A couple of months back I began a series of interview conversations for www.jazz.com. Recognizing forever that the major issue facing jazz is certainly not a shortage of exceptional musicians; nor are there limited education opportunities for those who wish to pursue jazz performance. The biggest issue we face is developing & growing the jazz audience. The recent and rather specious National Endowment for the Arts audience survey which purports that the jazz audience has dwindled to alarming lows has put everyone on high alert — including a high alert signal from Terry Teachout’s overwrought recent piece in the Wall Street Journal in which he reported on that survey and otherwise postulated in dire terms on the jazz audience: small numbers, cloudy future.
Fortunately Nate Chinen followed up with a reasoned and very balanced response in the August 19 edition of the New York Times that openly questioned the findings of the NEA survey and the subsequent dire responses of Teachout and prior to him Ted Gioia in www.jazz.com, while pointing to the young-ish and quite enthusiastic audiences he’s encountered at jazz presentations around the city. Nate wondered aloud where the NEA, Teachout, and Gioia were looking for their evidence (perhaps Jazz at Lincoln Center where the big-ticket concerts and fairly staid menu tend to attract an older, more monied audience). Not long after Nate’s piece came a release quoting George Wein on the surprising and unprecedented young audience his recent renewal of the Newport Jazz Festival (under the Care/Fusion banner) drew to Fort Adams State Park.
The negative reportage of Teachout strikes me as more of what we longtime observers have read ad nauseum down through the years; more of the old bromide I refer to as the "…oh jazz, ‘po jazz, woe is jazz…" syndrome; first cousin to those periodic is jazz dying/jazz is dead/death of jazz doomsayers that have cropped up every five years or so since nearly the dawn of the music. As an anecdote and a kind of DIY guidepost to others who may be sitting around gnashing their teeth or otherwise decrying the dearth of jazz in their given community, the series I started last spring at www.jazz.com is a series of conversations with jazz presenters — occasionally based in what in jazz parlance might be considered relatively disparate communities (at least where jazz performances are concerned) — under the umbrella of Setting the Stage.
The first three installments in the series — still available at www.jazz.com by Search — were conversations with John Gilbreath of Earshot Jazz (and the Earshot Jazz Festival) in Seattle, WA; Marty Ashby of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, PA; and Tom Guralnick of Outpost Productions (and the New Mexico Jazz Festival) in Albuquerque, NM. The current conversation hews closer to the cauldron of jazz, an interview with Loren Schoenberg of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem project, under the heading Jazz Outreach in Harlem. The next installent in the series, slated for September, will be with an amazing jazz presenter in Burlington, VT at the Flynn Theatre (and the 27-year old Discover Jazz Festival), Arnie Malina. Check it out at www.jazz.com. These are grassroots, DIY jazz presenters who’ve carved out significant niches in the cultural life of their communities; there is much to be learned from these folks, lessons that might lead to similar new or renewed life for jazz in your own community. Take the bull by the horns and Do It Yourself!!!