Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Some Half-Baked Thoughts About Jazz

A story appeared over the weekend about the closing of the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, the second-oldest jazz venue in the country behind the Village Vanguard in New York, and a place where everybody who was anybody in jazz over the last 59 years took the stage. While there's reason to lament the demise of such a place, it occurs to me that the club's demise isn't due so much to the death of jazz as it is to the way the scene has changed.

Jazz hasn't been America's most popular musical form since before the Jazz Showcase opened, so pining for the return of those days is futile. Yes, there are lots of jazz fans who wish mainstream jazz was bigger than it is, that it wasn't as marginalized as it is. I'm one of 'em. But I'm also somebody who understands the world we live in. And it occurs to me that in an artistic marketplace as fragmented as the music world is, everything's marginalized. I wrote last week how difficult it is to keep abreast of everything worth hearing--you can't, fewer people are even trying, and so what's the point? There's a lot more payback in immersing yourself fully in something you love than there is in worrying about why more people aren't immersing themselves in the same thing.

I'm fortunate to live in a town with what passes for a thriving jazz scene in 2007--fan interest enough to support a decent summer jazz series and separate local jazz festival every summer, a couple of full-time jazz clubs (albeit attached to swanky hotels) and other places that schedule a healthy number of jazz dates each year. Of course, the majority of the most popular jazz musicians locally aren't making a living at it on a full-time basis. Nevertheless, the fact that we have enough of them to call what we have here a "jazz scene" makes us a lot better off than other towns around the country. Chicago still has a scene too, despite the demise of the Jazz Showcase. Does it have fewer venues? Yes. Is it less vibrant than it used to be? That depends what you're comparing it to. You may not be able to go to the Jazz Showcase anymore, but the next time you're in Chicago, you'll be able to find jazz if you want to.

(If you want to get righteously upset about something in jazz, get upset about the way muzak-y "smooth jazz" is taking up the oxygen previously reserved for mainstream jazz. But that's another post entirely.)

One More Thing:
2006 was the year we started podcasting at this blog. In case you missed any of the podcasts (or if you'd like to hear them again, and thanks a heap if that's true), here are the links:

Forgotten 45s (just music, no talk, February)
The Drive at Five (highway tunes, April)
73 and 77 (hits from the month of May)
October 1975
December 1971
Christmas 2006


At 1:40 PM, Blogger The Stepfather of Soul said...

Now I feel like a major tool for never making it to the Jazz Showcase when I lived in Chicago, despite regularly saying "I should come check this place out" every time I walked by it. (I mean, I've been to more jazz events in Atlanta - which is certainly not known for jazz!) With Jazz Showcase's closing, and the transition of the Chicago NPR station to all-talk, Chicago's taking a one-two punch in the chops as far as jazz goes!

You are absolutely right about the real crisis being the continual rise of "smooth jazz." I remember meeting Wynton Marsalis once at my college. Some friends and I ventured back to the green room, where he was graciously holding court after a show. In the midst of signing autographs (I still have mine), taking pictures, and talking with one of the college's philosophy professors, he was giving a radio interview to a local NPR reporter. When asked "what should we do about the Republican Congress' plan to cut funding to public radio" (this was in the "Contract With America" days), Marsalis deadpanned, "raise more money." When asked if he was concerned about the lack of funding cutting into jazz programming, he said, "there's really not any jazz programming as it is!"

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