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?

Happy Birthday to a Renaissance Man

Previn in younger days
Previn in younger days
andre-previn-at-801André Previn turned 80 years old earlier this month, which gives us cause to reflect on the incredible life of this highly interesting, very creative man. In his musical life, he’s demonstrated a versatility and catholicity that surpasses even Leonard Bernstein’s reputation.

Born in Germany, raised in the United States and truly a citizen of the world, Previn has lived out his life in the European capitals of London, Paris and Berlin … and here in the U.S. in places as diverse as Hollywood and Pittsburgh. A true wunderkind, he burst onto the musical scene back in the early 1950s, recording fine jazz piano arrangements that were released on 10” RCA Victor 78-r.p.m. and LP records … then soon migrated over to MGM Studios, writing musical scores for more than a dozen Hollywood films.

I own a few of Previn’s early jazz albums. His song arrangements are little gems – each one their own special musical adventure. Listen to his rendition of Stella by Starlight, for example, and you’ll immediately understand his special way with the music.

Previn’s pop music career masked the fact that he had studied classical music at the Paris Conservatory, and in San Francisco under the tutelage of the great French conductor Pierre Monteux. By the 1960s, Previn had moved from pop back to his classical roots, issuing a series of critically acclaimed recordings with the best symphony orchestras of London. His interpretations of the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Sir William Walton … along with recordings of the important British choral masterworks Belshazzar’s Feast and The Rio Grande remain touchstone performances, nearly 40 years on.

In his later years, in addition to guest-conducting the world over, Previn has penned a steady stream of memorable compositions, including several concertos for his ex-wife, the celebrated violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Even more impressive is Previn’s foray into the world of opera. His 1998 composition A Streetcar Named Desire has received more than 20 productions – an almost unheard of feat for a contemporary opera. And today, he’s busily at work writing a new work for the Houston Grand Opera to premiere next month, based on Noel Coward’s 1938 play Still Life (later made into the movie Brief Encounter).

At age 80, André Previn shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. And why should he? Musically speaking, he still has much to say … and the arts world is richer for it.

Happy Birthday, Maestro!