Why Jazz Has the Blues
Terry Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic for Commentary magazine. His writings on theater, music, and the arts have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and National Review. His most recent book, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was published in December 2009. Teachout is also the librettist for The Letter (composer Paul Moravec), an operatic version of Somerset Maugham's 1927 play, which was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in 2006 and premiered there in 2009.
Question: Is jazz still fresh?
Terry Teachout: It's a very exciting music. It's a very fresh music. But it is minority music in a way that it wasn't when Louis Armstrong was alive.
When Armstrong was at his peak, Jazz was a popular music. In a way, it was the popular music. I mean all of the most popular music of the '30's, and '40's, were deeply in formed by Jazz. This is not true now and this is a problem that I am especially interested in and I have written about because the National Endowment for the Arts has done research, polling, on audience involvement with the arts. And one of the things they've discovered, and which I have reported on and find very disturbing, is that the average age of the Jazz audience is increasing rapidly. Rapidly enough to suggest that there is no replacement among young people. That generally speaking, young people aren’t starting to listen to Jazz and carrying it along in their lives with them. That I find distressing, anxiety-making.
Part of what explains this and part of what relates to it is that Jazz really isn't a popular music. It is an art music now in a way that it wasn't in Armstrong's time. It is more demanding. It's not being made as a functional music for people to dance to. Now, I don't think there is anything wrong with that. I think it's wonderful. I love that kind of music. But I'm also aware, as a historian and as somebody who is aware of the problems of reaching an audience, that Jazz is becoming more like Classical music in terms of its relationship to the audience. And just a Classical music is grappling with the problem of audience development, so is Jazz grappling with this problem. Except most Jazz musicians don't want to acknowledge that they have a problem.
I wrote a column about this for the Wall Street Journal and was inundated with really angry mail and e-mail and blog postings from people who really, I think, just wanted to pretend the statistics didn't exist. That the world had not changed. I believe, deeply that Jazz is still a very vital music that has much to say, not just to eggheads, or whatever the musical equivalent of an egghead is, but to ordinary people. But it has to be systematic about getting out the message and developing an audience the way that classical musicians are increasingly working on audience development. If this doesn't happen, there's not going to be an audience for Jazz in 25 years.
Question: Who are the most exciting young musicians in jazz today?
Terry Teachout: Oh, boy. There's just a lot of people. I mean, Robert Glasper, who has integrated Hip Hop into this jazz piano playing. The Bad Plus, the fascinating, well, you wouldn't want to call them an infusion group now, I mean, the music has moved on from that. But the Bad Plus plays a kind of Jazz that also has room for doing covers by bands like Blonde. They have access to all different kinds of music and even Iverson, their pianist, has some of the most curious **** in Jazz.
Maria Schneider, the best Big Band composer in Jazz today. Out there, there are all kinds of musicians that you want to know about, find out about. Luciano Sousa, the Brazilian Jazz singer, people who have something to say, not just to 50-year-olds, but to 20-year-olds as well.
Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
Jazz is still exciting, says critic Terry Teachout, but its inability to connect with young audiences is "anxiety-making" for lovers of the art.
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