Look at History, to Save Jazz from Becoming History
By: Travis Haight
I recently purchased a shirt online, from a shop the U.K., that may seem pretty tongue in cheek, but actually is a response to 99.9% negative verbal responses, crinkled noses, and other non-verbal cues when I began ranting about the said topic. It's a shirt that tells people I encounter while ordering a latte, on the bus en-route to work, or trying to decide what one record I will buy with my disposable income this week, that I am that strange guy that knows nothing about who has performed at the Grammys in the last 15 years; not to mention, that I get in the car and cringe when I hear that my Uber driver has some EDM or the local top 40 station cranked while I fasten my seatbelt. It's a black shirt I wear, often times paired with one of my cabbie hats, that states, "YES, I LISTEN TO JAZZ. GET OVER IT."
This isn't everybody however. My father, who still won't hit 60 for a little more than a year from now, has a pretty healthy jazz collection, with quite a bit of it on vinyl; the Sirius Real Jazz station is also a staple of my folks' living room, as it is in my bedroom and on my phone during my commutes. My boss, who is in his early 50s, is an outright fellow music geek, and has even given me some recommendations of some artists to pick up while looking to fill my crate with more jazz gems. Fresh out of college, I copywrote with a man, who was in his mid-thirties at the time, that I took turns picking out jazz albums to listen to in our shared office while we worked; the two of us even shared a fun night going to Ella's Supper Club for live jazz not too long before it shuttered for good. And while attending college at EWU, I interned under the station's program director, which included not only helping take calls for the non-profit's pledge drive, but learning the history of the genre that would soon replace the hard rock, metal, and goth rock of my adolescence as my new true musical love. Yes, there are a significant number of people who love jazz; at least one is in his late 50s, one is in his early fifties, one is in his mid-forties, and yet one more female jazz lover is in her early 50s. But guys in their early thirties who would buy Miles Davis vinyl over Kendrick Lamar, and owns original studio recordings by Vince Guaraldi other than Peanuts-related recordings? We're few and far between. Under 30? Virtually non-existent.
This shouldn't shock most people too much. I mean, when a barista in her early 20s has no idea who The Beatles are when the shop is cranking cuts from Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band on the 50th anniversary of the album's release; or when stores such as H&M and Journeys hawk shirts from classic bands that are sold to teenagers who openly declare they have never heard "Come as You Are" while "rocking" their Nirvana tee that a Kardashian was wearing in the latest episode of one of their myriads of reality programs, most music is generally ignored, or is used for little more than making a fashionista look "edgy," or "on fleek," which I believe is still an expression du jour. Still, there is a market for the Beatles, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and most any act played on any classic rock station in any given city or small town. And there is a significant portion of todays 30 and under (many still in their teens) that I see dutifully snapping up classic rock records while at Barnes and Noble or Urban Outfitters to go with their Childish Gambino LPs and be played on their new hot pink turntable. But will any of them be cranking John Coltrane once the needle comes up on "Awaken, My Love?" My money is on a resounding "NO!"
What I have tried to figure out for the longest time is exactly how it is that you never hear jazz discussed anymore; it's rarely, if ever found on the AM or FM dial, with the small exception of if you're lucky enough to live in a place with a non-profit or a university that runs one bankrolled by listener support and underwriting. And even then, such stations find themselves in the never-ending Catch 22 of keeping the dollars rolling in from the faithful (99 percent from several generations past), while trying to do everything they can to attract new, younger audiences, and hopefully whet their appetite for something new to add to their record crate or Spotify. That, or at least get them to go to a new kind of concert for purposes other than extra credit in their mandatory arts and culture courses.
Then, as I alluded to, the jazz fan community is getting older, but as they continue to go to that big Hot Club in the sky, nobody is there to replace them and keep this genre with a storied history alive. Meanwhile, albums in rock that were released around the same time as many of the landmark jazz ones still are finding new audiences generations later. There's no Hot Topic or Spencer's in America where one can score a sweet Miles Davis "Bitches Brew" shirt or Sonny Rollins "Saxophone Colossus" hoodie, but then there are today's high school kids who get excited when their folks purchase them Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin shirts for that school year. And these same kids pack the halls when Pigs on the Wing, a Pink Floyd Tribute band, comes to play at the Knitting Factory, but I was hard pressed to find anyone my own age when my dad and I went to see Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass together last summer.
This point was proven to me when I read an article from Jazzline, shared on the Facebook page of another one of the small handful of FM jazz stations left (this one, run by a community college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa) with the title, "Jazz has become the least popular genre in the U.S." Reading on, it presents the evidence that while jazz and classical each only account for 1.4% of the country's music market, classical actually sold more albums than what was once called "America's classical music." In 2014, for instance, all jazz releases, spanning all physical and digital forms, only moved 5.2 million units. In the pop world, it only took Taylor Swift the last two months of the same year to almost go quadruple platinum.
There is no definitive reasons as to why jazz is so "weird," foreign, Greek, and, dare I say, uncool to most anyone who, say, wouldn't choose to drive an Oldsmobile over one of those sleek, sexy Hondas being sold downtown. And we truly can't pinpoint why bebop, quite possibly, never will be in favor with the set that can't honestly say they remember when the music came out that is now on compilations offered up on late night Time Life infomercials. But for some insight, let's take a look at the Oldsmobile car brand, which was once one of the most popular for quite some time.
In it's heyday, Oldsmobile cars were ubiquitous, boasting such cool features as chrome plating, and being the first mass production vehicle with a fully automatic transmission. For generations, they sold tons. But then, somewhere down the road, someone in the advertising department dropped the ball on the "cool factor" that is so important to stay alive and stay relevant across generations. Before long, Oldsmobile cars became stuffy, boring family cars at best, but primarily "Granny cars" at their worst. So, Grandma Lucy may be driving around in a Cutlass or even a newer Alero, but her grandson, Jimmy, would probably rather get his wisdom teeth out again than acquire Grandpa Joey's old Delta 88 once he gets his driver's license. This is what happens when someone fails to learn how to speak the language of those they must reach. The last Oldsmobile cars rolled off the assembly line on April 29, 2004. And with a few very small exceptions, and for similar reasons, jazz has been suffering the same fate for at least that long.
For an idea of why other genres, some of which were also dismissed as "trash" and passing fads immediately following their conception, let's consider some things. In the same era when Miles Davis was finishing off his commitment to Prestige Records to move to a way more lucrative deal with Columbia, and Dave Brubeck was putting the finishing touches on what would be the first jazz record to sell a million copies, rock and roll burst onto the scene and would change the scene forever. But first, acts like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly would never enjoy the "squeaky clean" status that boy bands would enjoy just a few decades later, and were immediately subjects of protests, condemnation, and wishes of damnation at the hands of not just Evangelists, but also droves of middle American families who would have probably gone skeet shooting should they have ever found a 45 of "Jail House Rock" in their son or daughter's bedroom.
The trendsetters and music pundits of the time weren't that much more forgiving. In 1962, The Beatles were denied the opportunity to record with Decca Records, with one of their executives quoted saying, "We don't like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out." Of course, another label took the chance on the Fab Four, who went on to make a slew of landmark albums that still, to this day, do not sound dated.
In the late 1970s, acts such as the Sugarhill Gang and their ilk began the practice of sampling and "rapping" rhymes over borrowed and created beats. Before long, more acts started cropping up, and this completely new sound, crawling out of the piles of broken mirror balls left from the disco era, started to gain footing in its own right. Fast forward a decade later, and emcees such as Run DMC, Sir Mix A Lot, LL Cool J, and Eric B and Rakim made respected names for themselves. Enter the next decade, and it has gone from a simple new sound to groove and sing along to at concerts, but a stern wake up call of the horrors of daily life that won't be ignored for anything.
Critics and parents alike joined together to lambast these new sounds in their time, despite how both eventually would begin burning up the radio waves, large mainstream concert halls and, of course, the Billboard charts. But more than anything, both, well out of their infancy, were almost universally dismissed as the current passing fads that would soon go the way of Day Glo, bell bottoms, leg warmers, and those creepy Teddy Ruxpin bears that have still yet to make a comeback.
So, how is it that rock & roll and hip hop, in all of their forms and evolutions, have stuck around for this long and continue to enjoy mainstream success (not to mention the occasional bit of critical acclaim), while all the jazz artists in the world can't collectively sell as many CDs, records, or downloads as whoever is being spun every hour on Top 40 stations does in a couple of months? Two words: staying relevant.
All of the major genres and subgenres, including not just rock and hip hop, but country, metal, EDM, pop, and most all the rest that don't have a built-in audience (Christian rock, for example) have seen to it that the genre does not just include the casual purchase of the latest genre mainstay or up and coming artist; they've turned them all into a way of life that was big back in the day, and still is embraced to this day. While walking downtown or waiting for a bus at the STA Plaza, for instance, some fifteen-year old pairing spikey stud bracelets with black pants and coordinating Slipknot shirt denotes him or her as a heavy metal fan. A guy donning a plain white t-shirt with baggy jeans emblazoned with an image of Tupac Shakur most definitely loves him some hip hop. A girl walking the mall in wild colored shirts, shuffle pants, and accessorized with plenty of beads, candy necklaces, and a binky right in the middle is a sign that she is all about rave culture.
And when those folks want to spend the night amongst their metal, hip hop, or dubstep loving peers, it's easy to find their tribe most definitely in places such as the Lilac City, Emerald City, and even smaller, more conservative areas such as the Tri Cities. No worries, though if someone doesn't want to get all decked out, though; shows at places like The Pin and the Knitting Factory are "come as you are," and offer access to anyone who can plunk down the money for a ticket. In other words, nobody really sticks out like a sore thumb.
Then, when they hit home, or have the next day off, the music videos by their favorite artists are easily accessible on You Tube and other online video channels. Or, if they stay up late enough on some networks claiming to be "Music Television," you'll catch their latest slickly produced creations showcasing their brand new singles.
Modern day pop culture also continues to introduce, and re-introduce the old guard of still thriving genres and subgenres to the new masses, and have, the vast majority of times, met with enormous success. Movies like Across the Universe and I Am Sam, for instance, reintroduced the millennial generation to the magic of the Beatles. The ridiculously popular CW horror/drama series, Supernatural, adds liberal doses of the stuff that was coming out when my folks were in high school. Now, shirts sold at Hot Topic at a fast clip feature the title "Carry On My Wayward Son," which has now turned fans of Sam and Dean into Kansas fans as well.
Each of these also has its own lingo that, most of the time is used by all in the chosen lifestyle genre, but then has been carried on and amended by modern times by younger fans. In this day and age, I have heard hip hoppers from 15-55 using the expressions "fresh," and "Bye, Felicia," while those on the beginning of the range have added new expressions to the lexicon such as "on fleek," "tight," and "pimpin'."
These pieces of evidence point out the exact reasons as to why jazz isn't "fresh," but rather is well past its sell by date. Jazz once had it's own lingo ("he's a cool cat," "you're an icky,"), especially in that time when jazz actually was the pop music when folks such as Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman blew onto the scene. But now, try going up to a random college kid browsing Kanye West records at Urban Outfitters and call him a "cat," and you're almost sure to be met with some really strange looks.
There are no widely available cable channels which feature jazz programming exclusively. And if one is hoping to catch an old Miles clip or the new short form video of one of the singles of a newer act like Kamasi Washington, the chances of being able to see either of those things on MTV, VH1, or Fuse as slimmer than slim to none. Nowadays, there also is no such thing as "jazz style," beyond buying the t-shirts such as my aforementioned "YES, I LISTEN TO JAZZ, GET OVER IT" or the ones you can get on Amazon with images of classic album covers. What was once called "America's Classical Music" has no equal to metal's studded bracelets, the raver's shuffle pants, or hip hop's baggy jeans and white tees. To put it another way, jazz is not a way of life like all the rest; it's just a random set of records that rarely, if ever, will be bought by anyone who wasn't around when swing dancing was all the rage from coast to coast.
But more than everything, the image that jazz, as a whole does have, and has done nothing to change, is why the genre, in modern times, is on a more brutal downward spiral than when Bird started spending as much time doing drugs as he did on the bandstand. Case and point: any time that jazz has taken center stage in a place like Spokane, the shows are not meant for universal appeal. The only time I have ever seen a big name in the genre play a show is at nice, fancy venues such at The Fox, The Bing, or the INB Performing Arts Center (which was still called the Opera House when I walked across said stage to receive my Rogers High diploma in June of 2004). And when you go on, the people are not just way older than myself (my dad blended in when we saw Herb Alpert together last July), but are dressed to the nines, have that certain way of talking, and have that heir of high society chic. Once over, these suit and evening gown-donning folks gather for wine tasting while taking in a trio of young men playing live West Coast cool in tuxedos and Brooks Brothers suits. So, if you're a jeans and t-shirts kind of guy like me who can't stand wine of any kind, the occasional awkward glance is very likely.
Even at one point in history, I even thought that some very good entrants into jazz's new guard would take their place amongst the heavies from when the new incarnations were all fresh, new, and, dare I say, du jour. Brian Setzer put together an orchestra and released an album called "The Dirty Boogie" in the mid 90s; that cut exploded not just on the charts, but was on every radio for the longest time, and even was on heavy rotation on both VH1 and MTV. Then came along a group called The Cherry Poppin' Daddies who scored their own mega hit, "Zoot Suit Riot" which also played like crazy on the video channels. Those songs were so popular, that my P.E. teachers put them into their own heavy rotation when we began our class unit on swing dancing. That could have been the spark that jazz needed to reclaim its place as a cultural phenomenon; a really American music that rivaled country and hip hop as respected and well-loved formats. But then I never saw a video from either artist again on the music channels, and it all went right back to the fancy theaters and their $30 vintages.
How jazz became so pompous and pretentious also never fails to boggle my mind. After the seeds were sown for the genre by slaves dancing and signing in Congo Square, by the call and response of those picking cotton out in Mississippi fields, it never was fancy, and was even seen as a lower kind of noise. Early jazz was the soundtracks of skilled musicians playing along to the "action" they saw going on Storyville brothels in the Red Light District of New Orleans; it was once referred to "gut bucket music," and was the background to those drinking smuggled whisky in password-protected "Speakeasies" that dotted the landscape behind the back of those enforcing The Volstead Act. I can venture an educated guess that the founders of the genre as we know it never intended this "creating art on the spot" music to be reserved exclusively for the cultured and affluent, and I'm sure they'd be rolling in their graves if the only knew what it has become.
Anything lives or dies at the hands of our younger generation, because these taste makers will dictate where the money is made. And so, if we all want jazz to re-gain the respect it deserves, the way to do it is to take a page from everyone else. First, feature new artists prevalently during video blocks on music-related cable channels. They often play mixes of all the major genres. And to do this, make video making a major part of the jazz artist's marketing strategy. Since 1981, the year MTV launched, so many more people's tastes have been influenced by cool visuals to sell their future favorite cuts and help them to decide what records will be bought with their lawn mowing or babysitting money. Heck, even Herbie Hancock found this out when his video for "Rock It," not only helped him moved lots of copies of his record, "Future Shock," but also became mandatory in the record crates of every break dancer for some time.
Next, Get our youth hooked on the up and comers, then introduce them to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Billie Holliday, and all the rest of the essentials. Once they've been turned on, make the albums more readily accessible, and make sure plenty of copies are on hand when the hot new videos enter heavy rotation.
Step three: establish an identity. Emo has it's black hair with colored streaks, messenger bags adorned with pins, and tight jeans. EDM champions shuffle pants and binky necklaces. Hip hop has it's baggy jeans and white tees, but even has it's own fashion lines like Fubu, Southpole, and Rocawear. Whatever jazz's uniform may be, establish it, and make it known so prospective new fans of the genre can learn it and love it. Maybe bring Zoot Suits back; black-rimmed glasses and the berets championed by Dizzy Gillespie; bowler hats and fedoras. And definitely Hot Topic ought to begin displaying Diz, Bird, Miles, Coltrane, and contemporaries like Kamasi Washington and Medeski, Martin, and Wood in the same place where Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Beatles tops can be obtained.
Last but not least: lose the pretentiousness and put it where music fans go a lot more often for their fun nights out. Nobody was doing wine tasting when Diz and Bird were swapping chops; and it definitely wasn't the case when Miles was hammering it out before his "Kind of Blue" days. Once the music has caught on, the youth are loving it, and they are enjoying those "fresh" new jazz-inspired fashions now available in every American shopping mall, they need a place to put it all together and socialize. Take it out of the sometimes-stuffy feeling of The Fox, and bring it back to its roots in places like The Knitting Factory and The Pin. Don't charge exorbitant amounts for tickets, and put on a treat for the ears and eyes while patrons may enjoy a glass of wine, but also can enjoy a $6 clear cup of Bud Light, Coors Light, or a mixed adult beverage not named after a posh New York borough.
Jazz is an amazing music with a very fascinating history that once enjoyed a run as the country's pop music from the car, to the home, to the dance halls. Before and after the Benny Goodman show was the place to be, improvised jazz was something to be reckoned with, and was only enjoyed by the coolest of the cool. But somewhere along the way, jazz lost its luster and became irrelevant to few, mainly because it failed to take the same cues of other genres, many of the same eras, that still are in favor with the current younger generation. But with a few simple steps taken, and the effort to show young people that jazz is just as cool as hip hop or rave music, we can breathe new life into something amazing. Only, should this ever happen, can we never borrow the phrase, "on fleek," from the hip hop crowd?