Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tomorrow is the question

Much is being made in the blogosphere of the current state of jazz, vis-à-vis education and marketing. I dealt with some of these issues earlier; re-reading it now, some of my statements about my own education are a bit unduly harsh, but the generalities of it are still true. There's a definite "meta-narrative" (to borrow Dan Melnick's term) being propagated among most jazz educators and students that is rarely deviated from.

Whenever debates about the state of jazz, or music in general, arise, I tend to balk at the amount of overly pessimistic rhetoric. It's not the music itself that's the problem: in fact, on a purely artistic and creative level, I think it's a fascinating time to be a musician. Every time I walk into CKUT, there's a steady stream of great music sitting in the New Release bin. Many of my colleagues are creating original music on a very high level. The problem lies in how music is presented, and as far as jazz and classical/"new music" goes, recruiting from outside.

Pat's right in accusing the IAJE of being insular. I think the annual conference would benefit from being run a little bit more like South by Southwest, in terms of being more open to the public. To attend the IAJE conference, one must be a member, or sign up for a membership upon registration. Music and musicians need to connect to the outside world and the community at large, and I think that's where the jazz/classical-industrial complex is faltering. Increasingly relegated to ivory towers and elite concert halls, it loses touch with the layman - and even a lot of students. Cover charges and drink minimums are often cost-prohibitive for a lot of interested listeners. The Village Vanguard has student discount prices, and I think that needs to go across the board.

I think a lot of people find jazz intimidating - not merely musically, but socially. The sense that prior knowledge of the music is a pre-requisite, that you have to know when to applaud, etc. To combat that, jazz needs to be brought to the people if people are not being brought to jazz. Indigone Trio's played gigs recently to audiences that never would have come to hear us before - in empty "rock" bars or at a quarterfinal of an a cappella competition. In each case, we have reached listeners with our music - not because we dumb it down but because we merely made it available to them. If jazz wants to cultivate younger listeners, bands need to get out to the high schools. Exposure is a wonderful thing, with amazing power. IAJE itself has even proven this -- in 2006 there was a percussion ensemble of middle-school kids ripping the crap out of intricate arrangements of "Spain" and "Caravan," and they had fun doing it! I soared with hope for the future generations.

Hope which is increasing chiselled away as arts education funding in Canada and the US is slashed left and right. I was discussing this with an educator friend, currently teaching at a high school in Montreal. I can't count how many studies have been done showing the importance of music in education, how it improves students' capacities in all areas, etc. Not to disparage maths and sciences, but it's not the be-all and end-all of education. There's a definite decline in the appreciation of culture, and maybe it's due to the lack of attention it receives in the media. I'm drawn to Frank Zappa's quote: "Your children have the right to know that something other than pop music exists."

There's also an underestimation of the potential audience, as listeners and as students. There's these "eureka" moments in music - very strong, almost visceral reactions. The opening of A Love Supreme, for instance. I can only hope to give someone that same feeling. And there's something about the "eureka" moments that arise from improvised music - be it jazz, freestyling MCs, or "jambands" - that are unique; the feeling I got from A Love Supreme was different than how I felt listening to Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin for the first time, but they were both very much epiphanal listening experiences. It's amazing what kids will latch onto if they're given the chance. I was 13 when I heard T.S. Monk's Monk on Monk big band - sitting third row, with the saxophone bells in my face, it was easily one of the best Hallowe'ens I've ever had, and kickstarted my serious interest in jazz.

And people need to be shown that jazz is alive and well today. Monk's music was being played, and re-energized, by living musicians - my introduction to Monk was not merely an artifact, and I think maybe my interest would have been less if it had been. As Darcy mentioned in his comments to Doug Ramsey's post, the biggest detriment to the music is protecting its past without presenting its present and future. [enter your own comment about Ken Burns here] This 13-year-old drummer I met at Cleopatra's Needle a few weeks ago is highly engaged with musicians that are working now; he's far more knowledgeable about the modern state of jazz than I was at 13. Let's hope there are more like him lurking out there in the morass of cultural apathy.


Dan said...

Nice post David. I agree with lots of your ideas and sentiments. My ideas are starting to gel into a more cohesive statement on the subject about the renegotiation of boundaries. Hopefully I will have some thoughts to share soon.

the improvising guitarist said...

I think a lot of people find jazz intimidating - not merely musically, but socially. The sense that prior knowledge of the music is a pre-requisite, that you have to know when to applaud, etc.

Ironically, I think the fact that the audience is encouraged (expected?) to actively interact with musical practice is a major attraction to jazz. As a contrasting illustration, I think one of the impediments to (let’s call it) ‘academic new music’ is that, as a consequence of embracing an ahistorical (neo-avant-garge, post-Cage) model, it rejects connoisseurship, and that, I think, is more alienating than a framework for audience participation.
But I agree if you’re saying that there’s a fine line between connoisseurship and inflexibility.

S, tig

Ryshpan said...

Hi Stanley,

Thanks for commenting. What I meant was to convey was this idea that connoisseurship is not just welcomed, but enforced, demanded and required. It's not expected of me to be an avid film buff when I walk into an arthouse cinema (at least, not the ones I've gone to), but there seems to be this myth that one must be a very educated listener in order to darken the door of a jazz club. Sometimes I get the feeling that some jazz stalwarts aren't too far removed from those that sneer at people who clap between movements of a piece.