All That Jazz?

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98 Responses

  1. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    I find it interesting that neither you nor Mr. Teachout bothered even to mention the city of New Orleans, where fully two thirds of the radio stations are dedicated to jazz, ambient experience of jazz is a quotidian event, and I’ll be watching the internationall famous Jazz Festival from my window in a few short months. Also, for the record, just as San Francisco doesn’t care what’s going on in other cities, neither does New Orleans.(See, for instance, Mr. Williams’ famous comment.)Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

      I have never been to New Orleans so I can’t say but that makes me happy. Growing up in NY and hear in the SF-Bay Area, Jazz on the radio is firmly in the NPR and Community-supported radio territory. I also largely use Pandora to listen to music while driving and this includes a lot of jazz and classical.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    I think Jazz moved into high culture because it pays better but also because they got a lot of serious appreciation there. When Jazz stopped being Popular Music it was critics who still appreciated it so they played to there audience.

    I don’t’ think it’s as much as issue of people not liking High Culture as they just are unfamiliar with it and weren’t exposed to it. Once something falls our of fashion it is hard for it to get back in fashion especially when there are so many choices now. 100 years ago you had a small handful of choices so everybody would end up in the same places and most would develop an appreciation of that. Nowadays, not so much.

    It is a shame jazz is losing popularity since it is wonderful music. However it generally isnt’ danceable the way todays biggest music , EDM, is. That is real problem. Jazz also doesn’t lend itself to stadium anthems. It is harder to get into a appreciate.

    FWIW The Wife likes classical music and opera. Last year we had a good jazz singer, Gretchen Parlato, tour up here. I took her to see the show. She enjoyed it enough but it just wasn’t her thing. Good show though. Of course The Wife likes modern country music so her taste is an issue.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

      This was misthreaded below:

      Some really good points here Greg.

      I think the exposure to high culture thing is spot on. My parents took me to Young People and the Orchestra concerts as a kid and they also played jazz and classical (along with rock) on car trips. I never really had any exposure to “children’s music” like Raffi except at daycare or elementary school. We also went to Museums a lot. Other people who grew up in a similar demographic (middle class/upper-middle class suburban New York) did not necessarily have that exposure. I was never sporty but my mom said she was never worried that I would dislike reading.

      Some jazz is highly danceable but it is trained social dancing. Not the kind of freestyle booty dancing that you can do to hip-hop and EDM.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko says:

        Implicit here is that Jazz can mean very different things. Some of it is perfectly accessible to a mass audience, since it was pop music at one time, will other types of Jazz are extremely (and perhaps deliberately) inaccessible.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        A scene from an episode of Rumpole of the Bailey had a defendant talking about “The Stones” and the ancient judge asking “The Stones?” and Rumpole explaining “Jazz musicians, your Honour.”Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:


        I mention that above. Jazz became a “sit down and appreciate this” form of music in the early and mid 50s with Charlie Parker and others and the Village Vanguard and similar clubs. By the 1960s when the British Invasion happened and rock came back, it was even more avant-garde.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

      Re: Markets:

      Another interesting point is that this might be another split between the neo-liberals who say “Markets Yay” and more traditional liberals who think there is room for things to not be always beholden to market pressures especially in culture.

      Earlier this week, here and on FB, I was wondering why the BBC can produce many more interesting documentaries than the PBS and History Channel (which seems to have given up on History entirely). Not all BBC documentaries are good but they can also be really fascinating and have real history. Mary Beard had a great three hour documentary on the lives of Ordinary Romans called Meet the Romans. There was another one on how the French Revolutionaries were not a violent mob but knew what they were doing in identifying and tearing down the symbols of power and replacing those old monarchist symbols with new Republican ones.

      The answer seems to be that the BBC doesn’t have to respond to market pressure entirely because you have to pay the BBC a license to own TVs.* I admit that Americans will never stand for this but I do think it really does produce more interesting documentaries by freeing them from market pressure. And I would gladly do the market some damage if it meant producing an American version of the BBC.

      *One wonders why the Brits put up with the licenses more than Americans would.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        Will you at least admit here that what you mean by interesting is more interesting to you?

        Basically, what you are saying is that you would gladly stick other people with the bill so long as it resulted in more of what you like.

        ps – I largely agree with you on the merits. I like BBC and PBS documentaries way more than the sort of over-dramatized crap on History and the Discovery Channel.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        One wonders why the Brits put up with the licenses more than Americans would.

        Same reason they put up with tea taxes and kings more than we did?

        Remember, this country was founded by the people England didn’t want and/or that wouldn’t play nice with it. It’s kind of baked in.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        I think you’re reading too much into the difference between the two countries. The British public puts up with the license fees because that’s how it’s always been, and the US wouldn’t put up with them because we’ve never had them before.

        Generally, it’s a mistake to suppose that the BBC is magically immune to customer pressures because of the license fee. They have no problem giving the axe to shows nobody wants to watch, and they make plenty of shows that are just as vapid and terrible as those on US networks.

        The difference is, they are incentivized to be inclusive, while US networks are incentivized to cater to specific customer demographics. That’s why every show on the CW is for teenagers who want to live in New York or LA, but don’t. And why every show on CBS is for the parents of those aforementioned teenagers. The BBC has a little something for everyone, and that leaves room for period piece drama, working-class soap opera, and cheesy sci-fi on the same network.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        For sure. The BBC created popular shows like Doctor Who, Coupling, and Ab Fab. And not all their documentaries are good. That being said, they do tend to go a bit more “high brow” in their documentaries from time to time and I find that their docs are not bombastic and portentious like History Channel ones which have all the subtlety of a Michael Bay movie. Can you see something like this being produced by American TV?


      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        We let cops literally get away with murder, sure, but they need to keep their damn hands off my TV.Report

      • Avatar Jason S. says:

        “…another split between the neo-liberals who say “Markets Yay” and more traditional liberals…”

        The original liberals were free marketeers like Richard Cobden and Frederic Bastiat. The watered-down social democrats who call themselves “liberal” are the Johnnies-come-lately.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        The definitions of word change. Liberal has meant some form of social democracy and welfare state since Lloyd George gave a speech about The People’s Budget in 1909 if not earlier.

        Deal with it.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        Can you see something like this being produced by American TV?

        Yes. On PBS.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I do like Ken Burns and American Experience documentaries but they are not exactly an academic giving a concrete thesis and then presenting evidence like it is a highly-visual university lecture. They are interesting and informative but not quite at this level of “I am an academic. This is my thesis/area of study. Here is my proof.”

        Now PBS does show BBC documentaries sometimes too.

        There is also concern that PBS might stop showing or producing documentaries. I am having a hard time googling it but there was an article I saw in the past few weeks about how documentary fans need to care about PBS more especially with funding over Independent Lens potentially coming to a stop.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        The quality of PBS varies, in my experience. When I lived in DC, most of what I found on PBS during prime time were health and wellness shows that were pretty obviously aimed at Baby Boomers. All channels have to serve some constituency, even public ones. Just not sure why you think that BBC is any different.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I do like Ken Burns and American Experience documentaries but they are not exactly an academic giving a concrete thesis and then presenting evidence like it is a highly-visual university lecture. They are interesting and informative but not quite at this level of “I am an academic. This is my thesis/area of study. Here is my proof.”

        Hmmm… so it’s a format issue rather than a content one? Because you can get that same information in a PBS documentary, but it’s going to be presented in a different form (e.g., interviews in a Burns documentary, which will also probably present you with another viewpoint or two from other experts), it’s just not going to be some history professor with an English accent looking intently at a drawing and talking about how it relates to his particular thesis.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Both. I fully admit that not all BBC documentaries are good and this can be both in content and form. They did one on Ancient Rome in a docudrama kind of way that I found largely cheesy even if the content was interesting.

        For History channel documentaries it is both content and form. Content-wise, they tend to stick to a very mainstream and often to military history and even when they have serious academics, they can’t help but introduce some silliness. There was one about the Romanovs that interviewed actual academics but also included some weird bits about how Ivan the Terrible might have been some curse/prohpecy kind of deal because someone found something from a Russian Orthodox priest before the birth of Ivan the Terrible. This bit of text was read in a “the end is nigh” voice.

        Format wise, History Channel goes way too much for bombast and overly dramatic music like it is a Michael Bay movie. I like the way in BBC documentaries they place the narrator on screen and have him or her speak to the audience. It is very down-to-earth and treats the audience with more intelligence.Report

      • Avatar Jason S. says:

        @saul-degraw “Liberal has meant some form of social democracy and welfare state since Lloyd George gave a speech about The People’s Budget in 1909 if not earlier.”

        OK, but it seems that the original version would be more traditional and that the “neo-” prefix would be more properly applied to the newer version.Report

  3. Avatar zic says:

    First, the only real high-growth (in sales) genre is country music. Everything else is in decline.

    Second, jazz is sort of strange in that it pervades other musical forms, and if you look at what musicians listen to and how serious musicians learn to be professional musicians, it’s often by mastering the techniques of jazz players — the ability to pick up a tune you’ve never even laid eyes on before, and play your part as well as improvise on it.

    So I sort of disagree that jazz is threatened or vanishing; it’s not popular, in part, because it requires effort on the part of the listener. But jazz is very much a part of the skills of many (if not most) successful musicians, and so long as they embrace improvisational techniques, jazz survives.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Jazz is indeed the wind behind a lot of music, there for the people who are really listening.
      It’s really, really awesome when you see composers jazz together.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      @zic I thought EDM was the most popular genre of music nowadays.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        By sales and airplay, it’s country out front by a mile.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Well huh. I didn’t know that. Of course, at least going by what the wife listens to, what is called country is mild pop rock sung by people in cowboys hats.Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

        So what is it about country fans that they are willing to put their money in while other fans of other genres stream?Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @saul-degraw I’d guess, first off, is that they’re less internet savvy in general; certainly more likely to live where internet is via land line and smart-phone coverages spotty, so not so in the habit of downloads, but I do not know if this is true.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Here are the 2014 numbers that Teachout is using, from Nielsen (the 4 numbers, in order, are total consumption, albums, tracks, and streams):

        CHILDREN 1.0% 1.5% 0.3% 0.4%
        CHRISTIAN/GOSPEL 3.1% 3.6% 2.8% 1.6%
        CLASSICAL 1.4% 2.1% 0.5% 0.3%
        COUNTRY 11.2% 11.8% 12.0% 6.4%
        3.4% 2.0% 4.6% 6.8%
        HOLIDAY/SEASONAL 2.6% 3.6% 0.9% 1.1%
        JAZZ 1.4% 2.0% 0.6% 0.3%
        LATIN 2.6% 2.4% 1.8% 5.0%
        POP 14.9% 10.8% 21.1% 21.1%
        R&B/HIP-HOP 17.2% 13.9% 19.1% 28.5%
        ROCK 29.0% 33.2% 21.3% 24.7%Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Interesting, I would have thought that Rock would come in much much weaker, relatively, by now (though obviously categorization comes into play here: a lot of what is called “pop” now, to my ear seems derived largely from either hip-hop/R&B or dance music, even if it’s not marketed that way – so putting pop and hip-hop together, means they dwarf rock, which seems more what I would expect).Report

  4. Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

    Some really good points here Greg.

    I think the exposure to high culture thing is spot on. My parents took me to Young People and the Orchestra concerts as a kid and they also played jazz and classical (along with rock) on car trips. I never really had any exposure to “children’s music” like Raffi except at daycare or elementary school. We also went to Museums a lot. Other people who grew up in a similar demographic (middle class/upper-middle class suburban New York) did not necessarily have that exposure. I was never sporty but my mom said she was never worried that I would dislike reading.

    Some jazz is highly danceable but it is trained social dancing. Not the kind of freestyle booty dancing that you can do to hip-hop and EDM.Report

  5. Avatar Kim says:

    Raise you one Cowboy Bebop.
    And if you haven’t played Heroes of Might and Magic — they loved orchestral pieces.
    I’ll kill the rant for today, and simply say: What was the last modern opera you listened to?

    Music is just plain music, and the more you listen to it, the more you like.
    Every time there’s a Space Opera, with actual operatic singing, we win.
    Every time there’s wayang kulit, or gamelan, or an ever-loving bagpipe solo (Escaflowne!) in our media, we’re winning.

    And for the record, I hate jeans. No freedom of movement, none whatsoever.Report

  6. Avatar Chris says:

    Do we know the last year that jazz exceeded 4% of all music sales? It looks to me like for the last decade or so it’s fluctuated between 2 and 3%. Also, what percentage of new releases are jazz? Is it higher or lower than 3% (I’d bet it’s much lower, and that jazz benefits from people still buying Kind of Blue, Monk’s Dream, Time Out, and such). These numbers are meaningless without context, and the article you link doesn’t give us much context.

    Jazz is obviously nowhere near as popular as it once was, but that’s been the case since the early 70s, and people have been bemoaning the death of jazz since smooth jazz became a thing (though I imagine some people were bemoaning its death when post-bop and avante-gard became things).Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      On a related note, I see an opportunity for a comeback. I was trying to explain scat to to my son, so I played him “Minnie the Moocher” and “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” both of which he instantly fell in love with. So we started listening to 30s and 40s popular music, which he absolutely loves. It’s completely novel to him (unlike my childhood, during which I was frequently exposed to my grandfather’s big band music, and jazz in cartoons, I don’t think music from that era shows up anywhere). Given the current cultural nostalgia of hipsterdom, and the novelty of golden age jazz and the roaring 20s, maybe it’s only a matter of time before the kids these days start making and listening to stuff like it.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        My sweetie (who plays jazz, composes jazz, teaches jazz, and teaches electronic music at what’s essentially a jazz university) constantly points out how other music forms are jazz; EDM and hip hop often use jazz phrasing/harmony, and rhythms.

        Art is a process of finding inspiration in what others have done and adding something new or combining things in new ways or, as in most music, simply applying the same old formula to the next tune without much of anything new at all.

        And much of that formula stems from jazz/blues/gospel formats.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        zic, good point. One more reason why kids these days are ripe for a 20s, 30s, or 40s revival.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Given the current cultural nostalgia of hipsterdom, and the novelty of golden age jazz and the roaring 20s, maybe it’s only a matter of time before the kids these days start making and listening to stuff like it.

        Have we too soon forgotten the dark days of Squirrel Nut Zippers and (shudder) Cherry Poppin’ Daddies? I, for one, do NOT want to see Zoot Suit Rioting in the streets again.

        (Full disclosure: I had two SNZ records – no, maybe three – was there a Christmas one?)Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I cannot possibly forget. I went to at least 3 wedding receptions with swing bands between the years 1996 and 1999. Those are just the ones the memories of which I have not repressed.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        By the way, it wasn’t the music that I want to repress. It was that there were some very serious, very judgmental swing dancers at such things.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        Jeez. Those days were all wallet chains and Chandler Bing shirts. Is it possible that they were worse than hipsters?Report

  7. Avatar Kazzy says:

    “People are tired of sloppy airplane attire. Others remain unrepentant in dressing like slobs for travel.”

    People disagree on something. News at 11.Report

  8. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Is your argument that Jazz is dying because Jazz went from cool to fancy and young people opt for the former over the latter?

    If that is the case, why is the American sitcom dying while the television drama experience its high point?

    Mayne Jazz is dying because other forms (rap, rock) have emerged that people simply like better?Report

    • Avatar aaron david says:

      I think this is a large part of it, and the fact that both classical and jazz are dying as art forms. There is no innovation in ways that are decernable to the average listener, nothing that is speaking to youth culture. When kids get these types of music crammed down their throats in junior high and high school band, even kids who are really appreciative of music get sick of it.

      I love jazz. I can listen to Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Marc Ribot all day long. Going back and forth between electic Miles and Benny Motens Kansas City Orchestra is a wonderful way to spend a day. But smooth jazz (Kenney G, Wynton Marsalis) killed it. Made it old persons music just a surely as Pink Floyds latest album killed psychedelic rock.

      I never liked classical music. Dull, bombastic, trite, maudlin.Report

  9. Avatar j r says:

    I am as equally flumoxed as @chris and @kazzy.

    @saul-degraw, is your concern that you think that these art forms, or high culture in general, is dying? Or is your concern that they are being marginalized in favor of other things?

    If it’s the former, you don’t have all that much to worry about. It’s probably easier, or as easy, for the average Amercian to hear a jazz record or see a jazz performance as it has ever been. Likewise for classical music, opera and literary fiction. These things proliferate.Report

  10. Avatar Cardiff Kook says:

    My theory of the demise of popular Jazz is that, to use a military analogy, it outran its supply lines. Jazz continued to advance until it simply outgrew its audience. It became too complex.

    This, oddly enough, led to a bifurcation. On the one hand we have an abundance of jazz standards frozen in amber, but recorded now by Cassandra Wilson, Tierney Sutton, Diana Krall or Jane Monheit rather than Ella Fitzgerald or Shirley Horn. Similar trends occur with modern takes on bebop, swing or Japanese jazz.

    On the other side we have avant garde and free Jazz which has (long since) simply become unlistenable to those not trained or prepared over the years to comprehend its complexities (myself included in many cases).

    One other, possibly unrelated comment. The shear amount of jazz is simply hard to handle. A great jazz band (or a collection of trained pros) can pretty much get together on any weekend and record another memorable performance. It simply gets overwhelming. And this from someone who loves it, old and new.

    Most people are shallow. They really do like cat videos, sitcoms, the Bachelor, People magazine and Taylor Swift. Luckily the diversity of entertainment is greater and more accessible than ever. I can download and play dozens of Ray Brown albums for zero marginal cost with a simple flick of my Sonos controller while I write this comment.

    Speaking of which, try Ray Brown and Laurindo Almeida’s “Moonlight Serenade” for a kick. Tasty.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Cardiff Kook, I am in agreement with you. Classical music, or more accurately Western art music, suffered similarly. During the early 20th century, a lot of composers grew very experimental with what they were doing. They began to write atonal music for example. This was a perfectly legitimate way of composing but it alienated the audience because they could no longer graspy what they were listening to. Jazz suffered from the same problem. Audiences switched to pop, rock, R&B, and hip-hop because they could undertstand those better.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      I haven’t thought this through, but wouldn’t you say that high culture requires a certain level of training to fully appreciate, and thus jazz did move from being more populist to more high culture over the decades? There is still jazz that a novice can listen to and enjoy, things that people might consider part of the Great American Songbook. But a lot of jazz did become complex, at the exact same time as it became less popular.

      I think the ear’s transition between mainstream music and jazz was easier in the 1960’s than today. Rock, the pop of the time, had a lot of jazz elements, and jazz was simpler. Now, if you want to say that hip hop is the dominant mainstream music *, there’s a much bigger jump from hip hop to contemporary jazz.

      * We have to recognize that there’s a racial element to jazz in the US. It’s much weaker in Europe, and doesn’t exist at all in the East. Kim was right to bring up the use of jazz in anime. It’s un-self-conscious. In the US, jazz is usually self-conscious.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I think i agree with Alan’s point below more than yours. Then again, I think a lot of Elfman’s music ought to count as “classical”.Report

  11. Avatar dhex says:

    “I would like for people in my generation to realize that it doesn’t have to be a constant mewling reiteration of an unending vacuous thirst for the trappings of upper-middle class “high culture” and it won’t kill you or make you less unemployable or even a lower middle income household to attend a vaguely fascist 2nd wave industrial techno showcase or uncomfortably odinist heathen neo-folk concert or even a night at the local trash metal bar or whatever minorities are into.”Report

  12. Avatar Alan Scott says:

    Here’s a question, Saul. Why does Jazz get to be the August Wilson and the Toni Morrison in your analogies. What has Jazz done to earn the spot of “Music for grownups” besides be unpopular with youth? Is it somehow magically more sophisticated than every other musical style from the 20th century?

    Now, I’m not a particularly musical person. I wouldn’t go out to see a Jazz concert, but I wouldn’t go out to see Vampire Weekend or Beyonce either. So understand that what I’m about to say reflects my limited experience of listening to Jazz on public radio after the News ends.

    But damn it if Jazz music doesn’t seem to be presented in the nerdiest, most un-grown-up way possible.

    When I listen to any other music on the radio, the DJs are mostly willing to let the music stand for myself. When Jazz plays, it’s invariably intercut with some old white guy who spends half the time jabbering about how due to a contract dispute this band recorded this album under a pseudonym or had a different saxophonist or whatever. It’s exactly the same as the folks who obsess about which issue of Secret Wars saw Medusa replace the Thing as part of the Fantastic Four. So I have a hard time seeing the decline of Jazz as a rejection of adulthood, because I don’t see that sort of fandom as the sign of a healthy adult.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Have you seen anything of August Wilson’s? Has Saul?
      Has anyone here?

      I love jazz, like I love nearly all music.
      But I do note that after recommending to him “The Note of Satanism”, I don’t believe Saul’s bothered to listen to it. Oh, sure, I could recommend other things… but why bother?Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        You realize I spent years studying theater in college and Saul spent even more years than that, right?

        I’ll admit that being in a small town with almost no black residents means I don’t get the opportunity to see August Wilson plays performed live, but I’ve seen the TV version of Piano Lesson and read Fences.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Didn’t realize you were a theater major.
        We have an August Wilson Center down the street, but I haven’t actually read the bloke.
        And,not being a theater major, I know relatively little about how high in canon he is.

        I do know that he’d rather have something in pittsburgh than poor (tee!) Warhol, who hated the place with all his heart.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        August Wilson is pretty high in the canon on contemporary American theatre if not 20th century theatre generally.

        He is also a son of Pittsburgh and his magnum opus is a ten-cycle play called The Pittsburgh Cycle. One play for every decade of the 20th century. All except one of the plays takes place in the Hill District. The exception is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which takes place in Chicago during the 1920s.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Kim, I listened to Notes of Santanism. It is okay. But I wouldn’t call it the face of new classical or operatic singing.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        No, of course not. It’s merely one contemporary operatic piece — and from a rather oddball source. The face of contemporary opera is more like “The Grapes of Wrath” — an opera that I have heard excerpts from, though not the whole thing (what can I say? I’m poor, and there’s plenty of entertainment that’s free — including that, which came with free food as well).

        I would not terribly object to calling Love Solfege part of a face (just one!) of new classical music. Naming it anything more than that is giving it more glory than it deserves.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        would you call that album High Art, though?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      What has Jazz done to earn the spot of “Music for grownups” besides be unpopular with youth?

      We recently had a thread in which the joke was made about how Iron Maiden fans are likely to salute each other with their walkers.

      The old men listening to jazz in their dens were once young men listening to drunken jazz musicians playing in bars… and the contemporary old men were surely complaining about these young men listening to popular music instead of the stuff that they themselves grew up with.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      I will try to answer.

      I think it depends on the jazz. Some jazz is close to pure pop and very easy listening (not meant in a bad way or a soft jazz but I consider it to be the musical equivalent of a flight of Champagne). This is not all necessarily “sweet jazz” which was created explicitly to tone down the African-American nature of jazz and make it safe for white audiences. I love Chet Baker. He is an amazing singer and trumpet player, he is far from being avant-garde.

      However as Cardiff noted above, a lot of jazz is very musically complicated and quickly became so and demanded more attention than just listening as background noise. This started with Rhaposody in Blue and continued on with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra and Count Basie. It went into high gear in the 1960s with Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Sonnly Rollins, Charlie Parker, Theolnius Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, etc.

      Take A Love Supreme:

      This is very beautiful music but it demands a lot more attention and detail than just listening to a 4 minute rock song or pop song. You can hear the percussion mixing with Coltrane’s tenor Sax at a slower pace and also a very mood setting Piano.

      It takes a while to dig through this stuff and you can pick part layers like an onion.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        See, I don’t buy that this is the whole reason, though. Because I know plenty of people that would say this exact thing about their favored niche genre, and you’d probably put them in the “doesn’t want to grow up” category.

        In contrast, Classical Music (which is high art if anything is) doesn’t have that problem. Certainly listening to it more can lead to deeper appreciation, but most people enjoy it (even if they don’t enjoy it in the paying lots of money and putting on a suit to see a live performace sense that you’d prefer). I mean, I liked beethoven when I was ten. If anything, the strength of classical music is that you don’t need to build up a language of understanding to appreciate it–it’s so powerful it transcends that need more than any other genre.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Look at gamelan if you want something that is truly transcendent. I agree that classical music is … universal (but there’s a lot of classical music! not just european!). I think a lot of it is the lack of emphasis on the spoken word (even an aria is more about the musical flourishes than about the actual words).

        And there’s something interesting going on with “catchy” tunes. Not sure what that is, but a jingle’s a jingle, and those somehow seem to catch in most people’s mind.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      Rethinking this high art issue, I think Terry Teachout is criticizing Jazz musicians and hardcore Jazz fans from treating it as high art because it just makes jazz seem more respectable and inaccessible. I think Teachout would want Jazz to return to clubs where you can drink, get up, mill around, talk, etc.Report

  13. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    A few points:

    1. If jazz is dying, it’s doing a pretty good job of disguising it’s death.

    There are over 400 major jazz festivals in the US and Canada a year, and a lot more from smaller communities (in Portland, I’m aware are 6 that don’t get listed in the “major festival” count). There a hundreds if not thousands more worldwide. In a lot of mid-sized cities across the country, the only live music venues that exist are jazz venues. Every college of university that has a school of music that I’m aware of has a separate jazz program, and I’ve never heard of any of them are hurting for student applicants. Most major metropolitan cities have at least one jazz station.

    2. Despite what I said above, there is no question that jazz is not as popular as pop music. But that’s to be expected, because jazz *is* a high art form. And like most high art forms, it’s more difficult to appreciate without an expanded (for lack of a better word) ‘vocabulary.’

    Coltrane’s a pretty classic example of this.

    A lot of people I know who either say “jazz sucks” or “it’s just noise” aren’t talking about the Ella Fitzgeralds of the world so much as they are the Coltranes. And FWIW, I get that. If you had listened to popular or old school orchestral music for most of your life and then put a ‘Trane on, if might well seem disjointed and weird.

    Without the right ‘vocabulary,” you might not know that part of the reason it sounds so much different from pop or old school orchestral music is that instead of having chord progressions go through minor seconds, they are in fact going through major thirds. (Which, btw, was an idea Coltrane borrowed from the classical composer Slonimisky, who was Coltrane’s contemporary and good friend.) For that matter, you may not even be aware that the music you are listening to *is* going through chord progressions, regardless of Coltrane’s intent. Likewise, the steps & skips Coltrane uses between pitches will likely seem different from things you listen to.

    That doesn’t mean that you have to have studied jazz (or music) in order to appreciate Coltrane, just like you don’t necessarily have to have studies literature and have an independent grasp of any or all of the 18 separate literary techniques Joyce used in each of his chapters to enjoy or appreciate Ulysses. You can walk in cold and enjoy either, and many people do. But just like reading Joyce, it’s less likely that you might appreciate it without having a certain foundational background to begin with.

    That doesn’t make people who don’t listen to Coltrane lesser in any way, it just means that there are other choices of things to listen to that are more accessible. And that’s fine. But it means that pop music will always sell way, way, way more than jazz.

    3. Somewhat related to the point above is this little secret about jazz: Excepting for when jazz performers use the genre to create pop music, jazz has never really been as popular as we like to imagine, even when it was its generation of hipster music — nay, *especially* when it was its generation of hipster. Most jazz aficionados are aware of this.

    I remember reading some retroactive list Pitchfork’s did of greatest 100 or 500 or whatever albums of past decades in the 20th century. TO the eyes of a jazz lover, here’s what you could tell when yu went through it:

    a). They included a few jazz albums from each decade pre-1970.

    b) The albums they included were all albums that fall into the category of “albums that had little influence, but whose albums covers for some reason have been made into a lot of college wall posters over the years.”

    c). Reading what they had to say about each album made it somewhat suspect that the people at Pitchfork had ever bothered actually listened to any of them.

    In other words, Pitchfork writers threw in some cool jazz references in order to make themselves look hip and smart and artsy, but they don’t actually listen to jazz. They just like having people think that they do.

    Even back in the Mad Men era, this has pretty much always been the case.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      In a lot of mid-sized cities across the country, the only live music venues that exist are jazz venues.


      This can’t possibly be correct?Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        we have polka on the radio around here.
        yup, still not correct.

        Pittsburgh still counts as midsize, right?Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        It is, actually.

        Live music trends tend to go phases that mirror the economics of bar owners. To take Oregon as an example, in Portland and Eugene there is a high enough demand to support bars that play live music. In other cities like Medford, Seaside, and Klamath Falls, however, the demand is low enough that either bar owners either don’t have music or they pay DJs to come in and play pop or country or whatever, or maybe they just rent a karaoke machine.

        But most of these towns also have one single jazz club, and in a lot of them they are the sole live music venue in town. They don’t have more clients, they just have the only live music.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Maybe my confusion comes from the term “mid-size cities”. By virtue of the fact that I don’t really know anything about them (though at least I’ve heard of Medford), I’d more likely class those places you named as “towns”, or maybe “small cities”, not “mid-sized cities”.

        If I have the right Seaside, it only had 6,500 people in 2010; that seems to be pushing it, definitionally.

        Even Medford appears to have at least one non-jazz venue, Johnny B’s:

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Oh man, in Tennessee and Texas it ain’t gonna be a jazz club.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      What makes music into “high art”?
      I’ve listened to music that isn’t done with any of the traditional notes or nothing, and it didn’t sound like “high art”.

      Is it kinda like modern art, where some of the pieces you need to be “sophisticated” to enjoy?

      Leaving this out here, not trying to be snide or anything.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        “High art” doesn’t mean better art, it’s just a phrase that’s used to indicate an art form which requires a significant amount of education in order to achieve a baseline of quality.

        So for example, writing chamber music is considered a high art form in a way that writing a punk protest song is not. It has less to do with the judgment of which is better than it does an assumption that you need to log in far, far, far more hours of education to score a work for a chamber orchestra than you do to write a song for a garage band.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        So, um, rap is lower art than everything else because of a lower barrier to entry?Report

    • Avatar aaron david says:

      Of those 400 festivals, how many new listeners attend each event? Is attendance rising or declining?
      How many new musicians put out albums each year? More or less than the year before?
      How are people learning the vocabulary necessary to understanding that complexity? Of those radio stations, does the listener ship skew older or younger? Are they buying/downloading/streaming new albums, or just listening to the old standards?

      Whether it is “high art” or not is besides the point. To grow it needs to have more people listening to the genre, new fans and performers coming into its world. Otherwise it is dying.Report

  14. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    I’ve never been much of a jazz person, but am a part-time classical person, so I’ll stick to that. Part of your problem, Saul, is that you want to define the music by the process: people sitting and listening to it and there’s nothing else going on. Consider the evolution of chamber music over the centuries, though. Originally it was written for aristocratic amateurs to play; this evolved to playing for small groups who listened intermittently while conversing, drinking, etc; there was a resurgence of amateurs at home from the beginning of the 20th century until radio and recordings gained popularity; today, there are chamber groups (eg, string quartets) who make a living, or supplement a more regular job, playing as background in a variety of settings, one of the roles that chamber music always filled.

    As another example, kids are exposed to and enjoy orchestral work regularly: movie soundtracks. Have them watch, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark with and without the soundtrack and ask them which way is better. Play the first ten seconds of the Darth Vader theme from Star Wars and ask them to identify it. John Williams; Hans Zimmer; Danny Elfman; try to tell me that these aren’t brilliant composers working with the expressive power of a full orchestra. They’re just doing it in a different setting.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      Are people buying those soundtracks independently?

      The big issue for me is not the existence of movie soundtracks or video game night at the symphony. But why can’t the popularity of those nights and those music seemingly entice people to attend Mozart or Shostakovic or listen to the music without it being part of a movie or putting it on in the background instead of rock or listening to it on free time? Sometimes I like to put on a Classical symphony while doing cardio at the gym or just lying on couch.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Is it a fainting couch?

        I mean, I often wish it were still ’87, or ’89, or ’91 too; it’s just that for me, those dates are preceded by a “19”.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Nope. Those are not to my tastes aestheticallyReport

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I almost spit out the coffee I’m not supposed to be drinking in the afternoon. Damn you, Glyph.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        So…you are saying that individuals can have different aesthetics and tastes then, and that those also tend to change en masse over time?


      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I’d personally peg you as preferring from 1994-1997 for some reason.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Oh, those were pretty good years too.

        What I remember of them, anyway.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Are people buying those soundtracks independently?

        Oh yes, absolutely. The original Star Wars soundtrack is certified platinum. Lots of other orchestral soundtracks are certified gold. The soundtrack from almost any movie that’s commercially successful will be released, certainly in MP3 form and nearly as certainly as a CD. Even the soundtracks from movies that fail miserably are sometimes released.

        As for your second paragraph, I guess I approach it from the other direction. The proper question is why can John Williams put so many more people in seats than Mozart can? Here’s a research sort of question that I’d love to see you post about. Music is something that humans everywhere embrace. Convince me that there has ever been a time and place where that embrace was dominated by people just sitting there listening. Not playing the music or singing themselves, not dancing, not clapping along, not eating or drinking in groups with music as a sideshow — just sitting and listening. My claim is that that behavior is an anomaly, almost an aberration. Convince me that I’m wrong when I assert that for every person sitting silently listening to a Mozart symphony, there were a hundred people laughing and stomping and singing in taverns.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Opera was a real fad for centuries, and that generally had people sitting in seats listening quietly.
        You don’t think it at all strange that we watch Television without needing to chant along with it, do you?

        And opera was a thing of the masses, every two-bit city in Italy had multiple venues performing (pretty poor, honestly) stolen operas.

        Ballet is the same way.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        A larger, integrative experience is to be cheered, not sneered at. But that requires the music to work with the television in a way that’s truly tricky to do. The Emissary from TNG is a particularly fine example of using perfectly timed music to enhance the story.Report

  15. Avatar ScarletNumber says:

    99 percent of jazz is shit.

    However, the 1 percent redeems the genre.

    I can listen to “Feels So Good”, “The In Crowd” and “Linus and Lucy” all day.

    As well as “In a Mellow Tone”.

    And Herb Alpert. And Mancini.Report

  16. Avatar krogerfoot says:

    “You can learn to but on a button up shirt and pair of shoes with jeans instead of a t-shirt and pair of chucks. This won’t kill you or make you old. It is okay if it is not all pop sugar, all the time.”

    People who wear T-shirts presumably know how buttons work; they probably don’t avoid them out of a fear of death or premature aging. Just like highly educated young men with exquisite tastes in the approved art forms presumably know how to spell and proofread, but don’t, always.

    Echoing what @alan-scott said above, jazz and classical could probably use more aficionados who can articulate what the music means to them. This requires more than just juxtaposing Thelonious Monk and Shostakovich with Beyoncé and Vampire Weekend. I know why I like Beyoncé. I don’t know why you like Thelonious Monk. Do you?Report

  17. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    I like jazz – not in the sense of knowing a lot about it as a genre, but in the sense of liking Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles and such. It seems silly to transform the popular music of past decades into “high art” in a way that makes it more exclusive and alienates people from it. Jazz feels like music that belongs in the home and the club, not in a symphony-orchestry-style setting with everyone sitting very calmly and silently in order to “appreciate” it properly.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Jazz belongs anywhere jazz wants to belong. It’s lounge singing that belongs in a club, because it’s damn well not meant to be listened to.Report

  18. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    The crossovers are interesting too. One of the key rock’n’roll albums of the 70s and really one of the best of all time is the Stooges “Fun House”. You can definitely hear a Howlin’ Wolf influence on the vocals, but if you listen it’s actually no surprise at that the band was listening to Archie Shepp throughout the making of that record.Report

  19. Avatar D Clarity says:

    “Because it sucks and I’m tired of hearing about it. Believe me I’ve tried. I just hate the parts I hate about it more than I like the little things there are to like. The batting average is just so low I can’t bear the dead time between highlights being filled with all that noodling. It’s vain music.”

    — Why Steve Albini doesn’t like jazz.

    “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

    — C. S. LewisReport

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      I see that C.S. Lewis quote thrown out a lot. Though the words “all the time” are usually at the end. The issue is that there is a big difference between putting away the fear of childlessness and the desire grown up “all the time” and just largely being about staying the cultural comfort zone of what made you happy from the ages of 8-13.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        You know very well that science fiction isn’t necessarily all about rayguns and lazers, that it can be a tool to teach people to Think About Hard Stuff. Not comfortable stuff.

        I deny that any genre is “childish”. Denied. And if we must have a genre that is childish, can it be pratfalls? Or farting on stage?Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I am not the one who uses that quote as a defense of something or other. I don’t use that quote at all. I only see it used. Nor did I say that one’s consumption of cartoons, science fiction, or fantasy should be at 0 percent of one’s cultural intake.

        The quote does seem to get used as a defense against any suggestion at reading stuff that is not SF, Fantasy, etc or whatever. People who like non SF and Fantasy stuff are just too concerned with being adults and whatnot.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I suppose I had you confused with someone threatening a post on “How I trained myself out of being a geek?”

        I think the world would be better served by you finding us some decent Higher Thinking books, and writing a review or two.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Stopping being a geek does not mean that I stopped completely reading science fiction or going to SF type movies from time to time. I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past this summer and it was enjoyable. I like Jeff Noon novels. I do watch a lot less anime than I used to. And I don’t play video games anymore. A nice game of Catan or something else is fun every now and then.

        What I dislike about geek culture is that seems to think that any and all interests are only done properly if done in a way of an overly-excited 8-year old. What is wrong with taking something seriously and enjoying it in a less than squee kind of way. Going for a more sublime variant of pleasure? I spent and spend a lot of time studying theatre, art, history, reading literature, etc and I do so because it gives me pleasure. Learning amusing me. I like digesting difficult art and thinking about it.* Why would I read something in my free time if it did not give me pleasure?

        What I dislike is how everything gets described with the words geek or nerd because they are friendly signifiers. You have to be a “fashion geek” and “art geek”, a “science geek”, a “food nerd”, a “history nerd”, etc. What is wrong with the words aesthete and the dreaded I-word, intellectual? Something in modern American culture clearly thinks the I-word is just horrible and needs to be ripped from existence. Now I admit that I am probably pretty nerdy in many ways but I don’t see why being Intellectual is something to be ashamed about*.

        Though you could have a debate about whether it is appropriate to self-describe as an Intellectual or not and it might not be.

        Maybe I am a pretty serious person, perhaps overly so sometimes. But I don’t see why everything needs to be about taking things as unseriously as possible and then some. I don’t get the geek utopia in which we are all happier when everything is just wearing t-shirts with silly jokes and discuss everything like we are just big elementary school students who can drink alcohol.

        *I once went on a date with a woman who worked at start-up. She did her ABD in physics. She was on the business side and worked with a lot of STEM types. During the date, she described those guys as smart but in a tinkering around kind of way. I don’t remember her exact description of me but it was along the lines of “You know stuff” meaning I can talk about history, art, literature, etc. I don’t know if this is C.P. Snow’s two cultures or not. Other date examples (from different dates) included being able to point to a portrait and say that it was “Emperor Joshua Norton” and knowing who Emperor Norton was and various connections and dotes like knowing that Julius Beaufort in the Age of Innocence was based on the real life August Belmont (who was Commodore Matthew Perry’s son-in-law.)Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        hmm… I really think that some books are more about geeking out than others. Niven’s always struck me as sparkly — like his eyes glittering like diamonds in the night. He’s always got another crazy idea, something interesting to think about. I can’t see “geeking out” about his work… ever. And that’s even though I really, really like his work.

        Heinlein, on the other hand, the only time I’ve seemed to like his work is when I’m geeking out about it.

        Some authors (and some scripts) are just… more thoughtful than others. You watch the first episode of Torchwood, and you’re saying “just, no way, no way something this stupid exists, in any universe ever. Ms. Police Officer (not detective) just got in using pizza.” You can NOT take that seriously.

        I think we do use geek and nerd where we do really mean amateur. Sometimes, at any rate. (I don’t think Intellectual is something you get from a particular field of focus, unless perhaps it is logistics and strategy — and even then, you’d best use it in multiple fields).

        Am glad to realize I had mistaken you (and if you find yourself wondering why people think you sound snobby, you might try repeating “being a geek is not necessary to like XY or Z”, because I and a lot of people read “being a geek” as “likes science/math and what not”).Report