Parallel Universes

Pianist on economic climate, jazz education program and social networking

Lately I’ve been pulled into discussions about three disparate issues, each with its own frame of reference: the dire economic climate and its effect on the arts, the abundance of jazz education programs, and the obvious significance of social networking sites in our lives. On the surface they don’t really have much to do with each other, but if we consider them together we might better understand America’s current jazz climate.

In summer 2009 I was enlisted to debate the conservative arts critic Terry Teachout about the supposed problem of declining “participation in the arts” among Americans. Some doomsday figures from the National Endowment for the Arts seemed to show that “jazz audiences” were getting both older and scarcer. Upon examination of the data, which, of course, was collected during a recession, Teachout still concluded that the problem was jazz’s fault. He speculated that we musicians had abandoned our audience in moving the music toward an esoteric art and away from populist entertainment. (I suppose he meant to include Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Anthony Braxton and all those other culprits in his accusations.)

I saw this as a reactionary, blame-the-victim argument. The reality is that public and institutional support for the arts in the U.S. has systematically declined over the last 30 years. Meanwhile, as the top 1 percent of private earners amassed unprecedented amounts of increasingly tax-free wealth, they mostly failed to invest in the production, presentation, preservation and infrastructure of jazz.

Which brings us to today’s America: not enough gigs to go around and almost no jazz on television or radio or even onstage, if you don’t live in a major city. The vast majority of Americans not only don’t listen to jazz; they can’t even find it. The NEA report measured what percentage of Americans had attended a jazz concert in the previous year. But how could they, if there were hardly any to attend?

The question boils down not to accessibility, but to access. How do people find this music today? They might hear a little about it on NPR, or they might find it on YouTube, or they might notice the very capable improvisers backing up Beyoncé or Maxwell. But, most obviously, young people are discovering jazz by playing it, enrolling in high school and college jazz programs.

Today, music schools have acquired a central role: the main jazz training ground of the 21st century. Recently, some bloggers debated whether there are perhaps too many college-level jazz performance programs out there and not enough opportunities for their graduates. These schools and conservatories are for-profit enterprises in the business of selling education, so they are not going to dissuade you from applying. But if you just consider the size of the market, you immediately see that it can only accommodate a small number of artists.

It’s a basic problem of supply and demand. In this period of economic fragility, when jazz venues, festivals and record labels rapidly appear and disappear like so many elementary particles, where are all these highly trained, capable, student-loan-burdened musicians supposed to go? And yet, young people are entering this area of music in droves, an oncoming swarm whose aim is true. It’s as if the impossibility of the prospect drives them ever forward.

Online, however, the patchwork of fellow musicians and potential industry connections might seem endless for these students. At least once a week I get laughed at when a close friend or family member notices the thousands of “friends,” “followers” and “likes” I have accumulated on various social networks. Of course, like my fellow musicians I tend to accept all requests, because music is about connecting and because we do it for the world to hear, blah blah blah. But I have also come to realize that a good portion—perhaps a majority—of these friend-fan-followers are in fact none of these things; rather, they are enterprising young musicians seeking access and opportunities—the same music students and underemployed recent graduates mentioned above.

Many of them probably don’t give a damn about my music. But that’s OK, because what it really means is that, effectively, we have already formed a spontaneous, bottom-up massive global network of jazz musicians. Many of these same people are also “friends” with Wayne Shorter, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Gretchen Parlato, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Steve Coleman, Ambrose Akinmusire, Esperanza Spalding—and, crucially, with each other.

So there it is, in all its banal glory: It’s 2011 and we’re all connected, across generations, subgenres, levels of visibility and empowerment. We have an abundance of young, highly skilled music students and recent graduates who are completely linked in with the rest of the jazz community. And collectively we face a scarcity of opportunities to present our music across America.

So my question is, can we achieve anything productive with this de facto musicians’ network? Can we marshal this virtual community of ours to confront the current situation? Is it preposterous to suggest that we all work not just as artists but as advocates, instigators, programmers, curators—the musical equivalent of community organizers? Can we imagine a “Field of Dreams” model where we, with our massive network, build the very nationwide jazz infrastructure that we’ve been waiting for?

Wishful thinking, maybe. It is notoriously hard to mobilize social networks to do anything of consequence in the real world, according to a recent New Yorker column by Malcolm Gladwell. But I do feel that something is afoot.

As Jacques Attali famously argued in his book Noise, music always prefigures the larger shifts in the structure of society; “Things to Come,” and all that. But if the recent work of cutting-edge musicians like Tyshawn Sorey, Craig Taborn, Matana Roberts and John Escreet offers any indication, then what is to come is the uncanny emergence of deep, intricate structures from apparent disorder: ephemeral but highly effective networks of organization, improvised into being. That’s the story I’m hearing in music right now, and if I’m right, then perhaps it’s time for all of us to help make it happen in the world. JT

Vijay Iyer is a pianist, composer and bandleader whose album Historicity (ACT) is nominated for a 2011 Grammy Award.

Originally published in January/February 2011


  • Dec 29, 2010 at 06:17PM Scatterbrain

    Mr. Iyer is correct in stating that jazz is virtually non-existent outside of major metro areas. Mr. Iyer mentions "supply and demand" and enlightens us to all of the the new talent entering the marketplace, but he fails to address the problem of diminishing demand, even in areas with dedicated jazz clubs. Unfortunately, this problem cannot be solved through more jazz education. As with all serious music, jazz is acquired taste. Cranking out more jazz graduates will essentially result in broke jazz musicians trying to sell CDs to other broke jazz musicians with little chance of reaching a broader audience. Why is that?

    Between the 1920s-1940s, when jazz enjoyed its greatest popular appeal, it was primarily thought of as dance music. Obviously jazz and popular dance parted ways years ago, but, by and large, jazz musicians failed to find other ways to appeal to a large audience just as as most modern composers have struggled to find an audience. Music intended as a serious art has always had a limited audience and there is no reason to believe that this will change any more than human nature will change.

  • Jan 02, 2011 at 12:53AM klkdfd dfks

    He addressed all of this in the article.

  • Jan 02, 2011 at 10:35PM Chris Magee

    The problem with jazz in American music education is that it is structured to only reach out to only a tiny minority of the average school population. Think of it this way: let's say a high school has 1000 students and a band program with 150 students. Of those 150, only about 20-30 students at most will be actually involved in the jazz band program, provided the school even has a jazz ensemble. So we, as music educators are only reaching out to a few percent of the total student population. No wonder the average student coming out of high school has no knowledge of what jazz is. Unfortunately, this situation is not likely to improve.

  • Jan 03, 2011 at 01:56AM Alpha BinaKer

    I think Mr. Iyer is grossly and unfairly misrepresenting what Terry Teachout was saying, and is doing so precisely for the sake of creating controversy, thereby generating free publicity for himself. Which brings us to Wynton Marsalis,. Both of these men are intelligent and self serving, increasing their own fame and net worth while destroying the credibility of the jazz world with the general public by endlessly dividing up musicians into ever smaller and smaller camps of who is deemed by them to be legitimately jazz and who is not.

    Stop it! Have you ever listened to Charlie Parker with Strings? That's commercial music. What about Coltrane's "My Favorite Things." It sold over one million copies! How is that not commercial music?! Popular jazz has traditionally subsidized more radical forms of expression, allowing the art form to evolve. Not anymore. Now we are at a state of stifle-dom because of people like Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, who engineered the trend since the 80'st by guilt tripping everyone with corporate power and weak knees in the jazz world into believing that they and only they knew what was "real" jazz "Out with the new, in with the old."

    When will these folks learn, with all their academic prowess, that there is room for everyone in the music world? Keep doing your avant garde shifting meter music with no melodies, and your Louis Armstrong impersonations, for the 5 or 6 people that like it! That's fantastic! But please stop denigrating the idea that musicians can create substantial music that is also commercially viable. There is no law that says it can't happen. It has and it will continue to happen in the future, whether or not the institutional crowd approves of it or not.

    A problem of access? Are you kidding me? We all have 24/7 access to almost anything imaginable! You need to accept the fact that people don't choose to listen to music that is difficult for them to listen to! It's just the way it is.

    "Jazz" is not to blame. How can an entire art form be to blame?! That's just silliness and I don't think Teachout ever said that. People who loudly proclaim to be the supreme arbiters of jazz are to blame. They have personally profited handsomely in the institutional, non-profit and grant award realms,, while the evolution of the art form, sustained only by general acceptance by the people, struggles on life support.

  • Jan 16, 2011 at 11:16AM Richard Hall

    So what did Terry Teachout mean? Neither the previous commentator nor Mr. Iyer tells us. From my seat as a long-time jazz listener and amateur player is that modern jazz as taught in conservatories is becoming more esoteric and less listener-friendly. Where are the improvisers with melodic gifts? I don't hear them on jazz radio. Everything is modes now, according to the instructor in the jazz performance class I took. To me, improvising a new tune over changes is more fun to listen to, and to play. If that's the old way advocated by Marsalis and Crouch, I'm with them.

  • Jan 12, 2013 at 07:00PM marius nordal

    I think the 1950's were the golden era of jazz history where. for a brief moment, all generations coexisted. Bird, Tatum, Satchmo, Ellington, Herman, Coltrane, Cannonball, Bill Evans, Miles, Wes Montgomery, Tristano, Cecil Taylor, etc. all were gigging then. Terry Teachout is certainly correct about why jazz faded: Bird. Braxton, Monk and Mingus etc are certainly the culprits. As musically creative as they were, they were free spirits of only that short era. Dance halls had been taxed out of existence in the 1940s and black dancers abandoned jazz and followed their feet to Fats Domino and R & B and later, Motown and later hip hop and rap. The black community has always come up with new rhythms and movement right up to today but jazz had become a sit-down cerebral affair for white people locked into a walking bass and ride cymbal swing beat ("Out of respect for the artists, please don't talk or dance or rattle your ice cubes or leave for the restroom...") The people who filled stadiums in the 1950s were Brubeck Errol Garner, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, not "artists" like Geo. Russel or Braxton. As soon as an art leaves it's sub-culture, it ain't cool anymore. By definition, mass jazz educ. is NOT if the new street energy and "Things to Come" are to be found in Tyshawn Sorey, Craig Taborn, Matana Roberts, well, those are the EXACT things you won't find in a college band room. I think the only useful purpose in college jazz is that it has brought back the concept of improv to the academy. The great elephant in the room is that jazz record sales from 1970 to today have gone down to the same degree that jazz ed. has gone UP...and a lot of jazz blogs are still trying rationalize why!

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