Jazz music: Gone classic? Or just gone?

The National Endowment for the Arts’ latest survey of public participation in the arts has some very interesting – and sobering – statistics about the U.S. audience for jazz music. In a nutshell, the audience is both aging and getting smaller.

Since this is the fourth survey of its type conducted since 1982, the latest data can be compared against earlier NEA surveys. Here’s one choice statistic: In 1982, the median age of adults who attended a live jazz performance was a youthful 29. In this year’s survey, that median age has grown to a paunchy 46.

Moreover, the proportion of adult Americans who have attended a jazz performance over the past year (fewer than 10%) is down nearly one-third from the previous NEA survey fielded in 2002. That degree of decline was seen across all sectors – including college-educated adults who have typically been the most jazz-inclined audience segment.

The new NEA survey confirms that the median age of the jazz audience is now comparable to the audiences for opera (48), ballet (46), classical music concerts (49), and non-musical plays (47). This is the first time this has happened, and it underscores the significant aging of the jazz audience.

What this means, of course, is that jazz has finally “grown up.” Once an emblem of a more hip and outré culture than those represented by the (stuffy) other arts, jazz seems to have lost its edginess and has settled into comfortable middle age.

… A comfortable “elitist” middle age, actually. Terry Teachout, a drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, notes that in recent decades many jazz artists have been disinclined to present music in a genuinely popular idiom, and instead have focused on creating a form of “sophisticated art music.” It seems that some jazz artists don’t care at all whether their music is understood or appreciated by the “popular masses.”

Indeed for some artists, it may even be a strike against jazz music if it has broad popular appeal. In this sense, the parallels of jazz to modern art and modern classical music are uncanny. It’s all very important and terribly sophisticated … but who’s listening? Who’s looking?

When George Gershwin’s famous Rhapsody in Blue was premiered by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra at New York City’s Aeolian Hall back in 1924, the conductor Walter Damrosch famously declared that Gershwin finally “made a lady out of jazz.” Of course, that statement was a few decades premature. But it we’ve certainly gotten there now – in spades.

Which brings us to the final question: What – besides an audience – has jazz music given up along the way?

2 thoughts on “Jazz music: Gone classic? Or just gone?

  1. It’s true – the jazz audience has been declining for a while. In earlier days it was dance music and the great bands/orchestras – Basie, Henderson, Ellington, Chick Webb, Lunceford, Benny Goodman and many others – who could rely on the “swing” of the music to fill jazz/dance halls.

    It’s certain that jazz audiences, and even some of the classical audiences, will continue to decline as tastes and preferences tilt towards musical styles that are “easier.”

  2. It seems to me that when “art” migrates from something meant to inspire or entertain to something purely subjective—an impenetrable personal statement—it is bound to lose much of its audience. It can be said of the visual arts, serious music, cinema — and alas, jazz too.

    Of course, things move in cycles: What was once popular goes into decline, only to be rediscovered and re-popularized by a new generation. The jazz greats will find a new audience in time. But that which was written and performed exclusively for the “initiated few” will doubtless sit around on shelves and collect dust for a long time to come.

    An interesting factoid: Classic FM, Britain’s commercial classical music radio network, has seen a surge in younger listeners this year, up 70 percent. According to a recent audience survey, the number of British under-eighteens choosing to listen to the network now stands at some 573,000 per week. When this new generation of classical music fans is added in, Classic FM’s overall audience presently checks in at 6.145 million people! Pretty impressive. (Interestingly, if you listen to the station, you’ll never hear anything “weird.” Contemporary, yes. Inscrutable, no.)

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