Jazz is Dead

If, like me, you listen frequently to jazz radio, often you hear DJs and other concerned constituents urging folks to “keep jazz alive,” as though it were an invalid on life support. Falling sales, vanishing broadcast formats, venue closures — they all suggest that America’s greatest contribution to the planetary arts is indeed on the verge of extinction. 

Many people — including embittered musicians who cannot earn a living playing the greatest music our nation has produced — will tell you with resignation that it’s already too late: jazz is dead. We’re just witnessing its slow, excruciating extermination.

This is a lie. Jazz is not dead. What’s dead is our collective ability to listen carefully and intelligently, to embrace the sublime above the superficial, to celebrate the human urge for transcendence.

Jazz is not dead. What’s dead is a popular culture that rewards soul, swing, and consciousness.

As one eloquent jazzhead recently reminded his colleagues, “jazz is as profound, visionary, exhilarating, soulful, creative, introspective, aggressive, thought provoking, expressive, mind bending, swinging, passionate, challenging, heartfelt, sophisticated, touching, sincere and interesting as ever.” Unfortunately, when offering profundity to an audience that has the attention span of a guinea pig — and, in fact, would prefer to watch movies about gun-toting guinea pigs — creators and purveyors of jazz have about as much chance of selling their vision as I have of playing power forward for the Lakers.

But the music lives. Indeed it is alive in a way that the necrotic stuff that fills our airwaves and dominates the sales charts never could be.

On a recent week, I heard at Yoshi’s Oakland the sultry and mesmerizing vocalists Charmaine Clamor and Mon David; at downtown L.A.’s Cafe Metropol I experienced (with ears and body and mind) the extra-terrestrial genius of the Christian Jacob trio (with Kenny Wild on bass and Ray Brinker on drums); and at Hollywood’s Catalina Bar & Grill I had the honor of experiencing three sets from the finest jazz singer of his generation, Kurt Elling, and his astonishing quartet, led by the ingenious virtuoso Laurence Hobgood and augmented by the legendary tenor man Ernie Watts.

None of these events were sold out. You could walk up to the box office five minutes before showtime and get seat. But they weren’t empty, either. Every show attracted impassioned, intense listeners who responded to the artistry with an energy and ferocity usually associated with rock concerts and sporting events — and with a respect and admiration for artists and art that is sorely lacking in most other precincts of the cultural map.

Jazz is dead only in the minds and hearts of those who misunderstand fame and fortune with creative vision. More exalted music is being made than ever. You just have to listen.

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