If Not Jazz Education, What Will Rebuild Jazz Audiences?

In a recent Huffington Post submission, pianist and composer Kurt Ellenberger writes about what he calls “the education fallacy”: the premise that an increase in music education will lead to increased audiences. He’s writing here about classical music, but draws a parallel with jazz:

On the education spending issue, it’s common to hear musicians say, “well, we’re not spending enough, that’s why we’re not building classical music audiences — we need to spend more on education.” I return to Jazz Education, where we went from spending very little, to spending hundreds of millions, with nothing to show for it in regards to audience development. Why did the jazz audience decline, not grow, as the spending rapidly increased? Is there any reason to think that more spending would succeed with classical music where it has failed with jazz?

As evidence that jazz education has “failed” to produce new audiences, Ellenberger cites data demonstrating the proliferation of jazz education in colleges, summer camps and high schools. At the same time, he also states that discussions like the Jazz Audiences Initiative are responses to declining jazz audiences.

Ellenberger, I gather, is also on faculty at Grand Valley State University, and from that perch once helped to produce jazz concerts himself. (He plays in the Grand Valley State New Music Ensemble once featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition.) That is, he’s seen the shifts in education spending and audience decline in person. As he is paid to be a jazz educator, it seems unlikely that he’s attacking the entire system that supports him — just its efficacy at seeding jazz audiences.

I find this perspective compelling, but also a bit frustrating.

The logical next question is: Why? Why did this fail; why isn’t there a correlation? It would seem that producing lots of jazz-literate former students would create the next generation of professional musicians and its dedicated fans. If students seem to engage with the music deeply when they’re studying it, why aren’t they going to shows when they grow up?

In a separate post on his own blog, Ellenberger submits an answer:

Music is a cultural artifact, and the culture has moved on. Jazz has moved on as well, further and further away from being “popular music,” and yet jazz culture (particularly jazz education) stubbornly adheres to a stodgy conservatism which is hopelessly mired in romantic notions of the Golden Age (circa 1950-1960). (This decade has been reified by many performers, critics, and academics for a variety of legitimate reasons which I will not go into here.) Here we are, a half century later, and jazz musicians continue to foster the attitudes, behaviors, and sometimes even the hopelessly worn-out hipster lingo from that bygone era. While I’m sure this is emotionally comforting as subculture signifiers, to the outside world, this nostalgic indulgence must appear archaic, comical, and desperate. Jazz and its affectations certainly aren’t “cool” anymore, and haven’t been for decades; these signifiers no longer identify the user as a slick, modern, and rebellious hipster.

Read that carefully: He’s not saying that the music is stuck in a notion of the “golden age,” but that the culture around jazz is. It’s actually remarkably similar to Nicholas Payton’s declaration that “jazz,” as a construct that supports the music, lost its appeal a long time ago.

But frustratingly, that’s where Ellenberger stops. Nicholas Payton has suggested “Black American Music” as a better frame of reference than “jazz.” That suggestion frustrated a lot of people, but at least it got those people thinking. Here’s where I would have liked to see Ellenberger’s recommendations as to attracting an audience in addition to his critique of what didn’t work. How can so-called jazz music catch up to culture?

This question has been implicitly answered by a number of folks discussed on this blog lately. The band BADBADNOTGOOD seems to be rejecting a lot of jazz culture outright. In contrast, the pianist Christian Sands seems to be embracing the jazz tradition, but infusing his music with contemporary influences. And a bunch of musicians are taking cues from punk rock (and under-emphasized parts of jazz history) with intimate DIY shows.

Another person who I think has some useful recommendations is the pianist Jason Moran. Conveniently, he was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation two weeks ago, on the excuse of International Jazz Day, and these very issues came up:

I mean, you know, there’s a thing that happens when we start to take the form for granted. So, I mean, even stylistically, if I’m looking at photographs of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington with his 18-piece orchestra, impeccably dressed, sitting behind, you know, equally formatted music stands, all with the title ‘Duke Ellington’ — you know, like an immaculate set for a stage, as well.

You know, we take that form for granted about how to present the music. And I think to a degree, we have to rethink just how do we present this music in 2012 and for the future. I mean, it can’t be on the same model that happened in 1908 or 1958, you know. It has to continue to move because the way the world works is not the same.

“For me, it’s the recontextualization,” Moran said earlier in the conversation. The music may be top-notch, and emotionally powerful to those used to its conventions — but how will it fit into modern lives? Moran is now curating jazz shows for the Kennedy Center, so starting next season, he’ll have many more chances to recontextualize for audiences.

Moran’s is hardly the only vision for presenting music in new ways, and we need to hear others. The last time the jazz community collectively agreed to argue about its audience was around Terry Teachout’s 2009 op-ed “Can Jazz Be Saved?” I pointed it out then, and I will continue to now: Lamenting the loss of concertgoers is a lot more useful when you also suggest ways to win new ones.

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