The enthusiast's audio webzine

Is Jazz Dead?

I was recently pleased to have the opportunity to interview Michael Cuscuna, owner of Mosaic Records, at his office in Stamford, CT. I had wanted to meet him since I began exploring the Blue Note jazz recordings, particularly the recent reissue series that Music Matters (www.musicmattersjazz.com) has been releasing.

A more detailed article on the many areas on which we touched during our talk is forthcoming, but I shared with Michael my concern that jazz, like classical music, seems to be undergoing a general decline. I based my position on a couple of general thoughts: First, like opera, “getting” jazz requires a modicum of maturity. In my case, my interest in jazz did not start until I was well into my twenties, and did not blossom in earnest until I was in my forties. This despite being exposed to a steady diet of jazz—particularly bossa nova—at home as a child. Second, intuitively it seems to me that the audience for this genre of music is aging and there is little evidence of an uptake by those below the baby boom generation. (My kids, for example, have zero interest in jazz… sadly.)

Michael strongly disagreed with this position, pointing to the profusion of younger jazz musicians, and using Esperanza Spalding as an example of an artist who is not just young, but (due in part to her Grammy-winning album “Esperanza”) also popular and popularized. He believes that there is a profusion of wonderfully talented jazz artists coming up the curve, and suggests that the jazz scene in New York (a benchmark) as well as in Chicago and elsewhere is vibrant. (As it turned out, the Esperanza Spalding Trio happened to be playing at the Village Vanguard that evening.)

What Michael did add, however, is that the future of recorded music (not just jazz) is very uncertain. A more full discussion is for another day, but he feels that artists in the years to come will be selling and marketing their own work. They will make as money (the middle-man labels will be cut out) but will not have the same global reach as before (due to the absence of marketing).

I’m encouraged by the expert’s view, but I’m also enough of a cynic to feel that “I’ll believe it when I see it.” In the meantime I expect to continue playing jazz in front of my kids so that they develop the “hidden ear” for it.

Do write in and let us know your thoughts on this subject: Is jazz on the way out, maintaining stability, or in an ascent?

Image credits

The image used for this article on the issue page is entitled “V pentatonic scale over II-V-I chord progression” by “Dr clave” and was obtained from the WikiMedia commons.

V pentatonic scale over a II V I progression

V pentatonic scale over a II V I progression


Readers' comments

    We have great players, but no longer have any great composers.

  • I hear you, Doc. I remember the 60’s thru the 80’s as advancing jazz music in milestones. For a modern independent jazz composer, I think Maria Schneider is to jazz what Gil Evans was a few decades ago. I remember new jazz and new jazz players coming from the European label ECM during this time, as well. I think we are into a creative null of some kind these days. I have heard some bright exceptions, however, but mostly on small labels and not as frequently as I would like. Hope that changes. Wish I had more to add.

  • I truly wish jazz was alive and growing in 2012. I love jazz. But there are two concerns: first, and perhaps from my ignorance, I haven’t felt a new turn or wave in jazz for some time. Second, I fear the market for jazz shrinks everyday…that as a rule, we all prefer to connect music from our ears to our crotch than to our brains and heart. My silly two-cents.

  • Jazz is alive! The best proof is that my kids (14 and 17 year old boys) just “discovered” it, to my great surprise and delight. I wasn’t trying to force them to like jazz, but all of a sudden they just “got it”. And they mostly listen to dubstep (Skrillex, etc.), so that is not a very logical transition, and I think that’s encouraging. The other encouraging trend is (relatively) new musicians, such as Tord Gustavsen, Fabian Almazan, etc. who are fantastically talented and seek new directions but staying within the tradition. Labels such as ECM do a great job of continuing to identify new talent. A longer discussion is the direction in which jazz is going – it moved in an exciting “linear” progression for years – from Bebop to Hardbop to Free, etc. but now it seems to have lost a sense of progression to a logical next step…

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