Chronicle of a jazz death foretold

In my 30 years as a daily newspaper sub-editor, nearly every time one of my associates was tasked with writing a headline for a story about jazz it would come back with one including the words “all that jazz”. And when I had the opportunity I would rewrite it to avoid that cliche before it appeared in print.

Now, it seems, another headline cliche has emerged: newspaper people aren’t happy unless a jazz story has “death” or “dying” in large type above it.

The latest is in The Independent and, slightly surprisingly, is on a story with a Phil Johnson byline. It is here together with some interesting comments if you scroll down to the bottom.

Now I have never met Phil Johnson, but I have read quite a lot of what he has written, and he doesn’t strike me as “one of them” when it comes to the “us and them” that is usually created when this art form we love comes under attack. In fact, I suspect he’s pretty annoyed that the d-word was used in the headline.

However, I can also see why the headline writer used it. Johnson is, again slightly surprisingly given that the hook for the piece is the imminent London Jazz Festival, discussing some problems faced by jazz in this country: declining attendance, the ever-ageing nature of those who do attend, the way in which we jazz writers tend towards being PR people for the genre rather than objective critics of it, the recycling of so many of the younger players in countless different bands which stops them developing real, long-lasting rapport, and the low esteem in which jazz is held by the establishment (specifically those who hand out the grants).

So, yes, it is rather a gloomy piece, but I wouldn’t want a moderately misjudged headline to get in the way of our musing upon the serious points Johnson is making.

The piece has drawn some strong comment from musician Tim Garland – seek it out on Facebook: the comparisons he draws with how jazz is valued in other parts of the world are very interesting.

So, what does everyone else think?

Categories: Opinion

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6 replies

  1. I read the article last night from facebook and the ‘d’ word annoys me almost as much as it does Mr Garland! It is not dead, as it is being played, as the piece states there are a plethora of grads coming out of the colleges wanting to play it.
    Are the audiences getting smaller? well they will if jazz doesn’t attract younger audience members (rather than musicians), there are large audiences for the likes of Cullum and Bubble so why not the rest of the music, is it because it has not got the media polish that the big contracts gave an artist previously and they have clung on to?
    Or is it that the audience don’t find the performance as entertaining?
    Or is it too intellectualised for the younger audience?
    Or is that the genre is marketed wrongly?
    Or is that younger, more promoted jazz musicians aren’t that good at playing jazz (as the writer insinuates)?

    Should jazz musicians be sighting these well-known musicians to promote their own gigs, if you are a piano trio – ‘like Jamie Cullum but without the singing’ to attract his fans to attend their gigs?
    I do think that jazz musicians, clubs and promoters can learn from other genres with regard to performance, live jazz can be a bit insular and not engage the audience as it can be more about the ‘music’ rather than the act.
    How folk music became popular again I don’t know! But there is a lesson to be learned there as the audience used to be similar to jazz (bearded, sandal wearing men of a certain age).

    The last section of the article doesn’t seem to make sense as he his talking about recorded music as opposed to live…
    Is the writer saying that jazz should only be in the domain of the vinyl LP as a solution to it dying out?

    Well that is my rant over

  2. I can have a go at answering the “how folk music became popular” question. The first thing to say is that the folk CLUBS suffer from exactly the same problems as jazz – declining ageing audiences. But folk music has revived itself through other routes. The key element has been the festival scene. Folk festivals are great fun. Every weekend from April to September there are at least two or three festivals, 500-5000 people each. They are generally run on a not-for-profit basis, and often the organisers don’t get paid. They are held generally outdoors with most people camping, they cater for families and for drinkers, they put on a range of music (folk has as many different sub-genres as jazz does!) and crucially in my opinion, they have lots of dancing. Ceilidhs every night for everyone to join in – a big attraction for the younger audience – and more formal displays to watch during the day, and bands like Bellowhead that encourage dancing. Of course there is more serious music to sit and listen to as well – but the important thing is FUN.
    Sadly jazz in the UK has tended to take itself too seriously to embrace fun, although that isn’t always the case in Europe. And if jazz can include Jamie Cullum why can’t it include the increasingly popular Samba and Jive scenes.
    So from the huge attendance at folk festivals a generation has grown up that now sees folk in a different way. Unfortunately the media image of beards and sandals hasn’t quite vanished yet – educating journalists takes a long time!

  3. Thank you, Peter, for the insight into and unpacking of the ‘Jazz Is Dying’ headline.

    I also agree that Phil Johnson raises issues that all people involved in jazz promotion should be thinking about. We all know the problem of the ageing audience. Jazz attracted a lot of young people in the 1950s and ’60s as the music was very exciting. By and large that audience that was drawn to jazz has remained loyal to and interested in the music. For me jazz is just as interesting – and certainly more varied – today as it was in the ’50s and ’60s, but somehow it has not attracted a similarly loyal audience of people in their 30s and 40s. Interestingly, our Birmingham audience seems to consist of two quite different groups, those in their 50s and 60s and young people in their 20s or even late teens who are studying the music at the Conservatoire or in the Jazzlines ensembles.

    I always feel that the classic jazz gig promoted in the upstairs pub room with a band of a fairly mainstream approach to the music, however enjoyable and intimate it may be, will always attract a largely male middle-aged audience. Jazz needs to find other types of venue, some more fomal and others much more informal and put the right bands in the right setting. But all is not doom and gloom. Phil mentions Café Oto, though Café Oto would be the first to admit that not all their gigs are packed out. Generally, London has a healthy scene, as has Birmingham (despite some disappointments). David Murray attracted a 66% audience here, as I believe he did in Phil’s own gig in Bristol. Jazz Festivals such as London, Cheltenham, Brecon, Manchester and no doubt many others that I have not visited attract very healthy and varied audiences.
    I should add that a number of promoters have recently met to discuss many of the issues that Phil raises and have formed the Jazz Promotion Network (JPN). It plans to run industry events, tours and discuss the key issue of audience development.

  4. Thank you Peter, what you say about the folk sceene makes a lot of sense. And yes the audience does want to be entertained, and dance along (which can be a bit difficult with changing rhythms etc)
    Tony the age group thing is an interesting one… and again what your saying makes sense, my personal view is that people in the 30 – 50 category are busy rearing children! which means they have a limitted amount of funds and time to spend on entertainment, even then it seems to be tv (from what I can tell as someone in that age group) so maybe they would be the wrong target audience to aim for? go for the 50+ audience and forget the rest? As for the younger market, they have lots of peer pressure from pop and advertising hence it is more likely to be the music student/grads that are likely to attend?
    Just some thoughts!

  5. Mark – this debate is currently raging in the folk world too (particularly through an organisation called Folk21) The issue of getting people under 50 to attend is a specific one – and generally agreed as the reason for the success of festivals where the whole family can go.

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