The Jazz Evangelism of Woody Allen

Clarinet in hand, the director defends one of America's disappearing art forms

Their ensemble's dynamic is unusual: Unlike other bands with musical directors (in this case, Davis), leadership here is shared. Davis guides the musicians and decides who will be featured on each tune, but Allen alone chooses the repertoire. The ensemble never uses a set list or sheet music, and must know all the approximately 1,500 tunes in Allen's arsenal: On their two-week March tour through Europe, the band played upward of 30 tunes each night with few repeats, culled primarily from New Orleans jazz's heyday, with some '30s and '40s standards and spirituals sprinkled in. The band's Carlyle dates are sold out months in advance; their current residency runs through June 7 and is entirely booked.

British-born pianist Conal Fowkes, at 42, falls on the youngest side of the band's spectrum and, not surprisingly, is the most fervent about why future generations should hear the music they play. "New York City is considered around the world as the home of jazz," he says. "Yet if you come here as a visitor, you will have to look far and wide to find traditional jazz, and it's amazing to me that it's not available or supported. The great thing is, once people come see us, nine times out of 10, they're really pleasantly surprised. They ask where they can find more music like this."

At one particular Carlyle gig in April, there's a perceptible moment when the attention shifts from Allen to the music itself. The concert begins amid the diners' social din and blinding camera flashes, but the starry-eyed thrall steadily softens, over the first hour or so, into sincere attention toward the performers and their nimble renditions of "Mecca Flat Blues," "Doctor Jazz," and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall." By the set's coda, with the ensemble reduced to a more intimate quartet of Allen, Davis, Fowkes, and drummer John Gill, the room is dramatically hushed; when a woman in a satin dress brays a tipsy insight to her companion, her neighbors turn on her sternly. They've finally begun to hear the talented Woody Allen and the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band.

A strict hobby player, but a tremendously important one
A strict hobby player, but a tremendously important one

Further proof: Before the concert begins, a pair of twentysomething French tourists at the bar express no interest in Allen's music: "Just his movies . . . he is so funny with face!" But afterward, following Woody's brief, ritual autograph session in the Carlyle lobby (during which he is remote with his fans, though that ladykiller streak still exists: "If I were younger and single . . ." he tells me deftly, midway through our first face-to-face conversation), they find me outside the club and rave about, yes, the music. "It's wonderful music—so interesting!" they exclaim and, true to Fowkes's claim, ask where they might hear more jazz during their vacation in New York.

Too bad that answer ain't what it used to be.

"If God plays the baddest saxophone solo ever played in the woods, and nobody hears it, did He make a sound?" asks Jazz at Lincoln Center curator Phil Schaap, Charlie Parker audible in the background. Host of the so-themed "Bird Flight" hour on Columbia University's WKCR radio—and, owing to both its unbroken 29-year weekday run and his inexhaustible scholarship of all jazz, the subject of a lengthy New Yorker profile in 2008—Schaap is a stern critic of the jazz community's short-sighted direction of its resources. The Juilliard professor maintains that what scant funding remains is being funneled into performance studies while ignoring the substantial problem of how to fill the seats offstage, which is "fool's gold at best."

"There's no audience development—none—in the jazz-education system, yet they're turning out would-be professionals in the low four figures annually, and it can't work," says Schaap, 59. "It's a train wreck. The jazz community is a shrinking one, and part of this that is most glaring is with the young. If something isn't done, then the music will be further marginalized to the point where I'm not quite sure how it will survive."

Indeed, jazz audiences are skewing much older and scarcer than before. A National Endowment for the Arts survey showed that the median age for American adults who attended a jazz concert in 1982 was 29. In 2008, that median age had risen to 46. More alarmingly, the Recording Industry Association of America reported jazz sales to make up just 1.1 percent of all music sales in 2008 (the most current available stats), a precipitous drop from the decade high of 3.4 percent in 2001.

The overarching implication: Jazz is showing a dangerous lack of renewability with future generations, and what is not heard is not preserved. New York, while still a slightly stronger jazz microcosm than the country at large, exhibits the same warning signs: a shrinking number of venues, a lack of mainstream exposure to entice new audiences, and a splintered community of performers fighting stylistically among themselves. Clearly, the jazz community here is worried; many participants have a fatalistic spin Woody Allen could appreciate.

"I think jazz in general is about to die off," says Spike Wilner, owner of Small's jazz club in the West Village and himself a traditional-leaning stride pianist. "The most important thing is: You don't have, at all, the venues you used to have. . . . Young audiences aren't exposed to jazz early on anymore when there's no place for them to discover it. Where are they gonna discover jazz? It's not taught in their schools; you're not able to find it on the radio. They're not gonna stumble upon it."

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