Audience Development

Jazz is not reaching its broadest potential audience. Unfortunately few jazz magazines, writers, editors, record companies or even the musicians appear to properly grasp or address this issue. Listening to one of my colleagues rant about the lack of stylistic development in jazz, I posed audience development as a much more crucial issue facing the music than his and many jazz critics’ widely held view about the current scene’s stylistic atrophy. His response was a figurative shoulder shrug and a complete dismissal of the issue, which bore scant importance to him and his efforts. If no audience listens to and patronizes jazz, what’s left for us to write about?

The musicians are often no better. Are jazz artists content to perform for themselves, ignorant of the care, feeding and development of the audience as the sustaining life force of their efforts? It often appears that way. Having taught jazz history to the newly initiated, served as an arts administrator in the broader arts community and presented the music on various stages, I know there’s a whole lot more that jazz artists could do to make the music more audience friendly—without sacrificing artistic integrity. Let’s start with artists simply being more giving and forthcoming of themselves onstage. Granted, not everybody’s an MC or a closet comic, like, say, Cannonball Adderley. Yeah, Miles got away with playing a whole set without saying squat to the audience— but he was Miles Davis—and he had no voice to boot. But most musicians can’t get away with that behavior. And lest we forget, toward the end of his life even Miles was at least holding up cue cards to identify his band. Audiences need to be engaged and informed; need better than endless head-solos-head navel gazing, need more concisely edited solos, need not to hear every band member solo every tune in the same order. Audiences need more of a sense of real programming in artists’ performances. Jazz educators must begin to better address these matters in the classrooms when educating future jazz practitioners.

From the artist’s perspective the most critical shortage is not new talent or a dearth of stylistic development, it’s the scarcity of performing opportunities. Why are gigs so scarce for the majority of jazz artists? Because not enough attention has been paid to the critical issue of audience development. Presenters can’t afford to stage performances if there’s no audience. While the magazines and writers worship at the altar of new talent, new records, the need for more substantive stylistic development, the audience for jazz remains stagnant but for the efforts of a handful of jazz presenters and organizations. We have a veritable wealth of jazz artists, and a glut of recordings; what we really need is much more audience. Oh sure, jazz is not a music for mass consumption; arguably it requires a certain listening and comprehension commitment many folks are not willing to invest. That aside, I’m not convinced we have even scratched the surface of truly developing the audience for this music.

Audience development is crucial to jazz presenters, something they recognize more than any other sector of the jazz community. As the music has gradually evolved from the for-profit nightclub to the not-for-profit concert stage, presenters have taken a more holistic, less mercenary approach to the music and the need to develop the audience. The not-for-profit presenter sector boasts more real growth during the last 30 years than practically any district of the jazz community. Presenters strive mightily to make jazz more friendly to their audience, to demystify jazz so that audiences can actually gain some insight into the music’s creative process, which builds their passion. Many are doing exceptional work at the grassroots, bringing jazz to children, which is where the passion is first seeded. Do you ever see much in the jazz prints about the actual staging of jazz events beyond performance ads and notices? How about some ink on what jazz presenters do to build the audience? And are record companies forging partnerships with presenters to grow the audience?

The criminal cutbacks in music education have also stifled jazz audience development. Curiously, it hasn’t stemmed the tide of young musical aspirants entering the academy to learn to play jazz. But it has certainly stunted audience growth. Back in the day when schools made music education mandatory, many of those who were exposed to it at least became audience members when they chose to pursue other professions. We lack that element of education now and must do more to rekindle it.

Musicians and especially publications and writers must do more about addressing issues surrounding audience development. There’s more to this music than chronicling the exploits of the latest saxophone hero, hailing or trashing the latest records, or endless artist interviews. We need to get down to the very real issues facing jazz music: namely, finding, building and growing the jazz audience now—and for the future.

Originally published in January/February 2001

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