Thou Shall Not Cravat: Darcy James Argue warns against fetishizing the past.
Thou Shall Not Cravat: Darcy James Argue warns against fetishizing the past.

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In June, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the results of a survey that showed the median age of the jazz audience has, since 1982, increased from 29 to 46 while diminishing in size by nearly a third. “It’s no longer possible for head-in-the-sand types to pretend that the great American art form is economically healthy or that its future looks anything other than bleak,” said arts critic Terry Teachout in a response to the survey in the Wall Street Journal.

Others argued the numbers weren’t trustworthy, or that the survey didn’t include stats from 2008-09. Or that the word jazz was too vague, or that its findings were just flat-out wrong: “Our problem is not getting the kids to turn out for our shows—the kids are frequently the only people who turn out,” said composer/bandleader Darcy James Argue in a blog post. “Our problem is getting everyone else to take a break from fetishizing the jazz of 50 years ago and pay attention to what’s happening right now.”

That may be the problem. Even “the kids” that Argue and other forward-thinking jazz musicians are seeing at their gigs aren’t representative of the mainstream; they come from the music-geeky fringe, the college-radio crowd. The Beyonce- and Taylor Swift-loving masses see jazz as it’s usually presented to them on TV, film, and even on the few remaining jazz radio stations: as a relic, a link to the past. Audiences are not lured through the suggestion that a music’s best moments came long before they (and, increasingly, their parents) were born.

But how to explain, then, the media storm that surrounded the Beatles reissues this year? Among friends and acquaintances with that kind of “classic” taste, I’ve been conducting an informal, single-question survey: “Why don’t you listen to jazz?”

A few of the answers weren’t news. “I think most people like music they can sing along with,” said a coworker. “I don’t think jazz has the kind of repetition you can grab onto. They don’t really do verses and choruses.”

There are, of course, many jazz musicians who cover contemporary pop: Brad Mehldau’s Radiohead songs and the Bad Plus’ version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” come to mind. But if these records get any airplay at all, it tends to be in the form of a profile on All Things Considered.

Which leads to the most common answer I received: access. Nearly everyone gave some variation of, “Well, I don’t really hear jazz very much.” The circular logic here is devastating: Jazz isn’t played because people don’t listen to it, but people don’t listen to it because it isn’t played. Still, most music fans aren’t terribly interested in seeking jazz out, even when told that it involves artists or songs they’ve enjoyed in other contexts. When I informed a friend who’s also a hip-hop connoisseur that Mos Def’s pianist, Robert Glasper, was an innovative and accomplished jazz player, he candidly replied, “If you play it for me I might get into it, but I’m not going to seek it out on my own.”

“I do listen to jazz,” said another coworker. “I really like it, but I don’t know much about it, so I don’t really let on because I don’t want to seem like some dumbass to people who actually know what they’re talking about.”

Put this in context with the other answers, and a pattern emerges: Jazz, by and large, is music for nerds. They’re the people who make it; they’re the people who pay for it; and

God knows they’re the people who write about it. One particularly skeptical friend snarled, “I don’t give a shit about G-flat minor seventh chords and 15/8 time signatures or whatever.” But jazzheads do. Pair that with highfalutin gigs at your Kennedy Centers, your Carnegie Halls, etc., and there’s considerable distance between hardcore fans and everybody else.

It’s once again death by circular logic: Jazz can’t get wider circulation until it shakes its stodgy reputation, but how can it shake its stodgy reputation until it gets wider circulation?

A frequent answer: Make a jazz album that purports to appeal to fans of other kinds of music. But as the following examples from this year show, lofting serious artistic intentions toward the mainstream is not easy.

Urbanus, Stefon Harris & Blackout

The Draw: Vibraphonist Harris formed Blackout as a vehicle to explore the urban music with which he and his bandmates grew up. Urbanus, the quintet’s second album, has a few straightahead swingers but is mostly constructed on funk and hip-hop rhythms or R&B smoothness. However, its opening track is a go-go arrangement of “Gone,” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, inspired by Blackout’s two Washingtonian members (pianist Marc Cary and bassist Ben Williams). Harris says the tune gets the biggest reactions at gigs, and the most questions in interviews.

The Flaw: Yeah, nothing gets ’em moving at CFE and DC Star like a 75-year-old opera melody, but without words! Also, though there are some vocal pieces on Urbanus, they’re all sung by saxophonist Casey Benjamin through a vocoder—easily mistaken for its close relative, Autotune, which in 2009 graduated from hip-hop trend to punch line.

Double-Booked, Robert Glasper

The Draw: The onstage keyboardist for Mos Def, Common, and Q-Tip plays in two jazz combos: the Robert Glasper Trio, which plays acoustic jazz in the standard piano-bass-drums format; and the RCDC Experiment, an electric jazz/hip-hop fusion quartet. Double-Booked features both bands. Glasper’s ear for tricky but luscious harmonies is sharper than ever, and the bands are taut and funky. Double-Booked is one step closer to that elusive bridge between the genres.

The Flaw: Nobody goes to a Mos Def or Common show to hear the pianist. Moreover, even the tightest hip-hop beat doesn’t make Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One” less weird. Finally, one member of the RCDC Experiment is saxophonist Casey Benjamin, who used the vocoder on Harris’ album—and here too.

Infernal Machines, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

The Draw: Argue calls his 18-piece Secret Society a “steampunk big band.” Correspondingly, on Infernal Machines he infuses the tunes with snarling, processed guitars, exotic and electronic textures, and a generous helping of indie-rock attitude—served up with dense, Nigel Godrich–style production. Infernal Machines appears on many 2009 best-of-jazz lists and has garnered mainstream attention, including a write-up in Newsweek.

The Flaw: It’s a big band. The swing revival of the ’90s aside, those were last popular during World War II. Not only that, but although the album was released in May, until the end of October (when it came to Amazon, iTunes, and record stores) Infernal Machines was available only through its label, New Amsterdam Records—a little-known upstart that deals mostly in contemporary classical. In other words, it was a strictly those-in-the-know proposition.

Think Free, Ben Allison

The Draw: Allison, a bassist, began as a downtown avant-gardist but has gone more melodic; for Think Free, he said, “I wanted a band that rocked.” Which it does, in deliriously tuneful and catchy tracks with trumpet and violin carrying the melodies over backbeats and warm washes of guitar—a decidedly indie-rock aesthetic. Think Free has spent nearly a month atop CMJ’s jazz chart.

The Flaw: Indie rock has demonstrated its potential to break mainstream—assuming one counts sound cues for Josh Schwartz TV shows or National Public Radio programs as “mainstream.” (Not coincidentally, Allison wrote the theme for NPR’s On the Media.) But even the hipsters in those universes will have trouble with math-y stuff like Think Free, with its 7/8 times and complicated bass solos. Not exactly the emotional backdrop to another reunion between Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass.