In his lament for the state of jazz, Terry Teachout began by noting that in 1987 Congress passed a measure honouring jazz as "a rare and valuable national treasure," which accorded it an "institutional status commensurate with its value and importance". The resolution, introduced in the House as HR-57 and later confirmed by the Senate, could just as easily have applied to the blues, also "a uniquely American musical synthesis and culture through the African-American experience".
Blues musicians should be glad they were spared the tribute. It clearly didn't help jazz, which has been declining in popularity in part due to such well-meaning measures. The move to institutionalise and aggrandise jazz has placed it on a pedestal, far above the innovation and vibrancy that made it great. The effect has been to make the music more rare and less valued in contemporary American culture.
Jazz aficionados who complain that the problem lies with hip-hop are as ludicrous as those who blamed rock'n'roll for killing the blues (or folk or skiffle or any other musical form rockers have appropriated from over the years). Students of hip-hop are no less excited to learn that Lucky Thompson’s saxophone provides the hook in A Tribe Called Quest's “Jazz (We Got)” than Mick Jagger was when he discovered Robert Johnson via Muddy Waters. Defenders of jazz who fight changing tastes and technologies are waging a losing battle.
Contemporary jazz is burdened by the heavy weight of history and genre expectations. Gary Moskowitz, a musician and fellow writer for More Intelligent Life, believes that jazz is not dead; it may simply need "to be rebranded". Fair enough. This would mean including instruments and approaches that stray quite a bit from the jazz canon—Miles Davis as Father, John Coltrane as Son, and Charlie Parker the Holy Spirit. While Davis’s decision to include non-traditional jazz instruments, such as electric guitars, in his band in the early 1970s led to some of his best albums, including "Bitches Brew" and "On the Corner", it seems further innovation doesn't quite qualify. Only half of the bands Moskowitz cites as "revitalising the form in exciting ways" are considered practitioners of the ailing genre in the authoritative All Music Guide.
Given such limits on what qualifies as "jazz", it is not surprising that young fans are on the decline. The form has become stagnant and stodgy in the popular imagination—music learned in classrooms, played at upscale dinner parties, and otherwise forgotten or ignored.
Bobby McIntyre, a septuagenarian jazz musician, has offered a perfect example of how not to save jazz. He wants to set up a "living museum and restaurant with live traditional jazz music" in historic New Orleans. McIntyre may succeed in preserving a historic building, but he won't save the music: few concertgoers under the age of 50 would want to be caught dead in such a place.
What we need are fewer venues that honour jazz and more inexpensive concert spaces where we can simply listen to it. Here in Washington, DC, one such institution is doing just that: the ironically named HR-57.
Picture credit: moguphotos (via Flickr)