Thursday, July 30, 2009

The eternal frame

As I continue to work through the details of the Industrial Jazz Group's upcoming east coast tour, and the logistical and fiscal realities of that operation come into greater focus, I keep coming back to a question about audience.

I'm pretty sure we're going to get a good turnout of fellow musicians for our shows (we usually do), but when it comes to music-fans-who-are-fans-only -- i.e., non-musicians or amateur musicians, who actively and regularly invest in the music they like -- how are we gonna get more of this latter group to give the IJG experience a try?

It's a question with ramifications both narrowly selfish and practical (we need to expand our audience or I am gonna lose my shirt) and broadly philosophical (where will jazz be in ten years if jazz musicians / academics / critics are, and continue to be, the primary jazz fans?).

Of course, those philosophical ramifications are probably only relevant if, as I guess I'm assuming, jazz is in danger of becoming a closed system.

Not that closed systems are necessarily bad for audience development. They seem to work in sports, for instance. Consider: most sports fans participate in a given sport before becoming fans of it. For many, the process of becoming a fan -- following a given team, going to games regularly, buying the merchandise, investing in the activity -- is a way of maintaining an interest in the sport, especially once an individual discovers that he or she can't (or doesn't want to) play it professionally (for whatever reason).

Alas, in jazz, this model seems to break down somewhat. For one thing, fewer people are interested in playing jazz than are interested in playing sports. (Right?) And of those who become interested in playing jazz, I would bet that a higher percentage stick with it as a career (particularly once they get as far as forking over hard-earned cash for an expensive music degree). The process creates a glut of professionals, and fewer jazz-savvy non-professionals to consume the stuff the professionals produce.

Which just takes us back to the original problem.

The thing that may be difficult for jazz musicians (actually, musicians in general, but jazz musicians in particular) to get a handle on is that most fans, regardless of how much they might be "purely" inclined toward certain music on its own terms, and regardless of how much they may or may not even realize this underlying dynamic, simultaneously want a story -- a context or frame for their listening. And not just any story / context / frame, but the right one; something compelling, that helps to draw people in or galvanize their listening experience.

Isn't that kind of what liner notes used to do?

For instance, with jazz, one of those stories -- one of the compelling contexts / frames that attracted listeners who were not necessarily also players, or professional players -- used to be the countercultural narrative: the idea that jazz was part of a quirky (or dangerous, or exciting) alternative to the American (consumerist, bourgeois) mainstream -- including, eventually, the "commodified counterculture" that characterized much rock. (Note that such stories don't necessarily have to be true to be effective.) I know that's what attracted me, long before I actually had the chutzpah to try studying or playing or writing jazz. Jazz was an expression of rebellion, and it intersected with so many of the other rebellious narratives of my youth (both personal and cultural).

It seems almost silly and quaint now to make this observation, because jazz has since been championed by forces that are anything but countercultural (if indeed anything can be "countercultural" anymore). But going back all the way to the beginning, that story was at least occasionally an important part of the way jazz reached outside its base (to the extent that it reached outside its base at all). I'm not even sure how conscious it was (probably not very), but it worked.

And so (talk about "jazz of the future"!) what story or context or frame has replaced (or will replace) the old one(s)? What compelling conversations about or around jazz will appeal to those who are not themselves already intimately bound up in the art form?

If you're already making great music, and you can answer these questions, then congratulations! You win.

[Image credit: Rodrigo Baptista]


Anonymous said...

I guess "middle aged fat white guys making odd noises" isn't a compelling frame. Maybe that has been my problem.

Andrew Durkin... said...

It was compelling enough for me!

Dan said...

Everybody loves mad scientists ... I think that is part of the appeal these days. If there is appeal.

Trier Music said...

I think the sports angle is pretty interesting - someone somewhere (I'm totally blanking on who) attributed the decline of jazz's popularity to the decline of people gathering around the piano and singing popular and traditional songs together. I suppose to take the thought to its logical conclusion, you could say the ol' vi-ii-V-I lost quite a bit of cultural currency when TVs replaced pianos as the focal point of the living room.

As for jazz's current frame, I feel like--to the average person--jazz is storied but not really actively pursued. If someone does engage with it, it's mainly used as background music that's supposed to add "a touch of class." (One non-jazz-fan college student was sort of embarrased to tell me he found Coltrane to be abrasive. I said "Dude, that's totally ok, you don't *have* to like it! It *is* abrasive!")

As for what the frame could or should be, I personally heart the idea of people respecting the tradition and taking the next step. Medeski, Martin & Wood used this angle in some of their press material - that instead of playing the hoity-toity jazz clubs, they chose to "take their music to the people."

Matt said...

Judging by both your discs and live clips, I'd say that your story/frame is that the IJG is all about fun! No po-face Wynton high-art seriousness, no shushing Jarrett crybaby self-importance. Just goofy hat, rump-shaking fun.

People used to dance at jazz clubs. Now most people sit there like they are at the opera. Maybe the new story/frame for jazz in general is that jazz is fun, vibrant music for everyone, to be experienced viscerally.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks for that, Matt -- it's nice to know our schtick is getting through! (Not that our schtick is all that subtle!)

And yes, Nate, I think you're right about jazz's current stories being the wrong ones. (I take it that is what you meant when you referred to how jazz is understood to be classy background music?)

And finally, Dan -- if there is a hat that mad scientists wear, then I am not above incorporating that into the IJG frame...

Thanks for the comments!