Jazz is commercially in a bad way

The decision by EMI's storied jazz label Blue Note to release its back catalogue as 30-second ring tones for mobile phones smacks to me of desperation. These days, jazz is commercially in a bad way, shrinking to such a small part of the musical pie that it isn't a wedge but a line. In the US, where jazz was born, the genre's market share dipped from its already meagre 3.5% to 1.8% last year.

Sure, there's no harm done in selling snippets of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to alert you to the fact that your mother's ringing again. And ring tones do represent one of the only growing markets in the ailing music industry. So fair play to Blue Note if the label can bring in some extra dosh and also allow the few jazz fans left in the world to publicly proclaim their tastes on commuter trains. Nevertheless, the larger picture is depressing.

The heyday of jazz is still regarded as the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s, and it has never shed its retro aura - like those hand-drawn Horlicks labels - and so seems a remnant of the past, rather than a living contemporary art form. Yet to some degree, jazz practitioners have marginalised themselves. As a jazz fan, I know how difficult it is to wheedle many of my friends into coming with me to clubs. "Mmm," I get back queasily. "It's not going to be, you know ..." And then they do a cacophonous imitation that sounds a cross between a phonograph needle screeching across an LP and a birthing cow.

"Free jazz" - unstructured, often atonal and unmelodiously improvised - has done a disservice to the fan base. (I'm convinced that, while it may be fun to play, even most jazz musicians can't stand to listen to it.) The same perverse obliviousness to what an audience really wants that has alienated so many would-be viewers from modern art has also infected some jazz musicians, who are implicitly contemptuous of the very people they expect to support them. That audience is not necessarily unsophisticated. Still, the yearning for tune, order, and harmony may be as universal as the related appetite for coherent narrative - for story. Novelists who spurn the fictional equivalent of the tune - plot - are punished commercially as well.

Yet there are many jazz musicians today, playing at a club near you, whose music is accessible, tuneful, and tap-your-foot rhythmic. In the UK, consider the transporting singer Christine Tobin, accompanied by soulful guitarist Phil Robson, the reflective pianist Barry Green, or mellifluous saxophonists such as Bobby Wellins, Martin Speake and Ingrid Laubrock. And they all play for longer than 30 seconds.

Lionel Shriverin writing in the Guardian. If you do desperation you may also like to try a Superman ringtone from the London Symphony Orchestra's website.

Now playing - Not a trace of desperation in Joanna MacGregor (piano/keyboards) and Andy Sheppard's (saxophone) Deep River. Inspired by her many trips to the American Deep South, this music also has deeply personal connotations, going right back to Joanna's childhood and a father who was a lay preacher in an Evangelical church. After a close musical partnership with Andy Sheppard for many years, this is their first long-awaited duo recording. We hear both the purity of the acoustic duo as well as the subtle use of multi-tracking and samples. The use of the original 1927 recording of William and Versey Smith's song Everybody Help the Boys Come Home creates a fantastic groove - which also inflects the tune with the atmospheric static of early recordings. When this tune re-appears as a remix by a different producer, the gravity of the lyrics is brought home by a far darker treatment with layers of drums, disturbing incoherent vocal samples and dissonant layers of electronics. Is it free jazz, is it contemporary music, is it World Music, does it matter? Just beautiful, follow this link for an audio file.

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Framescourer said…
I think it's difficult to argue that free jazz has done a disservice to jazz, any more than Karlheinz Stockhausen, Brian Ferneyhough or even Luciano Berio have sabotaged 'classical' musicians. It's more to do with the fact that free jazz, not being a mere wing of jazz but bound in its mainstream like ivy, colours popular perception of the jazz in general.

However I must disagree with selling ringtones smacking of desperation: I'm amazed, given jazz's small American market share, that it hadn't been done sooner.
Jerome Langguth said…
First, I would like to say that I love your blog and read it daily. “On an Overgrown Path” can always be counted on for enlightening music commentary and stellar recommendations. I am slightly troubled, however, by the blithe dismissal of avant-garde jazz in the above post. The characterization of the music as "atonal and unmelodiously improvised" is more caricature than it is an accurate account of the music made by contemporary avant-garde jazz musicians. Contemporary avant-garde jazz in fact contains a multitude of styles and approaches to music-making. It is manifestly not the product of a bunch of self-absorbed virtuosos mindlessly blowing into the void. I would say that the one thing this diverse body of musicians have in common is openness to new approaches to improvisation and a passionate commitment to their art (how else to continue given the current state of jazz?). Although there are undeniably free jazz albums that are difficult listens for precisely the reasons cited, and even many avant-garde jazz musicians will admit to not enjoying these, there are also many fantastic records available by bands who are actively exploring the tension between free improvisation and structure in a way that is both accessible and challenging. Chicago’s Vandermark 5, for example, continually releases stellar albums that meld free jazz blowing, monstrous funk riffing, and intricate, and often beautiful, melodies. Hearing this group live is a viscerally and emotionally gripping experience that might appeal to any open-minded music lover. The same is true of musicians like William Parker, Matthew Shipp, and the Sun Ra Arkestra, currently operating under the direction of saxophonist Marshall Allen. As for the claim that avant-garde jazz players harbor disdain for their audiences or operate in arrogant disregard of the listener, I have found that to be quite false. In fact, three avant-garde jazz bands from Chicago have conducted jazz workshops for a music class that I teach as part of a summer program for gifted high school juniors in Kentucky. Their discussions with my students about the art of improvisation have been consistently thoughtful and stimulating. Additionally, my students, most of whom have no prior experience listening to jazz of any kind, regularly respond with enthusiasm to the experience of hearing free jazz performed live.

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