5 Things We do as Jazz Musicians That Have Made it America’s LEAST Popular Genre (1.4% in 2015)

I know I’ll get some flack for saying some of these things. I’ll just start by saying I’ve done every single thing on here. Not one, a couple, most… every single one. This post is coming from a place self-awareness/self-critique as much as it is about general trends I’m seeing in our field. It goes almost without saying that each point has many, many exceptions. No finger pointing, I just want our music to be heard and think we need to have an open conversation about these issues for that to happen.

So, Jazz has become America’s LEAST popular genre, accounting for only 1.4% of total US music consumption in 2015 because:

1. We have no collective intention, only individual ambition

Most of us are so focused on growing our own slice of the pie, building a name for ourselves, and getting all the gigs without recognizing that in the big picture, the “jazz pie” is tiny! At just 1.4% market share, we forget that even many of the bigger names in our industry are still taking losses when releasing a record, still fighting for the same $50 gig, and still regularly playing to single digit audiences.

I will never forget seeing Harold Mabern (rest in peace!) at 82 years old (Harold Mabern of Betty Carter fame, of Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard fame, and Sonny Rollins, George Coleman fame, the list goes on and on) playing at Fat Cat in NYC to a nearly empty listening room with dozens of drunk people playing pool and shuffleboard in the back hardly aware that he was playing music. That failure lies on the shoulders of ALL of us.

RIP Harold Mabern (1936-2019). We won’t stop! Photo from Smoke Sessions Records

If any of our peers are unable to draw an audience, working for under their worth, or incapable of breaking even on an album, that is all of our collective problem! If you see this happening, it’s imperative not to think thoughts like “when I release my record, I’ll do a better job marketing it”, “oh he/she passed on that gig, maybe I can take it?” or “when I play that venue, I’ll negotiate a better contract and advertise the gig more”. How about instead we think, “There’s going to be some great music happening that night, how can I help make sure people in the community know about it?” or “I bet my own audience/circle of influence would love this person’s music too, let me share his/her new record with them.”

This self-centered mindset is prevalent in even more subtle ways. Even when we go out to support other jazz musicians, we bring our horns hoping we might get to sit in, we bring business cards hoping we can talk to the club’s booker while we’re there, and we make sure to try to talk to the saxophone player hoping to get on his/her sub list (again, talking about myself here). Of course, we have to hustle, eat, gig, etc, that’s just reality. BUT we also have to recognize that the “take care of the music and the music will take care of you mindset” is gone! I think it has to be said that there are NOT enough gigs to go around. It has to be said that thousands of amazing artists are unable to pay their bills. It has to be said that most of us plunge our life savings into these albums and rarely see any returns. That should be unacceptable to ALL of us, and the only way we can begin to change this reality is to treat the successes and failures of our peers as our own. We need to stick up for one another, support each other’s work, and build the whole pie. WE not ME as I heard the wonderful Mike Boone (a huge proponent for this approach in the Philly area) say at a masterclass earlier this week.

Personal anecdote:
I had the great honor of studying briefly with Wynton Marsalis in high school and (rather boldly) asked him if he cared that I was planning to go to Manhattan School of Music instead of Juilliard (where he is the head of the jazz department). I don’t remember his exact words but in essence he said there we’re all out here trying to do the same thing, and he doesn’t view the two schools as competitors in any way. He was just happy I was given an opportunity to continue my studies with top musicians and if anything he wanted to further support and encourage collaboration between the two schools.

2. We have no concept of target audience

Our audience is made up mainly by 3 demographics:

a) Other Jazz musicians, often young jazz students

Go to most any jazz show in NYC and you will likely notice that a large portion of the audience has an instrument on them. Look at popular jazz musicians’ social media and read the flood of comments saying, “he played the lick at 3:04!”, “that #11 though”, and “this makes me want to shed”.

There are many reasons for this, some of which I’ll expand on in point #5 but to start, let’s look at how we’re presenting ourselves online (a huge deal in 2019!). I simply searched #jazz and #jazzmusician on Instagram and glanced through all the people shedding Rhythm Changes in their bedroom and posting their lick of the day. I found hashtags like these over and over:

#vandoren #shed #diminished #guitarlicks #selmer #modernjazz #minimoog #synths #bamcases #drummerworld #yamaha #reeds

#vandoren has over 76,000 posts! Who is scrolling through #vandoren on Instagram that doesn’t play a woodwind instrument? Who are we expecting to buy our music, go to our shows, or share our art with friends when we have so little regard for who we are talking to online?

b) Tourists

There’s this funny image of tourists as 50 year-old dads wearing a hawaiian shirt, straw hat, and sandals dragging their moody teenage daughter on a trip across America. I have complained and heard other jazz musicians complain about playing to tourists more times than I can remember, but this is such a toxic attitude.

Expectation:

Reality:

We are actually extremely fortunate that the word “jazz” to a lot of people means culture, heritage, intelligence, swagger, etc. However superficial this association may be, it’s causing thousands of people to go to a jazz club and spend $30-100 on a ticket + dinner/drinks to see what it’s all about.
These people are NOT showing up at Smalls with a Hawaiian shirt and sandals. These “tourists” are just everyday curious people looking for a cool new experience. They can leave with indifference, disgust, intrigue, newfound appreciation, or even passion! That is totally up to you.

c) Lifers/People who grew up on it.

These are those who have been listening to Ella or Glenn Miller records since they were young. Many of them know lyrics from the Great American Songbook better than we do. To a large extent, we have disenfranchised these entirely from the modern jazz scene (see point #3, Our Music Lacks Empathy). If they are still actively supporting jazz today in 2019 it’s often through organizations like Jazz at Lincoln Center, National Jazz Museum in Harlem, or similar organizations (which is great). If they are buying music it’s often still the records of those gone by and even then is often physical media from second hand stores. I don’t know if it’s truly in our best interest to target this demographic, it’s an aging one, often a more musically closed-minded one, and has negative growth potential. However, if you are looking to do this please see the following point:

3. Our music lacks empathy

Does the granddad who fell in love with Stan Getz at age 12 want to be screamed at in 13/8 or sit through you practicing Cherokee on stage? Does the engineer who worked 10 hours today and wants an hour of escape need to hear your demolished scale over a blues?

I understand, this is the ultimate artistic trouble. What does society need vs. what do I want to provide? What will people want to buy vs. who am I? I’m not here to tell you not to do a single thing that doesn’t make you happy. If you get the greatest joys in life from playing 13/8 funk and working out the craziest chord substitutions, by ALL means do it. However, I was also one who was constantly trying to figure out how crazy I can deconstruct this jazz standard or how “out” can I play, but when I really sat down and thought about what truly made me happy, it wasn’t those things. Smiles, laughter, and love made me happy, communicating with other humans at a level understood by all made me happy, and affecting people on a scale bigger than myself made me happy.

This is actually quite a polarizing take in 2019.

I guess what I mean is, ask yourself: why do you play the way you play? Because that’s what you’re working on in your lessons/practice? Do you mean it? Do you have the humility to change your set list in the middle of a gig if you get a different audience than you expected?

4. We shit talk like mad

This is more of a human problem than a jazz musician specific one but it’s a problem no less. This is the one I’m probably most guilty of on this list. My god do we (I?) love to shit on other people’s music, career choices, or marketing. When was the last time you played a session and said, “that last tune really didn’t feel comfortable, can we shed the melody together for a bit?” Nah, we’d much rather talk about how that drummer sucks later.

From “sell out” to “he really can’t play” we are so malicious behind each other’s back and will rarely say it to each other’s faces.

Instead of vibing, let’s teach other tunes. That’s what Roy would’ve wanted. Instead of criticizing someone’s social media why don’t you call them (if it’s a friend) and say, “Hey I respect your hustle, have you ever considered that it comes off a certain way to people who don’t know you as well I do?” There’s so many cringey things I did online when I was in high school/now and wish someone had just called me out and said something. To the friends who have been real with me and cared enough to talk to me candidly I really thank you!

Bottom line: If we want the level of the music to go to new heights and not just our own thing, shit talking accomplishes nothing and wastes your time and energy. If the issue really matters to you, let’s bring the conversation out front.

5. We’ve oversaturated the jazz education market because we don’t know how to market our music to anyone else

Young students now have iPhone apps that tell them the chords to any song, eBooks with 500 “hip licks”, and thousands of Instagram solos to consume. While on the surface it seems like the holy grail of education, all it really does in the end is swipe money from a vulnerable student demographic who can’t decipher between good information and bad information and just takes them one step farther away from listening to the records. We’re exploiting students’ desires to learn because we’ve given up on the battle of getting everyday people to listen.

I’m not talking about the jazz camps run by master musicians and university professors or the various honor groups for the most promising young talent, I’m talking about the thousands of “professionals” selling transcriptions of their own solos, releasing tutorials on how to play standards with Real Book changes, and posting corny/flashy licks for “students to transcribe”. Most of these people are not career educators or passionate about spreading jazz to the children, those people are too busy running school programs and teaching real lessons to be posting their 60 second shred. These “Instagram teachers” are mostly just players who see young students as the easiest demographic to boost their IG follower count with. Again, I’m super, super guilty.

Is this a good thing?

Here’s another reality: only around 1% of high school musicians are becoming professionals yet there’s thousands of artists who can’t pay bills because there’s not enough work for the amount of players. We actually do not need more players right now. We don’t need a whole generation of young people who can play the blues, we need young people who understand what the blues stands for and respect its place in America’s identity. Young people who recognize that improvisation is instantaneous composition and that Charlie Parker and Coltrane stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Bach and Beethoven. The youth who really gravitate to playing this music will still check out the records, seek out the best teachers, and go to the local jams.

Don’t get me wrong, the 21st century jazz education revolution HAS brought about a whole new generation of young players. However, it’s filled with an immense amount of bad information and created a ton of young players who can shred Eb minor pentatonic over D7 but have never learned a song from the record in their lives. I am a product of this new scene as well; I was just so fortunate to have some true mentors who told me to get off Instagram and get to the real work.

Thanks for reading! Here’s to you trooper! If you disagree with or have thoughts about anything I wrote, let’s talk about it. Hopefully, we’re all out here trying to promote the well-being of this incredible music and can have some really great conversations about how to move forward together.

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4 thoughts on “5 Things We do as Jazz Musicians That Have Made it America’s LEAST Popular Genre (1.4% in 2015)

  1. Very thoughtfully composed, raw, and honest. Always be true to yourself while understanding that we live in a community. Those who would be critical of this thought process will never get it, but it is always worth trying to help to educate others to rise above the “noise”. Keep sharing. There are people out there who do actually care.

  2. “ Do you have the humility to change your set list in the middle of a gig if you get a different audience than you expected?”

    I went to hear the Count Basie band in our town a few years back. After playing the first tune and seeing a lot people get up to dance, the leader completely changed the set list.

    1. Wow! That’s so cool that the leader knew exactly what to do. Definitely wouldn’t hurt if more of us embraced our dance roots, though it’s hard because most of us don’t dance ourselves haha

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