Is Jazz Dead?
The answer seems to be yes and no.
Berkeley jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman says making a living in jazz has never been easy.
In recent years, eight Bay Area jazz clubs have folded. Yoshi’s in Oakland, one of the leading jazz venues in the United States, now books less jazz and more blues, R&B, and other popular music. Jazz sales account for about 1 percent of all recordings sold in the United States. These facts lead some to declare the death of jazz as a popular art form.
Not so fast, say others. Bebop jazz from the 1960s may attract mainly older, white folks, but the art form is evolving, and some of it appeals to younger and more diverse audiences.
And that’s important, because jazz is not just any musical genre. Jazz makes a unique contribution to U.S. and world culture. The African roots of jazz, combined with the history of oppression of African Americans, has produced a social and political element not found in many other musical styles. It’s no coincidence that jazz artists played an important role in the civil rights and black power movements and support today’s groups fighting police brutality and aggression abroad.
“As a musician, we have a social responsibility,” said jazz pianist Danilo Perez, interviewed at the Montreal Jazz Festival. “Jazz is a very hopeful music. [Composer and saxophonist] Wayne Shorter told me, ‘write and play music in the way you want this world to be.’”
“Things are harder in the jazz business, harder now than 20 years ago,” admitted saxophonist Joshua Redman, who lives in Berkeley when not headlining jazz concerts around the world. He noted that, unlike in the past, musicians these days don’t make much money from CDs or streaming audio. Redman earns a living from touring, an option available only to those at the top of the profession.
Of course, he noted, it’s never been easy to earn a living as a jazz musician. But there used to be broader efforts to educate young people about jazz. Redman attended Berkeley public schools and got a solid jazz education.
“When I started playing sax in the fifth grade,” he said, “I was able to play in a little jazz ensemble. That was very rare at the time.”
Berkeley High had a roster of music teachers who groomed new students for the jazz band, much like football coaches develop their players.
“If you are a kid growing up in Texas, and your school has this great football team, it inspires you,” said Redman. “It was kind of like that with jazz in Berkeley.”
While Berkeley schools continue jazz education, music classes at most other school districts have been drastically cut back or eliminated altogether.
Redman sees some bright spots, however. He is encouraged by those who fuse jazz with other musical styles, whether Latin or hip-hop.
“Jazz had always been invigorated by music outside of jazz,” he said. It’s a very open-ended music. It’s outward looking.”
Stanley Clarke, a bassist who shot to fame fusing jazz and rock in the 1970s, agreed with Redman.
Jazz “will never go back” to the 1960s era, he told me during an interview in Montreal. “History has proven in art nothing ever goes back. It just keeps moving.”
Years ago, Clarke stirred controversy when he played rock riffs on his electric bass during jazz performances. Now the fusion pioneered by Miles Davis, Clarke, and others has joined the pantheon of classic jazz.
At some point, if there’s enough individuals playing the style, Clarke said, “then that will be the definition of jazz.”
In his experience, jazz “musicians like anything that’s good, whether it’s rock, jazz, or hip-hop. What you decide to make [into a music performance] is a little more calculated.”
Jazz musicians calculate what types styles attract audiences and sell recordings and adjust their playing accordingly.
“Musicians don’t like to say this,” said Clarke, “it’s always a commercial decision.”
Whether due to commercial or artistic decisions, the world of jazz is already changing. People can’t even agree on a definition of jazz anymore, laughed Laurent Saulnier, vice president for programming at the Montreal Jazz Festival. “There are some jazz ayatollahs who decide if something is jazz or not. Jazz is always evolving with new blood, new ideas, and new ways of playing.”
He reels off the names of half a dozen new jazz groups that combine jazz with soul and R&B. My favorite in the new name category is a jazz hip-hop group Snarky Puppy.
These groups, he said, “are making jazz like they live in 2017.”
In the Bay Area, the jazz scene continues to evolve. SF Jazz opened a wonderful venue in San Francisco that presents big name jazz artists and gives them lots of creative freedom. Small venues like The Sound Room in Oakland present local artists. And the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley has seen jazz audiences increase by about 10 percent over the past year, according to Conservatory President Susan Muscarella
“The music builds bridges, which is something the world needs right now, given political, social, and economic crises.”
Pianist Perez said jazz artists have to be creative in finding ways to expand the jazz audience. He oversees the Panama Jazz festival every year, which draws up to 30,000 Panamanians, most of whom are unfamiliar with jazz. They come to hear salsa and other popular Latin music—and then stay for the jazz.
“I am convinced that people need access to the music. They need to be able to hear it.”
The Museum of Capitalism opened for a trial run of several months, and it ends in August. Better described as a “Museum of Anti-Capitalism,” it features exhibits, photos, and audio-visual presentations looking at the shortcomings of capitalism. One of my favorite exhibits was a map of the world showing domination by oil, financial, pharmaceutical, and other major corporations. The museum temporarily rented space in Jack London Square at 55 Harrison St. I hope the museum gets funding to find a permanent location. MuseumOfCapitalism.org.
Local Jazz Venues
SF Jazz has become the Bay Area’s best jazz venue, featuring major artists for weeklong stays in which it programs inventive and entertaining music. SFJazz.org.
Yoshi’s continues to book major, popular jazz artists but also includes an increased mixture of blues, R&B, soul and pop.
The Sound Room is a small club featuring local musicians in an intimate atmosphere. SoundRoom.org.
The California Jazz Conservatory, formerly the Berkeley Jazz School, teaches jazz and features concerts with both students and professionals. CJC.edu.
This is Reese Erlich’s last column for The Monthly. Visit his home page, ReeseErlich.com, or follow him on Twitter (@ReeseErlich) and on Facebook (Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent).