Are artists really interested in audience development?

The Most Critical Issue in Jazz: Audience Development Pt. 1


Consider this part of an ongoing series on the critical subject of audience development.  Most would agree that we have a wealth of competent-to-exceptional-to-Master level jazz artists.  Jazz education is quite healthy with an increasing number of education institutions offering good-to-excellent education opportunities to the aspiring musician.  There is a veritable glut of jazz recordings released on a daily basis (that glut being perhaps another issue to explore later). 


Yes, there is a huge disparity in the ratio of the number of viable jazz venues and performance opportunities v.s. the number of deserving musicians.  That disparity can be closed by growing the number of jazz consumers, increasing the number of consumers excited by this music… simple audience development.  More audience… more demand… more venues… more opportunity for the significant number of talented jazz artists to ply their craft.  The domino effect of growing the jazz audience is obvious.


What can artists do to assist in the positive development of the jazz audience?  Perhaps adapting more effective, meticulously crafted and considerate means of programming their performances is a good place to start.  There are many observers who feel jazz artists could be more effective at developing the audience purely by adopting more audience-friendly programming skills — without in any way compromising their music. 


I’ve seen first hand how students of this music often feel that all they need to develop is their playing acumen, the rest is beneath their consideration; to hell with stage comportment, stage craft, and programming be damned.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As jazz artists develop their craft they need to be very mindful of learning and adapting programming elements and methods that are more audience-friendly.  If you continue performing just for yourselves pretty soon that’s all that will be happening, you’ll be navel-gazing and engaging in self-aggrandizement exercises played to empty houses.


Let’s for a moment examine the issue of solos, including solo length, and the notion that perhaps the kind of head-solos-head format may induce audience boredom to the overall detriment of jazz audience development.  I recall two acute occasions where I questioned the issue of solo length as a real detriment to audience development.  In both cases the perpetrators were artists I greatly admire — two of the reigning titans of their instrument, and two artists I have written about in laudatory terms, have presented in concert, have played on radio shows, and in one case have interviewed on the air on more than one occasion.  In each case a segment of the audience, most likely jazz initiates, roared their approval while a significant portion of the audience appeared glazed over, dumfounded at what they’d just witnessed.


Awhile back I saw alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club and he was truly on fire!  Straight out of the box — sans intro — he roared into his opening piece and proceeded to play a stem-winding solo that I clocked at over 30-minutes in length.  A few months later at a festival I caught a duo concert featuring alto saxman Sonny Fortune and drummer Rashid Ali.  Incredibly they played "Impressions" for the entire 90 minute set… and Sonny’s solo lasted over 85 minutes!


In both cases these were amazing displays of sheer stamina, though I lost count on where the freshness of ideas ended — certainly well before they each mercifully concluded their solos.  In each case I was left asking myself how a new jazz initiate or tenderfoot audience member might have responded to such a solo.  How would your spouse, partner, children, friends who may not be as deeply immersed in the music as you are respond?  Ultimately I enjoyed both of these performances, but I’m a diehard.  They both left me wondering how someone perhaps less deeply immersed in the music might have responded to these heroic but ultimately monotonous displays.


These two solos and other gymnastic displays I’ve witnessed over the years always remind me of how economically effective grandmasters like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and their cohorts were with their soloing, particularly given the time limitations of the recording format during the majority of their careers.  Think about what brilliance those greats were able to accomplish in their solos on those 3-1/2 minute gems.  In fact Bird once said "…after two choruses you’re just practicing."  And remember what Miles told John Coltrane?  "Take the horn out’cha mouth…"


I polled several people close to jazz music, including enthusiasts, an industry professional, an educator, a critic, a television professional, and an active jazz musician on this subject.  What’s your take on what they had to say?


Enthusiast/fan: "On the one hand, jazz music is supposed to be about creativity, but on the other it does help to have structure, a defined program, and like a good book… an introduction, followed by the story, some low points, some high points, and an ending… before   the reader gets tired of the story."


Music education administrator: "…Less is more…"


Jazz musician: "Most jazz musicians… including myself… at some point in time can be accused of soloing too long on any particular tune.  As a soloist there comes a point when you can stop, or at least go for another helping.  As I get older I am trying to edit myself… say the maximum in the least amount of choruses.  I think every musician must determine what is relevant to them.  They must set some sort of priority or parameter as to what is important to their performance.  I, for one, would love to see more young people at jazz venues, concert halls, etc.  I believe that in order to attract more young folks, we must keep the music more groove oriented, we must have more ensemble arrangement interplay, and keep the solos short and to the point.  I don’t want to imply that we have to play one solo chorus and funk rhythms exclusively, simply that people can tap their foot or dance to the music.


Every solo must be based on the current circumstances surrounding it… the vibes…  No doubt that Paul Gonsalves thirty-plus chorus solo with Duke Ellington at Newport, on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue", is a classic… and so [by contrast] is Hawk’s original short version of "Body and Soul", where he never plays the melody; that version was a big hit!  I would prefer that the audience would say… ‘hey, so and so played great; I wish that he/she had played another chorus.  As the wise masters would say, keep them wanting more!!!"


Music industry professional: "I agree with you wholeheartedly, and this is something Wynton has been saying too, that artists must find a balance between their art and the audience they want to connect with.  But do painters, sculptors, textile artists worry about the same?  Did Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock or Basquiat worry whether their art would be approachable while creating it? 


Are musicians held to a higher standard than others?  If musicians limit their expression and worry about approachability, are they or their art being clipped of creativity?  How can artists come to this balance?  Perhaps one way is to tailor their presentations to their audience; but that is problematic too!  Wasn’t Kenny Garrett performing in a jazz club?  And wasn’t Sonny Fortune performing at a jazz festival?  If artists have to clip their expression at jazz venues, just exactly where are they to practice and promote their art?


So one thought may be, "to hell with audiences, musicians are just introspective; they are playing for themselves"!  But why not?  With such little revenue trickling down to the artist and so few venues presenting unadulterated straight-ahead music, the artists are probably used to playing for themselves and a select few friends and fans more often than not.  Or perhaps musicians are used to performing in Europe, where audiences seem to have a wider acceptance and are more open-minded about improvised expression.  And come to think of it, what responsibility do audiences have in all this?  Do they just come to concerts, expecting to be fed only what’s enjoyable or should art be challenging?


Asking artists to abbreviate their expression simply for audience enjoyment goes squarely against the grain of what I feel is the right of expression.  But others have done it, and they have left the planet a little better place with tasty improvised gems scattered throughout their repertoire, like Armstrong, Monk and even Trane.  I suppose that like everything else in life, achieving a balance is paramount to success.  It woul serve both audiences and artists alike to endeavor to do so."


Television producer-camerman: "I also think some artists over-play their selections.  I’m not talking about the plastic jazz genre, they have nothing to play at best and go through the pseudo crowd-pleasing gymnastics without saying a damn thing, just boring you to death… all those wish-I-could-really-play-the-sax dudes and dudettes.  What is sad is when the audiences really think they are doing something!"


Jazz critic: "I heard [Sonny] Fortune and [Rashied] Ali do the same thing in Burlington last year and I walked out after 75 minutes.  Most of the audience loved it ("It was just like sex," said one mesmerized fan) but I was just happy that, not having to review the performance, I could leave, although I had had enough about 20 minutes earlier.  There was also little sense of interaction between the two, which actually reminded me of a Kenny Garrett/Tain experience I had [once] ("like two fighters working the heavy bags next to each other" I wrote).  And yet in my first nightclub experience I heard Coltrane play what I recall as a 45-minute solo on "My Favorite Things" that was interrupted twice (plus once more at the end) by standing ovations that I was right in the middle of.  There have never been many musicians who could pull such marathons off.  As you say, Garrett and Fortune are great saxophonists, but to my ears they take the easy way out when they opt for the long blowout rather than exploring a wider range of moods and structures."


Everybody ain’t Coltrane!  What’s your take?  Coments welcome below…







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