Since the 1970s, for as long as I’ve been aware of the music commonly known as “jazz,” various authorities, mavens, and aficionados have been declaring it dead or soon-to-be-deceased. “Jazz is dead.” “Jazz is dying.” “Jazz is going extinct.”
If this is so, the suffering patient has been enduring a kind of decades-long hospice care that would bankrupt Medicaid. While it’s true that jazz record sales comprise a comically small percentage of the (withering) recording industry and an even smaller slice of the radio market, and live music venues calling themselves jazz clubs close more frequently than sales of foreclosed homes, the music itself is gloriously alive.
Thanks to college jazz programs, the advent of cheap recording technology, and an irrepressible need for members of a free society to express themselves individually and collectively, there are more artists than ever creating modern American music rooted in improvisation. Some of it swings, some of it doesn’t. Some of it employs traditional jazz instrumentation, some does not. (Almost all of it, even the stuff that sounds resolutely “out,” remains firmly rooted in the Blues, the ancestral wellspring of nearly all popular American music.) Most folks who care about profound sounds are uninterested in the banal question “is it jazz?” since the form itself is (and always has been) evolving and shifting shapes. We who admire and revere artists as disparate as Bobby McFerrin, Brian Blade, and Maria Schneider aren’t much concerned with the marketing umbrella these un-categorizable creators fall under. We just know they’re alive and happening and necessary listening. They’re now.
KKJZ 88.1FM in Los Angeles (Long Beach, actually), is one of the few full-time jazz stations remaining in the United States. (New York, Denver, and San Francisco, among a handful of others, are home to thriving and exciting jazz stations, which anyone anywhere can access online.) K-Jazz, as it’s commonly known, is a “member-supported” radio station, which means that in addition to the “corporate underwriting” — read: advertising — they solicit, the station relies on the charitable contributions of its listeners, or “members,” to flourish. One of the oft-repeated and apparently compelling sales pitches the station employs is, “Help us keep jazz alive!” The implication is the same as it’s always been: jazz is a dying art form with a small but devoted cult of supporters, and without K-Jazz nobly spinning the nobly unpopular recordings over the airwaves the noble music will indeed finally suffer the ignoble demise everyone’s been forecasting forever.
If you listen to K-Jazz regularly, or if you examine their archived playlists from the past 6-months or so, since a new Music Director named Lawrence Tanter, public-address announcer of the Lakers, took over, you could easily get the mistaken impression that jazz really is dead, that it is largely the provenance of dead people or those, like Dave Brubeck, in the twilight of their life. Living artists do get played, but they’re a minority. It wasn’t always like this. The KKJZ DJs, who previously were allowed the latitude to program their own shows according to their individual personalities and tastes, drawing on the vast (and sometimes intimidating) trove of new music being produced, are now limited to a narrow palette of aural colors dominated by cats and kittens whose work, while historically significant and possibly immortal, is the stuff of Smithsonian archives and Ken Burns documentaries. Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Art Blakey are wonderful artists. But they’re early chapters in an ongoing narrative, not the climactic finish to the story. Listen to K-Jazz enough and you could get the impression that jazz isn’t a thriving, vital, contemporary art form but something that belongs in a museum. Or a hospital.
Outside of New York City, Los Angeles is home to more brilliant jazz musicians than any place on the planet. These folks don’t just gig in local venues and contribute their talent to movie and TV soundtracks. They make recordings that are played in every region of the United States. Some of them have international reputations and touring careers. Some of them have the powerful marketing imprimatur of Grammy nominations attached to their names. Many of them are younger than 50. But if K-Jazz were your primary source, you wouldn’t know they exist. I recently searched for the names of a dozen Los Angeles-based female vocalists, all of them quite alive, including a couple of the Grammy girls and two singers who currently have albums on the national JazzWeek radio chart. Total number of spins on KKJZ for the past two weeks? Zero.
Speaking of the Grammys, last year’s Best New Artist wasn’t Justin Bieber or a rapper. It was a 20-something jazz musician – bass and vocals – named Esperanza Spalding. She gets played on KKJZ as often as our local stars: almost never.
When the most progressive and current sounds emanating from KKJZ come from the overnight syndicated host Bob Parlocha, who’s steadfastly committed to what he calls “mainstream jazz,” you know that it’s not jazz that’s dead or dying. It’s the station that curates it. I don’t know anyone under the age of 45 who listens to KKJZ regularly. They don’t need to hear “Take Five” or “All Blues” every day. These “younger” people have been given tacit permission from “America’s Jazz and Blues Station,” as KKJZ likes to bill itself, to dismiss jazz as music intended for old folks, performed by old folks, best enjoyed as an antique cultural curiosity.
It’s not. Jazz is the sound of present-day America and, increasingly, the world. Jazz is searching and subversive, bold and beautiful, questioning and quiet, loud and proud. No, jazz is not popular music. In a 140-characters-or-less society, jazz music, like anything else that requires mindfulness and careful attention, appeals to a shrinking demographic of thoughtful and engaged citizens. But dead it’s not. Gatekeepers of the art form would do well for both themselves and the culture-at-large to stop living in the past and start celebrating jazz’s present-day vitality. The labels and genres and marketing tactics will inevitably change; the musical continuum – the entire thing, from Pops to the present — endures.