Home > Jazz > Whats wrong with Jazz today?

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.

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Categories: Jazz
  1. Paul Lindemeyer
    July 29, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Unfortunately, the current state of jazz obtains because it works for the academic community. Jazz has, in a way, been tamed and professionalized to the needs of music schools and departments, whose values are classically based and whose curricula are designed around accreditation.

    • July 30, 2013 at 8:34 pm

      man, you nailed it! that is exactly how I feel and it makes me sad that jazz sounds like classical music now. It barely swings at all, if at all…

  2. July 29, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Apparently the point is that audiences are diminishing because young musicians aren’t playing with enough intensity. I doubt it. Rock and rap are simpler music forms, and thus are easier for most people to listen to. From bebop on, jazz has gotten harder and harder to listen to, and dancing to such music is not possible. If you add in the the alternative free-time activities of TV, movies, computer games, and the internet, then there’s very little market left for jazz. On the other hand, some older forms of jazz continue to find a following, such as the many traditional jazz concerts in summer months, though the audience is probably geriatric. It’s interesting–and disheartening–that many of the kids who play in jazzy stage bands don’t really spend much spare time LISTENING to jazz. I think that’s more fatal than MP3s.

    • July 29, 2013 at 3:47 pm

      Hey Glen, Indeed there are younger generation leaders like Kenny Garrett and the Marsalis’, that play with real intensity but there is a far greater amount of “jazz” performers in the trenches that are not cutting it – nothing to doubt. You make some serious points about musical literacy of the general populace being lowered to a point where they can not even hear bebop jazz and beyond and this is another can of worms!

    • tony Barnard
      July 30, 2013 at 5:33 am

      Hi there,
      The point about not being able to dance to bebop, is not true at all, although the newer free time stuff I agree with. I grew up playing jazz in the 70s and still am today. People always danced whether we played mainstream or bebop

      • July 30, 2013 at 2:46 pm

        Glad to hear about the dancing. I guess my comment was more of a confession about my mediocre dance skills than about bebop danceability. Still, I’m trying to imagine what moves I might try with “Donna Lee” or “Cherokee.” With “Moody’s Mood for Love,” however, I’d be the first one on the dance floor.

    • Essiet O Essiet
      July 30, 2013 at 7:21 pm

      I don’t agree with you Glen. I’ve travelled the world for decades playing jazz. People in practically every part of the world from Africa, Asia, Europe, South America & beyond respond to jazz. The original article hit it on the nail about the intensity. Why do you think there’s a vast market for jazz once you leave the borders of the US of A? I was in Romania, Hungary & Slovakia a few months ago and our performances were in various venues from clubs to concert halls. The places were packed and the people went crazy & we were playing modern original jazz. You can’t base you opinions solely on American audiences & public.

  3. Joe vellano
    July 29, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Too much bad jazz…

  4. July 29, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    I think what a lot of folks forget is that Jazz at its core is an emotional music born out of a necessity of its creators to express themselves naturally!

    Armstrong, Ellington, Fletcher….swing & dance music. Dizzy & Bird…bebop, Coltrane, Dolphy….intricate, deep hard swingin’ music. Different styles to be sure, but ALL played with the emotion and expressiveness needed to entertain jazz musicians and general listeners.

    I teach my students scales and other techniques to get around the horn but I tell them to “go in town” to the sessions to really learn how to play and internalize this music. I can’t teach them to play like Miles but I can sure as hell be the one to introduce them to the music!

  5. Jeff Ransom
    July 29, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Kenny Garrett and the Marsalis’ are part of the problem discussed – Keith Jarrett wrote an article in the NYTimes which really describes this well – I recommend you look it up in the archives…

    • July 30, 2013 at 11:56 am

      Kenny Garrett is part of the problem of playing with lack of intensity? Really Jeff? You will have to dig that one up for me. As for Jarrett, he comes with his own baggage but here he actually reinforces what I’m talking about with a comment about how Duke’s music sounds without veterans (enlightened musicians) playing it.

  6. July 30, 2013 at 2:36 am

    You are on the mark but when you say: “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!” I have to take issue. Fact is many players sweat many don’t. It really has more to do with physical exertion than it does concentration and intensity, one could argue less expended physical energy = greater efficiency. So while Coltrane sweat bullets Kenny Dorham was cool as a cuke. Wheras Freddy Hubbard might be bathed in sweat Clark Terry always looked like he was relaxing on the veranda sipping cognac.

  7. July 30, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    I beg to differ… I have been a jazz fan since I was in high school in the late 60’s early 70’s and I say that the young talent in “jazz” has NEVER been better – Tia Fuller, Gregory Porter – Gerald Clayton, Vijay Iyer, Robert Glasper, Anat Cohen, Hiromi, Esperanza, Christian Scott, Orrin Evans and so many more. I believe that the problem lies in marketing – Too few musicians and their promoters have yet to maximize the potential of Branding, Social Media and other new “inbound” marketing techniques. Too much time has been spent crying about digital music downloads, piracy and what qualifies as “jazz”… How much do you think Coltrane, Monk, Ellington, etc. made from selling records – Bubkiss! Today more then ever artists need to beef up their marketing skills, get out there performing on a regular basis and selling their music and other paraphernalia at the live shows — also a lot of people are not buying CDs any more so artists need to become more creative about other merchandise they can sell.

    Jazz festivals and cruises for the most part seem to be doing well. It’s time to stop complaining and start taking responsibility. There is no reason that Jazz can’t make a major comeback… but for hat to happen the jazz community needs to stop looking back at what was and start to look forward to what can be!

  8. steven harp
    July 30, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Jazz will die the day music dies. Styles may change but the creative spirit persists. Jazz is not jazz, jazz is creative music. The imitation of older styles is just fine. We repeat classical numbers with great exactitude. It seems every age allows only so much real creativity and “duende”. Because of technology we are inundated with stuff but I find more good stuff than I can keep up with. –Just listen to Jessica Williams to restore faith.

  9. Jerry Bauer
    July 30, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Most of the young players can not tell you even a interesting story in mere conversation. Concerned mainly about their threefold safety they may as well stay schoolboys for the rest of their life. Those MFs have no balls, are not ready for challenge or taking chances, I`m afraid.

  10. mike
    July 30, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    The worst thing a jazz musician can do is call themself a jazz musician. It’s an exclusive form of music. That’s why I got out of it. I’m much happier playing bluegrass and old time than waiting my turn for 2 hours to play for 5 minutes. Jazz needs to be less showoffish and more inclusive. But that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

  11. July 30, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    this article s true for any music nowdays .. even pop or rock .

  12. Paul Murphy
    July 31, 2013 at 12:00 am

    Interesting to read these comments, especially the ones about people not dancing anymore to jazz. They do, and have been for some time in the UK and Europe. They even have their own unique Jazz Dance scene that’s been going for over 25 years (see https://www.facebook.com/events/486266741407827/ for one such event). Gregory Porter has a huge cult following in Europe too so it’s not just retro based. The problem lies with the musicians I would say. Many just don’t put on a show and turn up wearing shabby clothing when the audience has dressed up for a night out, walk off stage when someone is soloing (well Miles did it! Yeah, but you ain’t Miles!) and rarely acknowledge the audience is even there, in fact are often arrogant about them (“they don’t understand the music”….Wrong!) I’ve been producing music for years selling to a young and enthusiastic audience and I know there is still a huge potential market there. Here’s something we released in Budapest, Hungary of all places(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMRgkSEyYo0)
    I surely would like to hear from some young (or older!) jazz musicians who want to get an audience because although the recording scene has been on it’s knees lately you can still reach out there in many other ways. Jazz is going to come back, more and more people are talking about it, checking it out but it’s up to the musicians to reach out to this potential audience and meet them halfway, give them a show and look like an artiste on the stage. It pays dividends in the end.

  13. July 31, 2013 at 12:19 am

    who is not ‘cutting it’ – specifically? i want NAMES!

    • July 31, 2013 at 4:30 pm

      If you need names then you can’t hear it. What’s the point? If you are in the room with a band and you start checking your watch, your phone, thinking about that weird thing that happened yesterday, that’s a good clue the band isn’t cutting it.

  14. JR
    July 31, 2013 at 6:56 am

    Back in the day people were dancing to Jazz. Good jazz for dancing requires a lot of energy otherwise people won’t dance. If the dancefloor wasn’t packed, the booker would find another band for next time.

    Then jazz became listening music. And it had to be darn good to keep people listening especially when the music wasn’t for dancing.

    The audiences today are in my opinion “trained” to sit down and clap politely after each solo… I have seen this at many jazzconcert i went to regardless of the level of musicians. The reason for this maybe that is difficult to recognise good jazz music nowadays… And the reasons may be the one you mentions.

    That being said, i have noted a positive development. In the copenhagen jazz scene new and young promising jazzmusicians are beginning to shine. It is bocoming “hip” to play for dancers, and the dance crowds are getting bigger and bigger. And i have discovered that musicians improve their play significantly when they see that the audience is “using” the music. The musicians put more energy into it. They put their heart in to it, and they begin to play with feelings based on what the feel, see and hear… And it is great! For the musicians and for the audience – both the dancing part and the non-dancing part…

    I hope that this “dancing evolution” will help bringing some more quality (that you are missing) back into the jazzmusic. But I also hope that the audiences will (re)learn to give their honest feedback (Dancing, clapping, cheering etc,) to the musicians on stage. Personally i hate playing for an audince that sits like trained monkeys and clap because they were told to…

  15. WILLIAM GALISON
    July 31, 2013 at 6:57 am

    “A big misconception about Jazz is that you need to know something about it to enjoy it.”

    I disagree in that a listener has to be familiar with the underlying structure of the music that is being improvised upon.

    Jazz was the popular music of the 40’s and 50’s because it was built upon the popular songs of the time, and even “jazz” compositions written in that period were based on the harmonies of popular music.

    Much of today;s music is harmonically vapid, and the IDEA of harmonic structure is lost on many audiences.

    If a listener doesn’t know the underlying structure, than the variations and permutations are lost on him.

  16. Marcus Temptus
    July 31, 2013 at 10:56 am

    I love jazz and play jazz. While I could see an argument being made that students of the music play it too safe sometimes, I think we should be weary of historical comparisons. The greats of today are pushing boundaries as did the greats of yesteryear (Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Star of Jupiter, Aaron Parks etc..) Ok, not just like the greats of yesteryear. After Albert Ayler, Pharaoh, and late era Coltrane, the only road left was to pull it back. The problem is that there are less live venues for musicians to get live playing exposure. But at the same time, there were many boring musicians who didn’t cut records in the 50’s and 60’s. Comparing Charles Mingus to your neighbor’s kid who just entered a university jazz program isn’t far. Compare Mingus to Dave Holland as an example. As far as audiences go, this is extremely narrow sided. Back in the early 2000’s when I was in college, guess how many people would want to listen to Bird, Trane, Miles, Chick Corea, etc.. when they flipped through my voluminous CD collection? My drummer friend. That is it. For all the electricity of Trane and Miles, my non musician college friends didn’t get it, a lot of it sounded like noise to them, not intensity. Let’s not revise history and pretend that Coltrane could have Billboard 100 in this day and age. What the author misses is that youth in the USA today who don’t dig modern jazz don’t dig anything past swing.

    • July 31, 2013 at 1:10 pm

      You make some good points Marcus, in particular about current musician’s the lack of performing opportunities leading to unfair comparisons – standards set in an environment that may not be replicable. I had a conversation with Elvin Jones long ago regarding the session for Shorter’s “Speak No Evil – in my opinion one of the finest Jazz recordings ever made. He explained that musicians in the 50s and 60s were working all the time – he had “a gig every night with Coltrane for 6 years straight.” In addition, during the day he would get together with other guys like Cedar Walton, Herbie Hancock, etc. and workshop each other’s music. When it came time to record new tunes, they were already conceptually so familiar that the results, which sound like stand out magical moments to us, were in fact common to them. This constant performing, sharing, exploring, produced a level of musicianship that cannot be matched by today’s artists. Or can it? As you point out and I have witnessed, there are some young musicians who defy all logic, and have shown genius – they will continue to keep the flame. This reinforces my original claim that having a conception through exposure to musicians “who know” is more important than anything else in learning the art form. One thing is certain, jazz will continue to thrive in basements, on bandstands, clubs, festivals, internet, and some format birthing as we write regardless of any obstacles

  17. skweebop
    July 31, 2013 at 11:22 am

    “Jazz” used to be popular and now it isn’t. It’s called a trend. Other people are having the same discussions about every other genre and relative time period. There is a lot of wishful thinking and nostalgia associated with the past. Cutting on the current practitioners is just unproductive. Like it or not, those are the people who have dedicated their lives to keeping it going. Everyone being a critic and ‘no one does it like they used back in the day’ are such tiresome and cliche patterns to reinforce.

    Sadly, the academic community will probably be responsible for whats left of Jazz when the current audience dies of old age. Open your ears because there is plenty of music being made today and it needs support. If you can’t support it put then on one those great old records (because no on is gonna do a better job at that specific style then the people of that time), slip into the past and stop bagging on whats left of an art form you profess to love.

  18. marius nordal
    July 31, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    People are coming up with a million reasons jazz has faded…a shortage of good players is NOT an issue. I think it’s a much bigger issue and very simple…jazz is like chewing gum..the flavor is all chewed out. Jazz was always a survival music, really vital to our mental health and an amazing “modern” art from the 1920’s to the mid-1970s when there was a very brief new shot of energy via Chick Corea, Weather Report and Miles Davis. Then it was over. Jazz educ. exploded in the 1970s and record sales have plummeted in direct proportion that jazz educ. got bigger…now THAT is an amazing thing!

    Our dynamic culture has moved on to a million other more timely art forms now. Few today are interested in hearing 19th century marching band instruments playing advanced swing music. Jazz (as people think of it today) peaked during the early atomic age and the Eisenhower era. I know that learning bebop and improvising in college is a fascinating and worthy thing but in the 1980s Wynton Marsalis went head to head with Kenny G…..and the G man won!

    Talking about jazz now is like France talking about the glories of 1900 Impressionism or the Italians talking about the Renasisance. Also, jazz is not the “only” American art form: there is musical theater (Kern, Gershwin etc) and abstract expressionism, hip hop, gospel, blues, minmalism, pop art etc…we are a dynamic society and jazz was astounding for about 40 years but now we’re living in the faint echoes of the “big bang.”

    • July 31, 2013 at 10:32 pm

      Marius, your comment appears to be cogent and informed but it contains some fatal flaws which expose your naivete.
      “A survival music, really vital to our mental health and an amazing “modern” art from the 1920′s to the mid-1970s” Survival music? Vital to our mental health? You paint broad strokes fishing for some support, suggesting art forms for the human soul and mental development, and possibly the black american experience, but without any real specificity – smells like bulls#$! Reads like the build you up before I slap you down moment. You also dismiss Woody Shaw and a slew of others who continued innovating jazz in the 70s but that’s another subject.
      You believe that jazz record sales are inversely related to jazz education. That argument is similar to “all people who drink wine will die.” True, but people won’t die because of the wine they drink. In fact, record sales for everything has plummeted – the whole industry is evolving. Jazz sits at 1-3% where it has been for 60+ years – it has never been a contender for teenage dollars. The issue here is not a canary for the health of Jazz. There are flaws with how people are learning jazz but there is no chance that this will kill the music.
      “Our dynamic culture has moved on to a million other more timely art forms now.” How many timely art forms that have supposedly replaced jazz by natural selection? Jazz, according to you, has run its course and died out like dinosaurs – “the gum is all chewed out” You don’t get it at all.
      You put Wynton Marsalis in the ring with Kenny G – where the two have never met because they have entirely different audiences – then assert that Kenny G has won! Last I checked, Wynton’s schedule hasn’t slowed one bit but Kenny G seems to have faded away except the the occasional shopping mall or elevator.
      Perhaps most of all, you don’t get that Jazz, like French Impressionism and Italian renaissance art, is in for the long haul. Music from Pops, Dizzy, Bird, Trane, Sassy, Duke, Hancock, Chick, Shaw, McCoy, Marsalis, and a lot more will be heard from for centuries – as long as there are thinking people alive. And there will be people to play it.

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