The 3 Secret Problems Of Jazz (And Jazz Is Not Alone)

A Book Excerpt or Marketing (Slight Return)

One interesting thing about publishing Kindle titles on Amazon is that Amazon does a web search to match various phrases with text you’re submitting.  This means that if you have any text on a website that you’ve included in your book, you’ll have to take it down from your site before the book is published.

I understand that the measure is there to protect copyright infringement (and make kindle content exclusive) but as a Kindle book excerpt exists to drive people to your Kindle title (and make money for Amazon),  it’s a flawed approach for most authors.

With that in mind, I may have to remove this post eventually, but for now – I hope you enjoy this chapter from Selling It Versus Selling Out (available here on Amazon).

Thanks for reading!

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The 5th person sending me the NPR / Kurt Ellenberger post about the difficulties of being a jazz musician, was the tipping point for me writing a post I’d held off on for a while.  I don’t play Jazz but I’m an improvising musician who went through a rigorous Jazz pedagogy, so take please take whatever observations I offer here with a big grain of salt.

I think that Jazz has 3 big problems as a genre, and musicians working in that realm have their work cut out for them to move forward in it.

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Duo or Trio wanted for restaurant

(no pay but you can sell your cd)

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This gig scenario is actually a microcosm of the problems Jazz faces as a genre.

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First, when you drive by a restaurant and you see a sign that says, “Tonight – live jazz!” have you ever turned excitedly to the person next to you and said, “Hey there’s a band playing there tonight!  I love Stella By Starlight!  Let’s go – maybe they’ll play it!”

No you haven’t. And no one else has either.  Because you don’t go to hear the music – you go to hear John McLaughlin or whatever other player interests you – and that’s the first big problem.  For the general public, Jazz has become a cult of personality for players instead of focusing on songs.

Many of the Real Book tunes date back to Tin Pan Alley.  Back in the day, Jazz players played on popular music.  People actually went out to hear the music and the band.   Remember the fire-storm Miles caused when he recorded a version of Time After Time?  He was just going back to that tradition of playing on tunes that people liked.  And yes, there’s been a lot of new music written – but as a genre, the focus is still on the players.  Once you put a focus on a player, you cut your audience down to people who like players and other musicians.  That’s really problematic if you’re trying to build a career.

No one (outside of musicians playing it or other musicians sitting with crossed arms at a gig critiquing a player hitting the changes) gives a toss about hearing Giant Steps live – they care about the energy the soloist is transmitting. The audience (such as it is) at every jazz gig I’ve been to is about 90% musicians and 10% fans.   I’ve mentioned this observation before, but in my undergrad experience I remember going to student recitals and seeing the band mindlessly getting through the head and then breathing a sigh of relief, “Thank God that’s over – now we can play some music!”  If you just want to solo with complete disregard for the song – why even maintain the pretense of playing the tune?

Mind you, the issue of repertoire is an over simplification.  I don’t want to discount that a lot of great music has been written.  While I think that is where Duke and Mingus got it right in keeping the focus on some great pieces, I don’t see any contemporary Jazz composer’s gaining traction in the same way they did.   There are a number of reasons for this (including saturation of the music market), but rock music survives because people sing along with the songs and dig the rock star.  As a genre, focusing on the Jazz star is a hole that will take a long time to get out of.

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“Stop collaborate and listen”

The next problem with Jazz (as indicated by the gig listing above), is the implication that Jazz is background music.  Any type of music is no longer music if no one is listening – and Jazz is a music that demands the listener’s attention to pick up on the nuances of the performance.   People go to a restaurant to eat, not to listen to the (unpaid) band.  Or fans of the band go to the restaurant to hear the musicians play and begrudgingly order food and the 2-drink minimum.  So other than people the band has brought (in reality – the only reason restaurants book music anymore) – the other patrons there aren’t listening.  Some bands fight this by playing louder and then the patrons just eat and leave.

Musicians take these gigs (and wedding gigs) because they need cash, but as a culture we have moved into an ADD mindset with regard to focus.  People are less likely to sit down with a record and dig though it and try to get something out of it.  They listen to 5 seconds of an mp3 stream and then move onto the next thing.

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Music and players are everywhere

As I mentioned before, the saturated music market is one of the biggest obstacles that challenges Jazz as a genre.  There are a lot of players with less and less venues to play in.  So you get musicians taking unpaid gigs at a restaurant and wondering why they haven’t sold any cds (and why management wouldn’t comp the food now that the sets are done).

There’s value in scarcity and people have infinite access to music.  If you wanted to hear Miles Davis electric band play back in the day, you went to go see them.  Now you go to You Tube.  There’s increasingly fewer reasons for people to go out and see a show for the sake of seeing a show.  In general, they won’t go just because a band is playing and it’s something to do.

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“…Those were the days…”

Derek Bailey has one of my favorite quotes ever about the conservatory experience.  (I’m paraphrasing here), “As soon as bebop became a set series of formulas taught in an academic setting it went from being the vibrant searching music that it was and became a maudlin reminder of the good old days”.

Many people associate Jazz with comfort (like sitting next to a fire with a glass of wine and listening to Sketches of Spain).  They have a nostalgic view about going to a bistro and hearing some jazz.  (Some of these people will also tell you that the LOVE Michael Bublé as evidence of a “Jazz” pedigree!?!  This is another problem where people have equated intrumentation and arrangement with a genre.) Comfort is a tough market to cultivate and maintain, but Jazz has also been equated with cultured music and as some people go see Jazz in the way that they go to a museum, this could be a key.

People want to be moved.

They want to center.  They want to focus.

People go to a museum to experience something.  They go to a show because they don’t want to miss an event.  As an audience, people are searching for something new.

That sounds like Jazz to me.  Ellinger is right.  In terms of output – Jazz IS thriving.  But its musicians (by and large) are not and if the musicians and composers aren’t thriving – then the genre is in real trouble.

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As a genre, I think Jazz needs a re-branding.

Many Jazz musicians are already doing this.  They don’t call their music Jazz anymore.  They come up with a million other labels and get new audiences in by playing venues guised as something other than Jazz – but playing Jazz at its core.  Playing “searching vibrant” music that moves people.

Appealing to people’s mind as cultured music is a good start.  Appealing to people as head boppin’ – ass twitchin’ music that grabs the ear and moves the soul is even better.

As a label, Jazz is too broad to be meaningful to most players – but to the public that label already has associations with it.  As a genre, Jazz needs to bring new fans into the fold with songs and then wow them with the musicianship behind them.

And it needs to happen, because it’s too beautiful a thing to let slip away.

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This excerpt is taken from Selling It Versus Selling Out (Applying Lessons From The Business Of Music) which is available as a Kindle title here.

If you like this essay, you may also like, An Indie Musician Wake Up Call also available on Amazon here.

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