The Jazz Challenge

I made a new friend recently, Garrett Shelton, who’s worked at jazz labels Verve, Decca, and Sunnyside, and now does freelance consulting for jazz artists including Dave Holland. Garrett packed up his tent and came from NYC to one of Topspin’s training camps a few weeks back and we ended up killing a bottle of wine and talking about the future of jazz (or lack thereof) in my back yard.

I say lack thereof because it ain’t pretty, folks. Check this report on arts participation in 2008 from the National Endowment for the arts which Garrett shared with me. Headlines: 7.8% of Americans saw a jazz show in 2008, down from 10.8% in 2002. But even more scary the median age of the jazz-show goer (yes, that’s a phrase) is 46, up from 29 in 1982, and the college-educated jazz record-listening audience has dropped nearly 30% since 2002 with just under 15% of Americans listening to jazz records last year.

Ouch. And this is an original American art form.

[Update: I started writing this post many weeks ago and since there have been numerous sources picking up on the NEA figures. See a particularly pessimistic story from the WSJ and responses from NYT, Brilliant Corners, A Blog Supreme, Ottawa Citizen, and Arts Journal. Still, none of these really hit on the point I wanted to make: I’m surprised the jazz community isn’t yet benefitting from the advantages niches have on the Internet, so I figured this post was still worth finishing.]

My relationship with jazz started accidentally and vocationally. In 1988, prior to my junior year in high school, I self-enrolled (against my guidance counselor’s advice and wishes) at the Elkhart Area Career Center. “That’s for drop-outs,” she told me, and advised me to take more Shakespeare and calculus. I didn’t understand why drop-outs were given the advantage of learning a trade skill in “the music business” (radio broadcasting was close enough for me) and I was destined to learn things on the “honors” track that stood as much a chance of getting me a job as smoking weed and skateboarding (which were way more fun). So off I went, driving 30 minutes a day to EACC with Nate Weaver and spending half a day learning to splice tape under a mostly nascent teacher named Mr. Trout.

The EACC just happened to be connected to the FM radio station with more hours of on-air jazz than any other in the country, WVPE (big ups to Jon Kaufman-Kennel, Kay McAdam, and Tim Eby!). WVPE didn’t have more hours of jazz because they loved jazz, necessarily, but WNDU (Notre Dame University) had classical covered and WVPE couldn’t (yet) afford NPR affiliation, so they filled the airtime with the *next* most popular non-pop genre for affluent North-Indianans: jazz.

In order to keep their funding from the school, they had to let EACC students on the air at least once a day, usually for about two minutes to read the news in the afternoon. It was inevitably a clumsy disaster because, my guidance counselor was right, my fellow students were not exactly destined for the ivy leagues. Then there was me, the “should be in that Shakespeare class” kid. As one WVPE employee (who shall remain nameless, just in case) said to me, “You came along and we said, ‘Wow! This one can read!’ So we offered you a job.”

Apart from the pay, it was the greatest high-school job, ever. I came to be in charge of the station on the weekends and a couple nights/week. A lot of the time was spent running satellite feeds (Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, Prarie Home Companion, etc) or pre-recorded tapes, but they did trust me to run the “Jazz Album Countdown” every Sunday afternoon since no knowledge of jazz was required, you just had to run down the top 30 jazz records from Radio and Records Magazine (in my second year they did start letting me program my own jazz shows, starting with The Jazz Brunch on Sunday morning).

At the time, I could tell you a hell of a lot about AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Black Flag, The Misfits, or Minor Threat, but I didn’t know shit about jazz when I walked in that door. It all sounded the same to me and the vastness of the genre was overwhelming. To make matters worse, the jazz that was charting in Radio and Records in the late 80s was basically dentist office music, unchallenging smooth jazz. But every now and then something amazing would sneak in, some John Scofield, something kinda outside by Branford or Courtney Pine, or something just beautiful like Frank Morgan’s Mood Indigo.

Then I got to know the folks who did the specialty shows: Van Young was a local high school English teacher who did a Dixieland show on Wednesday nights and had crazy stories about when he was a trumpeter (career cut short when someone broke his jaw with a music stand, over a girl). He got me to read On The Road and generally gave me a clue about how punk jazz was once upon a time. Then there was *another* high school English teacher (I kid you not) moonlighting as late-night jazz radio DJ (sorry I’m forgetting your name, man) who did a show on Friday nights called The Jazz Alley. He played COOL jazz, from Miles and Coltrane to Dolphy and Abdullah Ibrahim.

Slowly, I was starting to sort through the genre and figure out what of it I loved. I realized Miles’ Pangaea and Agharta fit well with the Sly and Parliament/Funkadelic I’d been listening to, Scofield’s Flat Out had not one but two Meters covers on it, and I started picking up the staples: Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, Mingus Ah Um, Miles’ Kind Of Blue, Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, etc. In addition to On The Road I read Art Pepper’s Straight Life and Mingus’ Beneath The Underdog (favorites to this day). It was also great to have access to the contemporary stuff, because there *was* a lot going on in the jazz world. I remember when Vincent Herring came on the scene, moving from a street player to being a respected artist and composer. Then there were things which were pretty sanitary but the playing was amazing, like Dave Weckl on a Michel Camillo record. It was a blast.

But the one record which pretty much set me in my jazz listening ways for the next twenty years was the Blue Note 50th Anniversary “Funk and Blues” record. This compilation introduced me to the artists and the period which would become some of my favorites: Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, and Horace Silver. It sent me down a path I still haven’t worn out, and led me to Grant Green, Sonny Clark, and many others.

Hooking up with Beastie Boys after college didn’t hurt, either. Mike D knows jazz as well as anyone his age, turning me on to things like Albert Ayler and what became one of my favorite albums of all time, John Patton’s Understanding. Also, being an EMI recording artist Mike is on the Blue Note flow list, including tons of incredible stuff from Japan. He’s always good for a few recommends. Staying at his place last week while traveling I turned on the CD player and right behind a great afro-funk compilation was the best of Lou Donaldson. Can’t, won’t, don’t stop.

For some reason I’ve been listening to jazz more and more these days. It sounds better to me now than ever. Having Rhapsody in the house via Control 4 has been a huge boon, and I’ve been sampling from its jazz shelves liberally lately.

Despite how much I’ve been listening to jazz, I realized I haven’t had much *new* jazz in my life since I left the radio station (I went off to college in 1990 after they offered me a full-time position post-high school at *drum roll* $10K/year. I kid not.). This is partially due to how incredible and expansive the old catalog is, but mostly because I really don’t have any source of new jazz discovery. I know of plenty of blogs where I can get vinyl rips of classic jazz records, but I don’t know any blogs where I find out about the best new jazz (if you follow one, please let me know). There’s, which is fine but I have to admit, it’s not exactly helping bring the rising age of the average jazz fan down any, it’s not exactly Pitchfork for jazz fans, if you know what I mean, nothing “cool” about it.

Which brings me to the original impetus for this post (sorry it took so long): I have been talking to Garrett about loving jazz and not knowing where to discover it, and he was pointing out that while the Internet is allowing many niche music genres to flourish (this isn’t conjecture, I spoke with someone from an independent distributor recently who told me that while the business is definitely depressed the independents have more records in the top 200 albums than ever in recent history), jazz doesn’t seem to be benefiting from this change in physics. It would appear jazz has a chicken/egg problem: it’s not an Internet-generation art form so it hasn’t picked up the tools of the Internet-age yet, but as a result it hasn’t had the opportunity to benefit from some of the niche-ification other genres have.

Garrett dumped a ton of recent release recommendations in my lap and I’ve spent a ton of time lately listening to records by Guillermo Klein, E.S.T., James Carter, Chris Potter, and others. I feel like I keep up on what’s going on in music generally but it’s been really humbling to absorb all his recommendations. Nothing like literally PILES of amazing music you’ve never even heard of to make you realize you don’t know what you don’t know.

I have two requests of the jazz world:

  1. Build modern artist Web sites. Apart from their relative age, there is no reason the new pop group Chester French should have a better Web site than nearly every jazz artist on the planet. Take a look underneath and it’s just built on simple tools built by someone else: WordPress, Facebook, Topspin, etc. James Carter is one of my favorites in the new school of jazz, but check out his Web site, it’s just a step above an AngelFire page from 1998. After digging his new record I went to James’ site to get on his mailing list hoping I could get updates on new releases, shows, etc (I’m a fan for years but didn’t even know he had a new album — I saw him at the Jazz Bakery a few years back, who knows how many times I’ve missed him since?) but it turns out he doesn’t even have a mailing list. Ouch. Wayne Shorter is one of jazz’s true living legends but for some reason he doesn’t doesn’t even have his own Web site. Can you imagine if Springsteen or Dylan didn’t have Web sites? Can you imagine what an immersive Wayne Shorter world could deliver, with unreleased recordings, special limited edition packages for true fans, etc?

    Per Garrett, here are a few artists who do get it, and are doing a great job building their online presence: Dave Douglas (perfect SEO *and* and XML site map via Google!), Maria Schneider, Wynton Marsalis, The Bad Plus, and Dave Binney. Sign up for their mailing lists and reward them by responding when they reach out to you by going to their shows, buying, and sharing their music. Also, sign up at the Dave Holland site because based on what I’ve seen is coming I think Dave and Garrett might be setting a new standard for what a jazz artist’s online presence can be. He tells me they’re launching later this month; throw your email addr in the widget below, get two free songs from Dave Holland, and they’ll let you know when it’s ready.

    I’m not asking that every jazz artist start blogging and Twittering, but I do think there’s a real opportunity being overlooked for jazz artists to connect with their fans the way coffee shop players in the singer/songwriter world have been for the past decade. Speaking as a fan, I think I’d check out more new records and see more jazz shows if I was getting emails from my favorite artists letting me know what they’re up to and what I could do to support.

  2. Modernize the jazz portals and hubs. I’m dying for a resource that’s going to turn me on to what’s going on in the jazz scene. Where’s the Oh My Rockness-style newsletter that tells me what’s going on in the jazz world (or why doesn’t Oh My Rockness tell me when Lonnie Smith is playing The Mint? that show was more rad than half the shows they list!)? Why is it when I go to get on Catalina Bar & Grill’s mailing list it’s a weird Web form that pops a mailto: and PHONE NUMBER AND FAX ARE REQUIRED FIELDS?! Do a search on Google for “jazz bakery”. The TOP FIVE LINKS are all 404s. Argh.

    I’d love to see a Pitchfork-style jazz site collecting a few great writers and featuring the “Best New Music” in jazz, one place I can go to for the jazz records those writers feel matters. But I’d settle for the jazz version of Aquarium Drunkard, a stylish site well-run by a single fan. Perhaps these exist and I just haven’t been turned on to them yet? I certainly haven’t seen it all. Please, let me know.

Jazz world, seriously, and I mean this with all due respect: WAKE THE FUCK UP. It’s nearly 2010 and your art form is tracking the median age of people who were once into Hill Street Blues. There are a bunch of kids out here who are exactly like I was, in fact there are even more of them. The kids reading Pitchfork are on a slippery slope your direction, yet Pitchfork won’t review a “jazz” record unless it was recorded in Africa. Where is the scene? Make it accessible. Make it cool.

Start with the basics: have a decent Web site, collect email addresses, communicate with your fans, connect with your fans. Work the basic equation Mike Masnick laid out in his NARM keynote this year: Connection With Fans + Reason To Buy = $$.

Shameless plug for Garrett: thanks for inspiring me to listen to a ton of new music. I hope you can bring more than just Dave into the Internet age. If you’re a jazz artist and would like his help, you can find Garrett right over here.

Music is the best,

ps – Gail told me I have to credit Frank whenever I say “Music is the best” — that’s a Zappa quote, y’all. Tru dat.