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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