Kind of Blue

Jazz Competes With Its Past, Settles for the Hard Sell

"When Joe Lovano puts out a new record, he's not only competing with his contemporaries for sales," says Cuscuna. "He's also up against Gene Ammons and Coltrane and every record ever made. The whole history of the music is now available on CD, and that's a problem for anyone who hopes to break through."

Of course, it's sales of old records that allow companies to record new ones. Not everyone thinks the ubiquity of the jazz giants is bad for young contenders, either. "The rereleases are setting the bar very high for new players," says Evered. "That should be a challenge." Jones says he loves the new David Sanchez record. But when someone walks into a store with $20 and has to choose between a fresh face and a classic, "it's hard to argue against Miles Davis."

It makes no more sense to blame the sad state of jazz on stifling tradition as interpreted by Wynton Marsalis than on corporate greed or the CD. Every cultural enterprise—from books to movies to newspapers to other music genres—now competes with its own past, more readily and cheaply available than ever before. There is more of everything now except time. But while books and movies have held their own in this new psychoeconomic climate, jazz and classical music have ossified. The painful truth is that if jazz had a broader and younger base, its infrastructure would still be strong. Its core constituency, however, has hollowed out.

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

"The audience for straight jazz is made up of aging white males," says Pierson with only slight hyperbole. "In 10 years, after they've all had heart attacks, it'll be left with no audience."

Younger players have awakened to this rude reality as well. "They come out of school to find out they're playing for an older crowd," says Evered. "The audience they thought would be there when they got out has moved on to other kinds of music." The dexterity of these musicians is not in question. With Latin timbres and polyrhythms currently invigorating standard practice, the instrumental expertise required to keep up with one's peers is higher than ever. Saxophonist Sanchez's Melaza makes the kind of demands on musicians and listeners alike that exist in no other popular music. Twisty, daredevil compositions and an adrenalized septet, with three percussionists driving the tempo, could in less assured hands spin out in a violent musical wreck. Instead, the band burns rubber and hugs every hairpin turn, and within the intricate rhythmic machinery beats a large melodic heart. Sanchez is as hot and cool a player as jazz can put forward at the moment.

"Artistically, the music's in good shape," says Evered. "And let's face it: Jazz is not for beginners. Much of the best is, for want of a better word, cerebral. It will never find a mass audience, and it never did."

But along with Ornette, jazz once upon a time also had Cannonball Adderley and Herbie Hancock with hit records. Before he was a Lincoln Center museum piece, Louis Armstrong made the pop charts. Jazz has no big stars anymore, not with any critical credibility. Classical music is actually healthier when you consider the frenzy over Cecilia Bartoli or Andrea Bocelli, who have posted numbers that jazz bestsellers like Krall and Wilson can't touch. The RIAA's figures are especially grim when you consider that it defines jazz to include Kenny G.

Smaller record labels will continue to document the most adventurous jazz, as they always have, and the larger ones can stay in the game if they bet smart, stay lean, and don't expect too much. Blue Note has made money every year for 15 years with a roster of artists in the classic tradition as well as plenty of nontraditional acts, like Medeski, Martin & Wood. Even so, 80 to 85 percent of the records the company has released during that time are out of print.

"I think there's a responsibility that the five major labels remain in the jazz business," says Pierson. "But the mentality of the executives in charge of corporations is different these days. Soon they may no longer see it that way." The loss of RCA leaves only four major labels—Columbia, Blue Note, the now Universal-controlled Verve, and Warner Bros.—still in the business.

Jazz had a fleeting chance to cross over to a mass audience in the early '90s, when Branford fronted the Tonight Show band. The effort failed for several reasons, mainly chemistry with the host. When Leno retooled his show to overtake Letterman's in the ratings, as if to underline how friendless the music identified with Marsalis had become, the new producers listed near the top of their list of things to fix: No more jazz players sitting in.

The Ken Burns series may be the last, best hope for jazz to connect with the American public again. No doubt the canonized figures will get another boost. Columbia/Legacy and Verve have released 23 CDs keyed to the series, and there's a five-CD Columbia box as well. But jazz of the last 40 years is crammed into the last show, with Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, and John McLaughlin getting short shrift and Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, certainly the bestselling jazz instrumentalists of the last five years, not even mentioned. The record industry and working musicians can only hope that the series, which documents as never before how vital the music was to 20th-century American life, doesn't end up convincing viewers that the greatest players of jazz lived ages ago, in the classical past. Ken Burns's Jazz puts its would-be critics beneath the underdog—in his mind, an American public tragically oblivious to its national artistic treasure. Built into the series is empowerment rhetoric which works as a preventative: Faulting the film can only perpetuate the infighting that has incapacitated jazz, relegating the art form to a cabal of esoterics and a paltry 2 percent market share. Especially given the film's treatment of jazz as a metaphor for democracy, such bad sportism would seem downright un-American.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets