Kind of Blue

Jazz Competes With Its Past, Settles for the Hard Sell

"Seven years ago Joshua and Roy and Marcus were selling 75,000 units," says Goldstein. "But in the last few years the bottom has fallen out."

"Any jazz artist who looks at CDs as a way to make money is being unrealistic," as Evered bluntly puts it. "A lot of artists just don't understand that's the way it is now." It takes nerve for a media conglomerate to invest in new jazz today when rap and teenpop seem to offer much steeper upside potential. The cost-to-return ratio for living artists is one reason the music's dead heroes are so prominent. Why risk 25 grand touring a quintet who haven't a prayer of airing on MTV when you can mine your catalog of Miles or Coltrane for nothing?

"It's expensive to break a new act," says Pierson, who has labored to establish Redman, Mehldau, and Garrett at Warner Bros. "It costs between 15 to 60,000 to make a record, depending on how much you pay the sidemen. But with touring, advertising, and promotion, you're talking about at least another 30 to 50,000 to market a record you hope will sell 10,000 units. You have to place your bets very carefully and believe that in the long run it will pay off in someone becoming a major artist."

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

Jazz still has a few advocates like Bruce Lundvall, who has directed Blue Note within the Capitol group for 15 years—continuity unique in the recent corporate history of the music. But BMG's folding RCA jazz into pop, retaining only Dave Douglas among its jazz signees, may be the new corporate paradigm.

"When major labels are recording jazz that is important but doesn't necessarily sell in large numbers, you need someone at the top who cares about it," says Cuscuna. "And there just wasn't anyone at RCA who cared about jazz anymore."

The case of Sony/Columbia, where a commitment to jazz had always emanated from on high, has been a variation on this theme ever since George Butler's departure in 1996. Jeff Levenson, head of the division since 1997, toiled for 17 years as a jazz journalist. He worked in tandem with Branford Marsalis, who doubled as artist under contract and creative consultant. During their tenure they issued some superb records, including just last year David Sanchez's sensational Melaza and David Ware's Surrendered, a brave if foolhardy attempt to make the saxophonist less of a cult figure, and Branford Marsalis's 1999 Requiem, perhaps the most stirring record anyone in his family has ever made. But none of these has shown signs of cracking the 15,000-unit ceiling, and neither has any of the 12-count-'em-12 discs Wynton released on Columbia in 1998 and 1999. Levinson was axed in July. The rest of the department jumped ship soon after.

That Columbia has reconstituted the division under Jeff Jones, director of its Legacy reissue imprint for the last five years, says a great deal about the priorities of jazz at the major labels these days. Jones has no experience producing new records, but neither has he been losing Sony's money. He makes all the right noises about "our commitment to stay in the jazz business." He is negotiating with Branford's agent to keep him with the label. And although Columbia has no formal ties with Branford's brother anymore, Jones avers that when "the American public sees Wynton Marsalis on the Ken Burns series they will fall in love with him."

At the same time, Jones talks about finding the "most commercial and credible artists we can" and making jazz "fun, so that it's not just for the critics. The trend everywhere is more urban and teen-oriented. I don't think it's just jazz." Every major jazz label to survive must embrace artists who fit a "smooth" format or who create hybrids of pop, fusion, New Age, techno, and rap—trends that Wynton abhors and Burns largely ignores. Jones sounds as perplexed as other executives about the future of straight-ahead jazz within this market. "Over the last couple of years it's been very difficult to sell jazz," he admits. "And I don't really know why."

In fact, why this has happened is actually easier to explain than what to do about it. Jazz may have found a home in academia, but the infrastructure that supported new talent for much of its history has crumbled over the last 25 years. The music can't be heard anymore on commercial radio or television, writing about jazz in mass-circulation magazines has all but vanished, and the club circuit outside New York has shrunk drastically. "West of the Hudson things drop off pretty quickly," says Evered. "Where musicians used to make money touring and playing, and using CDs as calling cards, that's disappearing."

"Younger jazz artists are not going to have careers the way that the older ones once did," predicts Cuscuna. "Wynton realized early on that you can't survive for long with recordings or on the road anymore. Building his career at Lincoln Center was a very smart move."

The tradition that Wynton Marsalis so ardently touts, in conjunction with technology that gives everyone access to any kind of jazz at the click of a mouse 24 hours a day, has created a far more crowded field than existed 20 years ago.

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