Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is Jazz Still Culturally Relevant?

I love jazz. Like folk music, it's a style that can be hard to define. Many people visualize a horn or saxophone when they think about jazz. If you were in a band in high school or if you play an orchestral instrument, you're a potential audience for jazz. If you love singers like I do, then you are soon pulled into this world.

Loving jazz is like loving cowboys, silent movies, or long train rides. There's a sentimentality to it. Jazz has a small audience. It's typically over 40 and well-off. The music is taught in colleges and universities now (forget the romance of cultivating your love by frequenting nightclubs, like Nat King Cole did listening to Art Tatum). It's perceived as something that you have to "get" (and those who do "get" it are thought of as intellectual).

I was moved to blog this morning by a report on the BBC about a new website where you can hear performances from the Newport Jazz Festival circa 1959. In the report, they discuss how jazz was in its heyday 50 years ago when it was "culturally relevant." That phrase struck with me.

Why is jazz not relevant to our culture today? What made jazz relevant 50 years ago? Let's start with the latter question. 1959 was a "swing year" in so many ways. It was the end of the Eisenhower administration. The conservatism and repression long associated with this cultural time was being jostled by the Beats, and the jazz world was energized by the Bebop style. It was no longer just big-band music--like poetry or folk music (also rising at this time), jazz was highly individualistic and expressive. We were turning the corner politically and culturally in this country.

Are we at a similar juncture today? Perhaps not just yet. Fifty years ago it was much easier to get audiences to listen. Now it seems people are almost discombobulated by all the clamor and appeals for their attention. Jazz is not relevant because it makes demands on listeners. It's not glitz and fog machines on stage. It's a melodic line re-imagined inventively. It's the interplay of silence and sound.

The report concludes with a call to not let jazz become a "fetish about the past". Listeners are urged to go to a club and experience jazz live. It's there you'll capture its essence: how it's a spontaneous and creative music, and how a performance is molded from communication between the players.

Great advice. That's how my love grew. Jazz will have a future as long as there is a need for intimacy. In this clamorous, hyperkinetic world, you'd think the jazz tide would be rising. Maybe all those American Idol viewers and karaoke singers will grow a little older and find their way to the club. Here's hoping they do.

No comments: