The Brand of Jazz

The issue of branding has increasingly become a driving force in everything we do both personally and professionally.  Just think of Facebook and how we brand ourselves through accumulating the most friends or associating ourselves with certain activities or groups, etc.  Facebook has become the quickest and most accessible form of personal brand recognition. I recently read branding expert Peter Arnell's book Shift: How To Reinvent Your Business, Your Career, and Your Personal Brand  in which he documents his struggle with weight loss and illustrates how he rebranded himself from unhealthy and overweight to healthy and fit, defying all odds.  As Arnell details his own process, he stresses the importance of rebranding ourselves to initiate change and how that can affect everything we do in life. Well executed branding can transform something that is all but forgotten into something amazingly successful and full of life.  In reading Arnell’s book, I couldn't help but think of jazz and how a major rebranding can make the music more accessible and relevant in our modern culture.

So what is the jazz brand of today? I’m sure a good many would say that jazz is dead, making the brand virtually nonexistent. Or maybe their best jazz association would be to a legend of the past like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis or John Coltrane. Granted, their contributions are immeasurable but that’s not what’s happening today. Some might argue that Esperanza Spalding is the face of today’s jazz, even though up until a month ago they had never heard of her. I seem to remember the same discussion regarding Norah Jones a few years back and I am not sure how much it has done to move the music forward. But I’d be willing to bet that if you asked most people on the street who they associate with jazz today, they would say either Kenny G or Wynton Marsalis. Cliche I know, but whether we care to admit it or not, they are probably the two most recognizable living artists in jazz. I’m not referring to either gentleman’s music but rather to their public persona as it is linked to the genre. Regardless of your opinion of either, the fact remains that each have achieved significant success and popularity and are most often associated with jazz by the public at large. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be more opposite. It’s either the smooth jazz guy or the guy on the side of tradition, leaving out everything in between. Perhaps what jazz needs today is a brand that is less polarizing and more on the side of being inclusive rather than exclusive to any one camp. So, what kind of “shift” is it going to take for the music that is best known for reinventing itself, to actually reinvent itself going forward?

For the record, I have not met or worked with either Kenny or Wynton, nor am I attacking or endorsing their contributions. This is less about the validity of their music and more about understanding the image and attitude they project in the overall branding of themselves and how that relates to jazz. What can we learn from their success in defining a new and modern jazz brand? My interest is not in criticizing or complaining, but as a concerned jazz professional and a person of action, I want to be part of the solution and discussion of what it’s going to take to breathe some new life into this music and its brand. Is jazz all but forgotten or is a new image necessary or even possible?

I have invited Kenny, Wynton, Esperanza as well as branding guru Peter Arnell to weigh in on the topic. I’d like to hear their thoughts on the brand of jazz today. So as a part of this ongoing query, I have sent requests to each of them asking a few questions about their brand and jazz and what it all means or doesn’t and I will present their responses in a follow up blog. In the meantime, I would love to hear what you have to say.

- Joseph Vella, jazzonline.com

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Joseph Vella