cape town jazz fest

In Search of Tomorrow’s Audience

In 1987, The US Congress passed a joint resolution declaring Jazz to be a ‘rare and valuable national treasure’. Nowadays Jazz can be heard in almost any part of the world having created its own niche space within the global music community.  The harsh reality of it though is that audiences are dwindling and Jazz is beginning to fade into inaccessibility.

GlennMillerOrchestraJazz has gone through a huge shift since the 30’s when Louis Armstrong who was also a pop star took the music to the masses making movies with Bing Crosby and Mae West. The records flew off the shelves and the Jazz audience slowly began to grow. All the way up until the early 50’s Jazz was still for the most part popular music. Ordinary people listened to it on the radio and danced to big band at nightclubs.

Unfortunately by the 60’s Jazz began to take on a more complex turn. Musicians like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock delved deeper into the more technical side of Jazz. Some of the greatest music of all time came out of this music but the younger generation was falling hard for rock and soul. This was a time where the simplicity of the Beatles and the Beastie Boys were what the youth wanted. Jazz turned into a more sophisticated art form of sorts, shifting into more exclusive nightclubs and concert halls. What was once the people’s music now became a high-culture art form that very few understood.

Like all other music though, Jazz began to spread. Slowly easing its way into the world, finding an audience and settling in. International artists like John Mclaughlin, Abdullah Ibrahim and Arturo Sandoval began making a mark in the world of Jazz adding new influences to an already eclectic genre. The question of how one builds audiences for Jazz is no longer limited to the United States. Being a bit of an optimist I see this as an opportunity to build a much larger and more solid base.Louis_Armstrong

Understanding and appreciating Jazz isn’t easy. Despite having grown up in a family of avid Jazz aficionados I still find it hard to pick up some of the more technical nuances. Not unlike our Indian classical styles, having an understanding of the basics brings about a whole new perspective on the music. In 1986 Wynton Marsalis co-founded a jazz program at Lincoln Center. This program has been working on Jazz education with a single-minded focus taking the music to community colleges, schools and public spaces. This year the Cape Town Jazz Festival had master classes, classes for children and a host of jazz colleges down to spread the word.

Joann Stevens the Smithsonian’s Director of Jazz Appreciation Month, spoke of an impression among some that Jazz is ‘old people’s music.’ She argued it by saying “everybody has a place in [jazz]…it’s intergenerational, it is cross-cultural, it is different backgrounds and classes,” in other words, the music is inclusive; but that the jazz community needs to better project that message of inclusiveness.

The evolution of genres is something most people seem to be afraid of. What one has to remember though is that music will constantly change to fit in with the current mindset. The beauty of Jazz is that it is fluid, allowing for new influences to find a place more easily than in most other genres. From Bossanova to R&B and now the NuJazz movement Jazz has taken on new avatars. While the ‘true’ form of Jazz has a dwindling audience these subgroups all make up for a much larger fan base.

winton_marsailsWhile there are some in the Jazz world who take serious offense to this I see integration as a great tool to bring larger audiences in under one roof. Festivals like The Joy of Jazz, Johannesburg and the Cape Town Jazz Festival have artists from other closely related genres so as to attract more people. The festival space is a great place to discover and explore new music. Bringing in new listeners almost always leaves for a percentage of who will go back and do some exploring.

Honestly, I can’t say I see the transformation of Jazz into a sophisticated art form a bad thing but there is no sense in pretending that it is now capable of attracting the same kind of audiences that it did during its golden days in the 20’s and 30’s. One now needs to work through the same problems of marketing, presentation and packaging that symphony orchestras or Indian classical music have to face. As daunting as the task may seem however we need to realize that while Jazz may never achieve the kind of popularity it deserves it will always have a small and extremely devoted following.

Photo Credits: Cape Town Jazz Festival/ Terry February/ College Of Music University of Colorado Boulder/ Riksarkivet Norway

Mana Dhanraj

Mana Dhanraj

Curator of music website Sideways To Sound, Mana Dhanraj is a freelance writer, designer and musician based in Bangalore. She writes for various publications such as The Border Movement and Rock Street Journal, as well as documenting and recording work for The Kabir Project. An avid traveler, Mana has a keen understanding of roots and world music, and has been involved with eclectic music festivals, artists and conferences in India such as Blue Lotus Festival, IndiEarth XChange, and NH7.

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