All That Jazz?
Drama and Music critic Terry Teachout writes about the death of Jazz especially among younger listeners. Jazz is one of America’s great cultural gifts to the world and is now among the least popular forms of music in the United States along with classical.
Teachout originally wrote a column about the death of Jazz in 2009 and said that the problem is that Jazz sees itself and is seen as a high artform. Meaning that it has turned itself into something that seems bewildering and hostile to people without the right vocabulary and an encyclopedial knowledge of what came before.
I think he is partially correct. A few years ago, SF Jazz opened up here. SF Jazz is a concert venue dedicated entirely to Jazz but it has much more in common with the Symphony and the Opera than it does with the Filmore or CBGBs or a smokey club. It is not as formal, you can drink while watching a performance at SF Jazz but it is very much a sit down and listen kind of environment. You are not allowed to get up and move around. You don’t dance even if the music is lively. The audience is mixed but tends towards the over-50 crowd.
Other reasons for the decline of Jazz might just be changing fashions and tastes. Jazz used to be the dominate form of popular music or popular music was at least strongly influenced by Jazz. There was poppy and safe Jazz. Sweet Jazz was popular since the 1920s and was known for being made safe for white audiences. Benny Goodman was all the rage with teens in the late 40s but largely alienating to people who remembered the roaring 20s. In the pre-Rock n’Roll years, you proved you were cool and non-conformist by listening to Chet Baker, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins instead of to pop.
Then the Boomers came and Rock n’Roll spoke to them. I remember in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, there was a singer who was very bitter about the Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan. She seemed to think it was a conspiracy by white record executives to silence black voices and music. This is a bit too far-fetched. The footage of her singing was a TV performance where she was doing avant-garde kind of signing screams without words, just sounds. It was a far cry from Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Etta James. Meaning Jazz got too avant-garde and couldn’t find a way back down sometime in the 1960s and Rock n’Roll became the music of the young as did folk music (I still think that the Folk scene from the early 1960s is amazing in how such corny music was considered cool and Bohemian.)
At some point Jazz went from being pop and counter-culture to just being high culture. One interesting thing about the Boomers is that they seem to have made it a curse and evil thing to admit you are aging and getting older. I’ve seen evidence that teenagers liked to wear jeans as early as the 1940s if not earlier. However, at some point you were supposed to be an adult and at some point stop wearing jeans unless you were a prisoner, a blue collar worker, or in the Navy. The Boomers changed this and now jeans are the basic pants that almost everyone wears. I’ve only known a handful of people to say that they don’t like wearing jeans.
This refusal to get older seems to get strong with every generation. Generation X (especially the later half, anyone born between 1977-1980) and the Millennials seem to have taken this refusal to get older to more extreme tastes. We are the generation that turned the Internet into a constant nostalgia machine filled with listicles of our childhoods. Something about these two generations and our experiences growing up (9/11, Iraq II, the Great Recession) have created a real need for permanent nostalgia. There is also some ethos about refusing to grow up or changing what it means to be a grown up. A geek ethos that I commonly see is “I pay my bills. I go to work. Why does being adult have to be about liking high culture things? Why can’t adults enjoy video games and cartoons?” A friend of mine who recalls her parents playing jazz and classical music says that her husband absolutely refuses to attend any sort of high culture music event even a Pops Concert. I don’t know what this about but somehow Jazz and Classical music have become symbols of unacceptable adulthood.
I am not sure if this going to end anytime soon or at all. Symphonies can get young adults to turn out for video-game night but it doesn’t translate into people wanting to hear Mozart or Schubert.
Jazz seems to be even in more dire straits.
Interestingly the blowback seems to be happening in fashion. One of the reasons that young people seem to like Mad Men is that it represents a time when people actually put effort into how they dressed instead of just throwing on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and hoddie. People are tired of sloppy airplane attire. Others remain unrepentant in dressing like slobs for travel.
I don’t want to return to the days when men always wore suits, ties, and hats and women needed to wear hats, gloves, and pantyhose to go shopping. I would like for people in my generation to realize that it doesn’t have to be a constant listicle of nostalgia for the best 80s cartoons and videogames and it won’t kill you or make you a grandpa or grandma to attend a jazz or classical concert or even a night at the theatre or opera. You can mix in some Shostakovich or Thelonius Monk with your Vampire Weekend, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Jay-Z. You can add some Eugene O’Neil or August Wilson to your Walking Dead and 30 Rock. You can add some Edith Wharton or Murakami or Toni Morrison to your Marvel revisits the Secret War. 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.