Can we rebuild/reboot the jazz audience?

In the always thoughtful NPR jazz blog A Blog Supreme editor Patrick Jarenwattonan poses the question “IF not jazz education, what will rebuild the jazz audience.” In the piece he cites a music educator who questions the tired old saw that suggests that if we just pour more money into jazz/music/arts education in general we will reap the audience development benefits in the end analysis. The educator in question points to the wide gulf disconnect between the increased education dollars dedicated to building jazz education programs on college and university campuses around the world and the fact that there is limited-to-no evidence that said investment has resulted in significant audience development. Further, this particular educator suggests that not only may age-old jazz performance methodologies be outmoded, so too may be the existent language and jargon of the music be an inherent impediment to developing the jazz audience.

The Jazz Arts Group of Columbus, Ohio is in the midst of a funded Jazz Audience Initiative which will hopefully study these and other factors related to our collective desire to grow the jazz audience.

Yes the increase in jazz education programs has resulted in more than enough competent-to-good jazz players – technicians might be a more apt description in most instances. However the jazz academy has failed to teach its students about the care and nurturing of their eventual audience. In her excellent blog Alternate Takes past Independent Ear contributor Angelika Beener explores the whys & wherefores of the contemporary jazz musician’s magnetic compulsion towards exclusive performance of their own originals (“The Modern Standard: What is it?”), perhaps to the detriment of building a 21st century canon of tunes and setting new standards. This steadfast stance on a platform of standards – and, I might add, standards that have little to no shelf life after their original recording, and standards that are too complicated to stick with the average listener’s memory (and thus set a “standard”) – is I maintain also an roadblock to audience development.

I’ve yet to see a jazz education program that offers innovative coursework to its young musicians on audience development, on nurturing and growing an audience through proper programming, staging, and other elements that might better engage and grow an audience. Evidence suggests that jazz education programs and coursework do little if any actual teaching on subjects as elemental as proper stage comportment and effective artist-to-audience communication methods. There remain far too many young musicians who figure if they simply play technically correct and with vigor… that’s more than enough, assuming a sort of Audience of Dreams mentality that says ‘if we play it, they will come…’ That’s not enough for today’s audience. What then must we do to grow the jazz audience?

One of the subsequent comments in response to Patrick’s piece suggests that the typical jazz venue is simply not conducive to today’s audience. The feeling being that the jazz supper clubs and venues one respondent has experienced, with their detached staging and audiences seated like “robots” at tables imbibing while a group of musicians plays seemingly for their own pleasure, is simply outmoded; and frankly where it concerns generations born since the late-70s, I’d have to agree to a point. However the commenter then goes on to lament the loss of the old smokey jazz lofts and clubs as a reason today’s venues do not appeal to today’s arts consumer market. Sorry my friend, that outmoded scenario won’t work either. Today’s would-be audience requires more of a sense of give and take between artist and audience, interactive options, more of a sense of shared experience.

The venerable Monterey Jazz Festival recently copped a $300K grant from the James Irvine Foundation, the core of which will assist MJF in diversifying its audience.

How’s this for one potential jazz performance scenario: since the art of improvisation – the art of creative expression period – remains pretty much a mystery to all but those who’ve taken the time to investigate the creative process, would it provide a more meaningful audience experience if at some point during a performance there was some very real sense of give & take between artists and audience? What if after a couple of pieces were played, an informed interlocutor (bandmember, MC, presenter, journalist, etc.) were to pose questions (and take a couple of audience questions as well) to the performing musicians on how they came to make their creative choices, why they chose that particular piece and what they hoped it said to their audience; what was the story behind that composition; why the saxophone player made an extended statement; why at the close of the piece the band seemed to go back-and-forth in short bursts (i.e. trading four bars or whatever); how does that particular piece fit in with the rest of the set in terms of telling a cohesive story? Would that level of audience/artist interaction better assist the consumer/audience member in unlocking the inherent mysteries in the art of the improvisor? Would that kind of in-set give-and-take distract the artists unnecessarily? (On the latter point, so what; sorry musicians but ya’ll have got to do more to nurture and interact with your audiences if we are ever to build an audience for your creative expressions.)

The Independent Ear featured a recent dialogue with Kennedy Center artistic adviser, pianist-composer Jason Moran about his plans for the Jazz at the Kennedy Center program. Among those plans, Moran appears to be carefully observing and considering the very environment where the music is made. Is the current listening environment conducive to building audience for creative music? Does today’s audience require more than a comfortable seat and an applause interlude in between supposedly satisfying music-making? Is the option of being able to enjoy the beverage or refreshment of one’s choice just the tip of the audience-enjoyment iceberg? Are we missing a level of interaction that today’s growing consumer market craves but is not getting from the typical creative music performance environment? What’s your take?

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7 Responses to Can we rebuild/reboot the jazz audience?

  1. I really like the suggestion of more interaction with the audience via an “informed interlocutor”, etc. I’m going to experiment with this very thing at my next gigs and see what happens. It’s inspiring to me, because I’ve had the experience before of getting the audience to sing along with a simple, yet interesting little pattern in the tune “Malinyea” composed by Don Cherry and performed by him and my great mentor, American Indian saxophonist Jim Pepper (whose horn, medicine rattle and cap are now in the Smithsonian Institute for the Native American). I’ve always been afraid that the audience would refuse to participate, but my experience has always been just the opposite…most are eager to participate. I often close my concerts and gigs with this tune for that very reason…it seems to make everyone feel that all is at peace with the world and that they haven’t just attended something…they have participated in something meaningful. I have cautiously avoided stopping and asking if anyone had questions, etc., as you suggest…thinking that we might be “beating them over the head” when in reality they just want to relax. But I think this might be a good way to open up to the audience and maybe help enlighten them to the experience we, as musicians, are having.
    thank you!

    • Good for you Barry! I’ve done that very thing for a young artist series I produce every winter at Tribeca Performing Arts Center in Manhattan. That level of audience interaction is particularly helpful for that series because the artists we present are largely just being introduced to our audience. Across the board those audiences love that portion of our concerts, and it doesn’t have to be elongated; I usually keep it 5-8 minutes max. We typically have an intermission (our CEO insists on it, so they can sell refreshments to cover costs), so I pre-arrange that break in the set with the artists to happen just prior to their last piece before intermission. It works well, as you’ll see.

  2. Mike Fields says:

    I have found as a visual artist who display’s my jazz artwork at the live concerts for the Columbus Jazz Orchestra that people have enjoyed engaging with me about the greats of jazz music. From conversations about when they attended concerts of the greats around the world to who they think is the next great. It does add a level of interaction that many enjoy. I do!

  3. Hi Willard — I’m not at all for the interruption of music-making. The musicians have a job: to play for us, lay it on us, make us think, feel, maybe dance. Our job is to listen. And those of us who are media people — writers, broadcasters, photographers, online journalists, as well as scholars and capable aficionados — have the opportunitiy/responsibility to use media well to get info about the music out to folks who are not already in the seats.

    The interested audience already has a lot of access to information, and we can bring whatever we care to in research, background, etc. coming to shows. Presenters and artists could do more yet to provide info and make it accessible, but for marketing purposes they ought to do it in advance of the show, not during. The jazz world can do more to get more information out, but OUT is where it must go, not to the people who are already at our events, but to those who have not heard about them, can’t get to them, don’t know what they ought to check them out, don’t know how they could anyway.

    Although I’m generally all for socializing, onstage engagement during, rather than after, performances should be discouraged unless at the musicians’ desire. As a listener, I don’t want my experience impinged upon by someone in the audience inserting themselves into the artists’ shows. Social events before or after performances, to which artists can choose to come or not, are more respectful, more intimate and potentially productive. Socializing is a choice and has to do with personal inclinations: Some musicians are agreeable, others wouldn’t and shouldn’t do it. You know who you are.

    To get out information widely, to people who absorb info but haven’t gotten our messages, we have to understand appropriate formats, platforms, methods of dissemination, have a story and a point, be accurate and relevant, engaging and predictably scheduled. “We” are those who have Info about jazz, which can be passed by word of mouth, facebook post, tweet, print newspaper column, radio program, blog, slideshow, webcast, streaming video, book, whatever. We media professionals in conjunction with producers and presenters (less the musicians, really they have other things to do, this is OUR work) can connect with those who have not been gotten to, if we can tap their information streams.

    A lot can be done re audience building much more easily and efficiently than the engagement ideas currently being bruited about. I’ve found jazz industry stakeholders rather dismissive of what media can do about this, but they’re all wrong. Journalists have always been the mediators, the messengers — getting the word (sound or image) and spreading it as far as we can, leaving traces that can be found later. People get info and act on it, or shrug it off. But if there’s less than engaging word-sound-image available (no streaming from clubs, photos flashed over mobile devises, live interviews with listeners who loved/hated it, video clips of scenes — taking care to respect artists’ rights, of course ) we’re not going to build new audiences by having onstage chats with each other.

    Thanks for the place to say all that.

    • Understood, But you are already converted, its not YOU we’re concerned with in the jazz audience development equation. The whole idea is to engage new audience, and that may take methodologies that are beyond the interests of the converted.

  4. Shoshana says:

    The classical music world has similar problems. The education is technically efficient, yet education alone is not building bigger audiences. It has been reported in various research endeavors that people are more likely to attend if they have a hands-on relationship to the music. If a child had played an instrument in band at school, they are more likely to attend a performance later in life.
    With arts education being cut right and left, more kids are not getting this hands-on experience. The education they are getting is more along the lines of very dry music history education, if that. Think about the best way to learn a language. You won’t really learn a language by the books, you have to be immersed in the language and to hear and speak the language yourself.

    The ones that are being educated today rather play their instrument than be a polite audience member. Kids these days are doers.

    I believe audience involvement during the concerts could help boost audience in the future. As mentioned, the younger generations want to be a part of the experience hands-on. However, I do feel that the best way to build the jazz (and classical music) audience is through a grassroots effort. Let me explain:

    Remember the days when we shared music while sitting on the floor with our friends listening to records? One of our friends would pipe up “You gotta hear this one!” and then proceeded to put on the latest Miles Davis record. The other friends got hooked in the excitement of their friend’s joy for the music. New jazz listeners were born in this very simple yet effective interaction. I started to listen to jazz since my parents shared music with me. My college friends would open my eyes to even more intricate jazz music.

    Flash forward to today’s scene. Kids (people in general) are still sharing their music. Music is being passed along at faster rates due to the capability of downloading via the internet and easy to share files on social media. It is rare when I see jazz and classical music shared in this fashion. Perhaps a new program that generates a spark in the younger generation to share the music would do the trick. Maybe mentorship programs would be more effective than dry education programs.

    The main point here is that we need to get back to the old fashioned ways of turning people on to good music using the amazing technology of today. I have seen kids enjoy jazz when it is shared with them, but it needs to be shared with them in a way where they too will start”speaking the language” and begin to share with their friends.

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