Musicians are always talking about, Why isn’t jazz popular? But [jazz] musicians today are completely devoid of charisma. People never really liked the music in the first place. So now you have musicians who are proficient at playing their instruments, and really, really smart, and know a lot about music, and people sit there and it’s just boring to them—because they’re trying to see something, or feel it.
–Branford Marsalis in The Jazz Ear: Conversations over Music (2008)
Why isn’t jazz popular? Why, indeed. A better question might be “Why would jazz be popular in 2018″? No one has stated it more plainly than tenor great Branford Marsalis did in the above excerpt from his conversation with Ben Ratliff from 10 years ago. It resonates with me, because he verbalizes something that has bothered me for years. Like it or not, contemporary jazz musicians are—with very few exceptions—colossally DULL.
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a neutral, outside observer who knows nothing about music. We’ll call him Mel O’Dee. To better understand music, Mel begins by attending a lots of concerts in many different contemporary musical styles. Next, Mel studies how these different styles of music are sold and marketed. Finally, based on what he has learned, Mel predicts which styles would be the most popular and arranges them in a list by order of their predicted popularity. Based on Mel’s observations, jazz is not going to do very well on that list. In fact, a major market research study shows just how poorly jazz fares. The results are grisly: According to Nielsen’s 2017 U.S. Music Year-end Report, jazz is tied with classical music for last place at a 1% share of total volume of music consumption1. I suspect that jazz will have sole possession of the bottom spot in due time. So that’s something. A Pyrrhic victory is still a victory, right?
My TiVo box is set-up to record any program with the word “jazz” in either its title or description. Not surprisingly, there have been depressingly few shows recorded over the past year. But lately, the “Jazz” folder has been appearing near the top of the My Shows list, indicating a new recording. Indeed, one of my local PBS channels has been showing hour-long excerpts from the Rochester International Jazz Festival that have been edited into individual episodes. And even though all of the performers have given obscurity a new meaning, I’ve attempted to give them a chance. So far, three of these episodes have aired, and each one has been as soporific as the next. Make no mistake, I love jazz! And I am desperate for something—ANYTHING—to watch. But sweet fancy Moses, these performances have been lifeless. Check them out if you are among the millions of Americans dealing with insomnia.
Nothing personal is intended here. These are probably nice people. Its just that, as jazz stylists, they are as bland as a stand-up act at a nursing home. Not only is the music dull, but the performers lack any sort of stage presence, whatsoever. (But Mr. Jazzopath, Miles Davis didn’t say a word to to his audiences! Specious argument and a non sequitur. The dude was the embodiment of cool. He didn’t have to open his mouth. Besides, his music was a lot of things, but boring was never one of them.) If there were more than zero non-jazz fans who stumbled upon this and actually liked it, I would be astounded. Based on results, this appears to be the best we can do for jazz programming in 2018. It’s no wonder jazz is so unpopular today. (Ironically, PBS occasionally airs solid programs like the recent documentary The Jazz Ambassadors, but the subject matter is always old, not contemporary.)
For contrast, check out Horace Silver addressing the audience at the Village Gate as he introduces his tune “Filthy McNasty.” Silver was a force of nature at the piano, all flying hair and arms (which is probably why he almost sounds out of breath in the clip) and he exuded a natural charm behind the microphone at center-stage. (Never mind that his quintet’s music was bad as hell.) As Miles Davis made clear, one can be charismatic even without language (although it often helps), and the list of captivating bandleaders from the past is extensive. Some, like the ever-smiling Art Blakey, made their job as a musician look fun (not a trait I’d associate with today’s artists), including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, and Louis Armstrong. Others, by virtue of their intensity on the bandstand and/or their aura of cool, made it impossible to look away. This includes people like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Freddie Hubbard, and Elvin Jones. If there are more than a handful of such performers today, I am unaware of them. And to me, THAT is why jazz isn’t popular.
1. Nielsen defines audio consumption as “the number of physical albums (CDs or vinyl) that were bought and how many album equivalents were downloaded or streamed….[and] does not include listening to music on broadcast radio or digital radio broadcasts.” ↩