Kind of Blue

Jazz Competes With Its Past, Settles for the Hard Sell

For two decades now the high minded phrase "Jazz is America's classical music" has served as a marketing jingle for the music in the culture wars. As popularized by Billy Taylor, Grover Sales, and others, the slogan became a patriotic rallying cry in the '80s—and the perfect topic sentence for a challenge-grant application—for those seeking to bring intellectual respect and institutional focus to jazz.

That the campaign succeeded beyond anyone's dreams is evident all over the academic map, most notably at Lincoln Center, where America's classical music is now an endowed program of study and performance, right up there with drama, ballet, opera, and Europe's classical music. Come January we're bound to hear the five-word mantra from more than one talking head when Wynton Marsalis—the objective correlative of the idea—narrates Ken Burns's 10-part history of jazz on PBS, nine-tenths of which is devoted to jazz's first 60 years.

But be careful what you wish for. What nationalist boosters of jazz never expected when they struck gold with their classical allusion is that the two veins of music would end up suffering similar fates. For many of the same reasons, jazz and classical music find themselves limping into the millennium under the burden of a glorious but sclerotic sense of tradition, and supported by an aging audience base that shows no sign of rejuvenating any time soon.

canonical giant Duke Ellington
photo: Frank Driggs Collection
canonical giant Duke Ellington

Throughout the '90s, record sales in both genres have shared the same dire statistical profile: a low, flat, at times sinking line. The Recording Industry Association of America, which gauges the popularity of different categories of music, has classical and jazz running neck and neck at the back of the pack, each with about 3 percent of the business, just ahead of oldies and New Age. In 1998 jazz fell to 1.9 percent, two-tenths ahead of soundtracks and far behind religious at 6.3 percent.

Even if the RIAA's numbers are debatable (based as they are on a telephone sample of 3051 record buyers, with a 2.2 percent margin of error), the worry among executives at the major labels is not. "When you look around, things are extremely tough," says Matt Pierson, who heads the jazz department at Warner Bros. "It gets harder to sell jazz every day," admits Tom Evered, general manager at Blue Note, and this view is seconded elsewhere. "Why isn't jazz selling?" asks Ron Goldstein, president of the Verve Music Group. "That's a question we discuss every day." The best that can be said about the situation for new artists, according to producer Michael Cuscuna, is that "it's not quite as bleak as it was in the '70s."

For many of the same reasons, jazz and classical music find themselves limping into the millennium under the burden of a glorious but sclerotic sense of tradition, and supported by an aging audience base that shows no sign of rejuvenating any time soon.

The attention deficit in the general-interest media to the crisis is itself telling. The shrinking market for symphony orchestras has been widely reported and received extensive coverage in the Times. But despite the money flowing through Lincoln Center, jazz remains very much a stepchild of American culture. You would think that the decisions by BMG and Sony to dissolve or fire the contemporary jazz departments at RCA and Columbia respectively—two of the most storied labels in the history of American music—might be a big story somewhere. But not even Billboard took note.

One explanation for the puzzling silence may be that in recent years several singers, notably Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson, have reached far beyond hardcore jazz listeners. But the main reason is probably that the reissue programs at these labels are thriving. Like classical music, jazz now boasts a set of canonical giants—Armstrong, Ellington, Bird, Monk—familiar to record buyers young and old. Twenty years ago a Coltrane record in a rock collection betokened a taste for the esoteric. But when any style is up for grabs and eclectic sampling is the name of the game, everything is equally exotic. With Kind of Blue still selling 5000 copies a week, Miles Davis has never been more à la mode.

The repackaging of dead jazz giants and the profit surge that the CD explosion brought to record companies has led to an unprecedented supply of jazz in stores and online. "The market is flooded with great music," says Warners' Pierson. Fantasy, which pioneered reissues with its Jazz Classics series in 1983, now has 1200 titles in its catalog. The Burns documentary can only accentuate this positive trend.

It's the plight of living instrumental artists in this venerable tradition that spells trouble for jazz. Any youngish critical favorite you can name—James Carter, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, Maria Schneider, Danilo Perez, Jacky Terrasson, Greg Osby, Kenny Garrett, David Sanchez, Dave Douglas, Gerri Allen, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts, Brad Mehldau—is lucky to sell 15,000 records domestically in a CD's 18-month shelf life. Usually they fail to do even that. Ditto for legends Sonny Rollins, Tommy Flanagan, Joe Henderson, and Oscar Peterson. And as well publicized and rightly rewarded as Wynton and Branford Marsalis have been, their recent sales figures are no better than anyone else's, which may be one reason their future at Columbia is cloudy.

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