the recordings – a very important part of learning Jazz – what isn’t coming across on recordings, among other things, is the intensity musicians perform with. This has become even worse as vinyl gave way to MP3s. Think of all those pictures of Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, and more, with sweat flowing like waterfalls, that’s not because of stage lights. It’s because these artists are performing with a concentration and intensity which makes the music sizzle with electricity – alive with thrilling suspense and excitement! They’re instantly responding to the subtlest rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic suggestions from band mates thereby weaving breathtaking improvisations and shaping the music into seriously hypnotic experiences. Pianist Hal Galper who came to fame with Cannonball Adderley talks about this on YouTube stating “recordings tend to thin out the rhythmic feeling of the music” To test if there is any validity to this theory you need only compare an MP3 version of Miles Davis’ ESP or Coltrane’s Resolution to a a vinyl recording on a High fidelity system. I guarantee you will hear things you never heard before or had forgotten were there. You will hear for yourself with breathtaking clarity why these recordings are considered classic. Now multiply this by at least 100 times to get the difference between a live performance – in other words, as great as the music may sound on the hi-fi, there is no comparison. There is so much more going on than what can be reproduced by a recording. Great recordings do provide us with pleasure but it’s doubtful that today’s listener is so mesmerized by what they hear they forget to check their Facebook or email. Perhaps if you are extremely focused on the recording, you might hear some of the important subtleties but if it were live, they would hit you like fireworks.
So how does the young player learn to play with this intensity or “edge?” Unfortunately the answer is most of them don’t and that’s why a lot of “jazz” you hear today is boring. They learn the right notes, the right changes, play in time essentially, just like they do with the play-along records. They’ve added some clever new changes and can mount staggering improvisations with incredible craftsmanship, but still there is no sizzle and suspense to stop your heart or glue you to your seat.
You don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t hear what you can’t hear.
Duke said “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” but the deeper meaning is lost on those who can’t hear it. If you can’t hear what you are missing, how do you know you are missing it in the first place? Back in the day, on the bandstand, you would learn this often without even being aware that you were learning it. While concentrating on the mechanics, you were internalizing many other components of the music that veterans wouldn’t even mention existed. It surrounded you like water in a swimming pool. Today, if a young musician doesn’t have a mentor who learned this and can “pull their coat” to it, chances are they will never know. Now this musician can go on and form whole bands with other young musicians who don’t know either. And guess what? Many of these musicians teach – see where this is going?
Generations have come up playing Jazz this way and now even audiences have become accustomed to this “safe” and unobtrusive performance. It’s part of the reason you hear many people talking at Jazz clubs consistently during performances. There is even resistance to Jazz that intrudes on your space with emotion and energy. I’ve seen older musicians playing with intensity rebuffed by younger ones because playing with this higher intensity forces them to respond to the group rather than eloquently releasing their practiced solos and riffs. Bring out the handcuffs and muzzles! But in the end, this wallpaper jazz just isn’t inspiring new fans.
A big misconception about Jazz is that you need to know something about it to enjoy it.
The truth is when someone hears music with this sizzle, crackling with suspense, and breathing like a living entity, it will stop you in your tracks. In fact, this applies to all forms of music. It’s the reason why some music grabs you and some doesn’t. Duke Ellington said there are two types of music: good and bad. It’s that simple. Jazz at its finest is like really great sex, or the best food in the world, you will want more and you damn sure wont be texting anyone in the middle of it.