Like the country where it was born, jazz was created from the collision of cultures and ideas, through experimentation and daring. Black musicians in New Orleans pioneered the music at the turn of the 20th century, cobbling together elements of existing styles: ragtime, blues, gospel, and military brass. They gave a fresh voice to centuries of black oppression, one that could communicate emotional intensity and still make audiences dance, one that could embrace improvisation without sacrificing its musical nuances. Jazz was born to spread, and so it did, taking root in urban centers like New York and Chicago leading into the 1920s. During Prohibition, jazz was embraced by young listeners in illegal nightclubs. The music was lively and soulful, its audacity a kind of defiance against the culture of the past, its novelty a taste of the culture ahead. It is no wonder that the music later took on the name of the era itself: the Jazz Age.
Where along the way did jazz lose touch with mainstream audiences?
Enter decades of cultural evolution, waves of talented musicians propelling the music forward, and both its appropriation and popularization by white audiences. Depending on who you ask, any one of these decades could be identified as the peak of jazz: Where along the way did jazz lose touch with mainstream audiences?
The swing and soul of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday during the 1930s, the progression into bebop with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk in the 1940s, the stretching of the genre with Miles Davis starting in the 1950s.
Fast forward to 2017. According to the most recent Nielsen Data, jazz makes up only 1% of total album consumption, with digital streaming taken into consideration. Looking at the numbers, jazz appears to be one of the least popular genres of music in America today. Radio play has plummeted and jazz venues have struggled to stay afloat. Where along the way did jazz lose touch with mainstream audiences? When did jazz shift from modern to obsolete? We are almost a full century from the introduction of jazz to urban America. Is it possible to reach a Second Jazz Age?
One explanation is simply that it is natural for cultural tastes to change, especially in a country as large and diverse as America. To pinpoint those turning points is difficult; it is easier just to declare a genre of music “dead” after the fact. More often than not, a genre of music doesn’t so much “die” as it does inspire new offshoots, passing the baton to new generations of musicians. Another possible explanation for the dwindling popularity of jazz is “jazz wars” of the 1980s and ‘90s, a period in which jazz musicians were divided about the future of the genre. Classicists advocated for the strict preservation of the original techniques of jazz, while experimentalists pushed for the fusion of jazz with other genres. These days, fusion seems to be in favor.
Unconfined by genre, young artists like Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, and Jon Batiste draw on classic jazz sensibilities and still experiment with everything from R&B to rock. Hip hop, which has long sampled jazz as the backbone of its beats, continues to draw on jazz for inspiration, such as in Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly and with newcomer jazz/hip hop groups like BadBadNotGood. Pop music also incorporates its own homages to jazz, notably in Lady Gaga’s duet album with Tony Bennett. Jazz crops up in the indie world as well, from King Krule’s “punk jazz” to the early ‘70s jazz undertones in laidback bands like Mild High Club.
Young music listeners lead to trends in music consumption. If there is a resurgence in the popularity of jazz and jazz-inspired music, they will be responsible for it. A niche market already exists. Nielsen found that young jazz listeners are more engaged than the average music consumer. For one, they are more likely to pay for physical albums, which is rare in the age of digital streaming. Young jazz listeners, like other millennials, are also more likely to attend live performances than other generations of music consumers. Nowadays, live music makes up the majority of music spending. As a result, live jazz or jazz-inspired performances would be the best way to reach that niche audience, as well as hook new listeners on modern jazz artists.
In addition to attending more live music events in general, Eventbrite data suggests that millennials are more likely to seek out artists that engage with political and social issues. The modern jazz fusion artists of 2017 come from the same generation, and have not shied away from making political statements both in and out of their music. During inauguration week in early 2017, jazz-inspired artists like Esperanza Spalding participated in the 2017 Peace Ball: Voices of Hope and Resistance to help celebrate cultural diversity and stand against the divisive rhetoric coming out of the White House. Jazz artists, historically representing the voices of people of color in America, could be a powerful draw for like-minded millennial audiences during these politically fraught times.
Recently, a Miles Davis song became one of the first songs to be encoded into DNA, an experimental new approach for storing data. Theoretically, this will allow it to be preserved for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Jazz lives on too, written into the cultural DNA of this country, an inseparable part of American heritage. Whether jazz will continue to attract younger generations of music listeners remains to be seen, but the genre continues to branch out regardless. The spirit of jazz is alive and well in the modern musicians that continue to create under its mantle: colliding new musical ideas, and discovering new energy to call their own.