The art form we call Jazz just underwent a very public look in the mirror, some of it constructive, some of it - depending on your opinion - not so much. Just days before the start of the brouhaha, I authored a blog post asking whether jazz could use its own Occupy movement, or could at least benefit from a OWS-style "moment of clarity". Even at the time I knew I wanted to talk to Vijay Iyer, one of Jazz's leading voices and deepest thinkers. Iyer has done more than most to silence critics and point a direction for Jazz with his music alone, but he's also an exceptionally lucid and passionate commentator through his writing on the subject.
After some of my own observation and soul-searching, I'd arrived at the belief that the truly productive conversation jazz musicians needed to be having was the big conversation - what external factors are shaping our collective fates, and what can we do about it. (Let's take the helm and deal with this Iceberg before fighting over the fine china in the dining room.) Vijay Iyer, who put the whole dilemma in great context in a 2010 piece he wrote for Jazz Times, was among those who started that conversation.
The Jazz Times piece was itself a response to an earlier article. In 2009, Wall Street Journal arts critic Terry Teachout fired the "shot heard around the (jazz) world", writing that despite apparently ample funding, jazz was suffering a decline in its audience. It may have been a "cheap shot" - evidence of the supposed glut of funding was both dubious and contradictory of even the most casual anecdotal observation, and the survey Teachout used as a source (a National Endowment for the Arts survey) was probably looking too narrowly at definitions of "jazz" and "jazz fans", and in the midst of a recession to-boot - but it started a wonderful dialogue. Pieces written by Nate Chinen and Iyer Himself were some of the most spirited defenses Jazz had seen in decades. Previously underground groups now graced the front pages of Times' Arts section. People were asking productive questions about the meaning/importance of the music, and how to "pay it forward." Like Wisconsin post-Scott-Walker, Jazz had Found Its Voice.
But what of it? The last volley in that exchange was fired over a year ago, and where are we now? Iyer had trenchantly rebutted Teachout's claim that either the music itself or a preternatural lack of audience enthusiasm was responsible for the dismal survey results-
[Teachout] speculated that we musicians had abandoned our audience in moving the music toward an esoteric art and away from populist entertainment. (I suppose he meant to include Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Anthony Braxton and all those other culprits in his accusations.)
I saw this as a reactionary, blame-the-victim argument. The reality is that public and institutional support for the arts in the U.S. has systematically declined over the last 30 years. Meanwhile, as the top 1 percent of private earners amassed unprecedented amounts of increasingly tax-free wealth, they mostly failed to invest in the production, presentation, preservation and infrastructure of jazz.
So we know what jazz is not, but a great many of us are trying to wrap our heads around exactly what this nuanced art form, in a dynamic economy that's seen the real-estate bubble - and with it a great deal of arts funding - evaporate, at the same time as some of the baddest musicians ever are rising to prominence. When I finally got the opportunity to talk to Vijay, I wanted to go right to the heart-of-the matter. What's the economic future of this music? Here's what he wrote in 2010-
At least once a week I get laughed at when a close friend or family member notices the thousands of “friends,” “followers” and “likes” I have accumulated on various social networks. Of course, like my fellow musicians I tend to accept all requests, because music is about connecting and because we do it for the world to hear, blah blah blah. But I have also come to realize that a good portion—perhaps a majority—of these friend-fan-followers are in fact none of these things; rather, they are enterprising young musicians seeking access and opportunities—the same music students and underemployed recent graduates mentioned above.
So my question is, can we achieve anything productive with this de facto musicians’ network? Can we marshal this virtual community of ours to confront the current situation? Is it preposterous to suggest that we all work not just as artists but as advocates, instigators, programmers, curators—the musical equivalent of community organizers? Can we imagine a “Field of Dreams” model where we, with our massive network, build the very nationwide jazz infrastructure that we’ve been waiting for?
Dismissing arguments about the nature of the music itself or the enthusiasm of the audiences as either fallacious or irrelevant, Iyer had touched on some of the small number of ideas to have shown actual success in generating new interest and revenue for jazz. The musicians are here, enthusiastic, and making great music. The audiences are here - can we just circumvent the "bottlenecks" the same way podcasts did terrestrial radio? (If "we build it" will they indeed "come"?) I was curious about Iyer's ground-level observations as an international touring artist. Who were the audiences?
NS: In responding to Terry Teachout's 2009 column alleging jazz audiences were "drying up" you mentioned that you and colleagues had a great many followers on social media, and that many of them were themselves aspiring musicians. My question - from your vantage point, is the primary audience for jazz now other jazz musicians?
Iyer: No, I don't think so, but it's the future audience, in that most "other jazz musicians" under 40 are people who have come out of music schools and have a certain musical literacy. Now it's not possible that they will all have stellar lifelong careers in music, but they will probably always have music in their lives and will always care about it.
But in my travels and in my experiences performing for people, the audiences are all sorts of people. I think certain musicians - Chris Potter, for example - will always have young musicians as a sizeable fraction of their followings, but that's probably more the exception. And let me also say that the main way to keep the audiences from getting and staying old is to incorporate young people into the presenting organizations that put on concerts. That always makes a difference.
In my experience the places with the older audiences are the places that don't have any young people on their staffs, either as curators or in marketing/etc so it's not about geography. It's more about identity. Well it's also about geography. But only in the sense that it matters whether there are places to see music in the first place.
An optimistic assessment. Jazz students don't account for the majority of jazz fans (phew) but they are mostly going to grow up to be life long jazz fans, whether or not they end up as professional musicians, and that's one of the primary ways jazz' audience is renewing itself. Iyer also answered a question I hadn't asked but had wanted to - "Do you feel that the cultural attitude we have toward, and the value we assign to, jazz, and to creative arts in general in the United States, differs from what you see elsewhere in the world, and does that affect sales/gig attendance/fan enthusiasm?"
"Only in the sense that it matters whether there are places to see music in the first place."
With time for only one other "burning question", I wanted to turn my attention toward the music itself. Teachout, in an argument adopted - uncritically, in my view - by a great many jazz musicians, implies the music itself bears some of the blame for the seeming decline in its popularity. To a degree no one disputes that in making the transition from popular music to "art music", jazz inevitably lost a big percentage of its fan base. But that's ancient history. It's been that way since 1959. More recently, a certain crowd has alleged that it's jazz' inauthenticity that has hampered its sales.
Chinen put it best-
One big subtext of [Ken Burns' Jazz film] was a conviction deeply held by Mr. Marsalis: jazz is a tradition with clear parameters, and absent certain elements it ceases to be jazz. Much the same message lies at the heart of Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Mr. Marsalis is artistic director.
Yet, as Chinen observes, it's the music that lies on the margins of those parameters that's some of the most successful. The music - obviously - does matter, but maybe not in the way Teachout and his ilk implied. That Vijay Iyer plays to large/enthusiastic/diverse crowds seems to contradict the assumption at the heart of the "blame the music" meme - namely that audiences want jazz that's simple, predictable, and repertory, and that they were shunning jazz because it had become too "edgy". One of the reasons I found this so absurd on its face was that practically to-a-one, all the icons of jazz history challenged audiences. Bird. Mingus. Monk. Trane. Sure, it stopped being top-40 radio, but for a long time after that jazz was hip precisely because of its rebeliousness.
But those icons have another thing in common. A sense of rhythm and soul that permeates the music. To a degree (and though it's a cliché, it's a well-founded one) they all played "the blues." By that definition, Iyer fits comfortably within the canon. His music is risk-taking, dense, multilayered, and angular, and yet spontaneous, soulful and inviting. Avant-garde in its affect, yet interpreting many popular songs, from Michael Jackson to Stevie Wonder. Music edgy and challenging, yet universally well-received. I wanted to know if Iyer was consciously aware of this duality, and how it struck him.
NS: You're a writer and performer of some music that on its surface seems very "challenging". Angular, odd meters...yet there's been overwhelming enthusiasm for your music. Does jazz - nay, good art - need to succeed on two levels - with "lay" listeners and "wonks" alike - in order to be well-received? If so, are you aware of this when you compose?
Iyer: This stuff you're talking about in my music is only evident to musicians. Most people don't [care] about it. They just respond to the groove and the energy and the emotional content. I try to make it interesting for myself, but that's just so that it can push me as an improviser -- because people can hear that push. But for me as a listener, it needs to have those other things - groove, energy, emotion - or else it's going to bore me. I can't speak for others, but I at least try to put myself in the audience's shoes - i.e., would I enjoy this? Bottom line is, I don't try to separate myself from the audience. I try to connect with them.