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.

"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."

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.

"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.

"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.

And for all Jazz's considerable pleasures, this resolutely nationalist worldview is a problem. In the opening segment, Gary Giddins even-mindedly comments that jazz's combination of European and African musical elements could have happened nowhere but America. Wynton Marsalis goes further when he declaims that "jazz objectifies America." This truth Burns holds self-evident, and he so strains to present abstract, motivational symbols of America's soul that he's nearsighted about the music's evolution.

"History is not about the past; it's the questions the present asks about the past," Burns says. This admittedly reclamatory project, though, must deal with 100 years of history. And jazz has hardly embedded itself in the national consciousness as deeply as the last topic with which Burns stole home: The phrase "As American as baseball and apple pie" is not for nothing.

In the interest of what Burns calls "triage"—his economy of dogma—all Jazz's portrayals of the music overseas hinge on American resistance: "In Word War I, jazz was called on to play a new role as a symbol of democracy in a world threatened by fascism and tyranny." But with this exportation, jazz was inevitably adopted, and adapted, in other countries. Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt is in fact included in the film—but pitched as merely a homegrown alternative to the American jazz artists a French audience craved. His musical influence on a lineage of jazz guitarists both American and non-American is not considered. In the past 40 years, numerous jazz musicians from abroad have assumed the right to keep and bear arms. Even glancing attention to some of their music—Brit Evan Parker's electro-acoustic group improv, Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona's fusion, the Willem Breuker Collective's whimsical Dutch swing—counters Burns's funereal depiction of jazz in foreign hands. (In one of Jazz's more apocalyptic scenes, narrator Keith David laments that in the '70s the Art Ensemble of Chicago found its largest following among white college students in France. The screen fades to black.)

"The assumption is that people are looking for great-man rescue for jazz: It might be a great woman, just as it might be someone outside of the U.S.," Burns says. But if the next Satchmo or Bird or Ornette comes from France, Germany, or South Africa, he or she will have a hard time earning recognition as a stranger in Burns's strange land—could a foreigner bear the burden of American ideals?


SEE ALSO:

Burns-Eye View of Jazz by Larry Blumenfeld
Living History or Death Sentence?

Jingo All the Way by Michelle Mercer
Burns Stays Blind to Jazz Abroad

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