And I will love it and pet it and call it jazz…

Marc Myers started a bit of a storm last week with this post, which resulted in heated responses here and here, Myers’ defense here, and an interesting side issue here.

The whole thing is pretty silly. It wasn’t too long ago that jazz fans were blaming the record industry for cutting off funding for the genre. Now technology gives us the means to cut out the record companies entirely and people want to complain about the side-effects of technology. At some point we need to look in the mirror to figure out why jazz audiences are shrinking instead of always looking for someone else to blame.

Which brings me to the last post, the one questioning whether jazz is better off with a smaller audience. This is exactly the kind of thinking that has retarded our growth. I’ve been in the work place for a while now. I’ve had the joy of attending marketing meetings and sales forecasts that seemed like they would never end. I’ve also played a lot of gigs, and have friends who have played many, many more. Never, in either of these situations, have I heard anyone say they wished fewer people wanted to give them money. Better off with fewer listeners?

I understand the desire to preserve, to keep an art form pure. I understand the fear that larger audiences bring with them business interests that only care about money, not art. These are valid concerns, but the idea that the way to deal with them is to make jazz an exclusive club is near-sighted and foolish. What are people afraid new audiences will do to this music?

Of all musical styles, jazz may hold its traditions most dear. Artists who turn their backs on those traditions in favor of chasing dollars will be looked down upon. Always have been, always will be. They might sellout concert halls at $150 a ticket, they might win Grammys, but they will lose respect from the most ardent fans- and with it their place in history. While I may never buy a Diana Krall record or any of Herbie’s star-studded duets crap, the people who do are at least buying jazz.  These albums are the marijuana of the jazz world. Most people who smoke weed never move on to the heavy stuff, but it isn’t called a gateway drug for nothing. Commercial jazz is the gateway drug of the music world- sometimes those first highs lead to ripping lines of Weather Report at 4 a.m., mainlining A Love Supreme or tripping on Sun Ra for months on end.

As fans of jazz our only concern should be keeping the music we love alive. We are not gatekeepers. We do not get to decide who is and who is not worthy of being a jazz fan. We’ve been down that road. We’ve set ourselves apart, established an exclusive club with a strict admission policy. And in the back room of our club we keep our most prized possession- we keep our jazz. There is no doubt that we love it- we obsess over our love for this music, just like Lennie and his puppy. Like Steinbeck’s lovable oaf, we run the risk of suffocating our love. If we continue to exclude and ostracize less fervent fans we will guarantee the death of the music we have been fighting so long to preserve.

The solution is to throw open the doors, bring in as many new fans as we can find and teach them why we love this music. We need to believe the music can speak for itself. Our job is to get as many people as possible to listen.


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