From Louis Armstrong to Herbie Hancock, Jazz has been a major part of American culture. Jazz was truly American music applicable to the lives of all people. It was so influential during the time of its origin that the 1920s and 1930s became known as the “The Jazz Age” in the United States. According to the great Duke Ellington, “Jazz is a good barometer of freedom. In its beginnings, the United States spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country." Given this great American pride for Jazz music, “Why isn’t it popular in the United States today?” The current market share of Jazz in America is only three percent! In its prime, Jazz once held two-thirds of the record sales in America and dominated the world, but it now struggles to hold even three percent. Meanwhile, Pop and Rock music hold more than half of all record sales worldwide. It is surely not the quality of the music. It is just that the ears of the American people have once again changed. There are many reasons why this is true and why popular jazz has become an oxymoron in the United States.
One reason is America’s changing culture. America is definitely a nation of immediate gratification. This culture is defined by fast food, fast payment, fast cars, instant messaging and instantly gratifying music. American culture commonly favors convenience over quality. This said, Jazz is a music of time and patience: two things that ninety-seven percent of American people just do not have. Many Jazz songs including “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock and “All Blues” by Miles Davis are far past the ten-minute mark.
It is not just the duration of Jazz that requires a patient and attentive ear, but it is also the abstract beats complete with unique time signatures, the many instruments, and the gradual building of groove and lead. Piano, keyboards, bass, drums, saxophone, and many other instruments have special places in each Jazz piece. It seems that everything about Jazz is really that of a perfectionist: a perfectionist taking his time to make sure every part of the song is completely unique, abstract, and expressive. Jazz is all of these things, but it so unappreciated by the multitudes. Actually, it is more accurate to say that Jazz is “misunderstood” by the population. Jazz is not the music of the simple-minded. Jazz is in no way a simpleton’s jam. Jazz is in essence complicated. One example is “Hidden Shadows” off Herbie Hancock’s abstract “Sextant” album. It has nineteen beats per measure whereas most Pop songs have only four. Jazz music also has far less melodies than Pop music does; and much Jazz does not have any words. The meaning of Jazz songs are usually created completely by the mind of the listener. The difference between the two genres is apparent upon hearing them. As opposed to Jazz, Pop songs really are a simpleton’s jam. They are written with just a few simple major chords and are meant to be simply catchy. Unfortunately, for the hard-working and perfectionist Jazz musicians, Pop music is what makes the sale.
The difference between Jazz and Pop Music is obvious in terms of the fan bases and their tastes. Most Pop and Pop-Rock fans will say things like “I really like that song because it has a good beat. It is so catchy and it really gets me going.” Whereas a Jazz fan, most likely someone familiar with the unappreciated art form that Jazz is, would not respond to this knowing that their words would fall upon dull ears. Oscar Peterson, a wonderful Jazz musician who played from the 1910s all the way to the 1960s, has had many quotes and comments on the difference between Pop and Jazz. He was definitely before his time. One of his sayings was, “I don’t do something because I think it will sell 30 million albums. I couldn’t care less. If it sells one, it sells one.” He was a man of quality and not quantity. He wanted to impress only the patient, appreciative listener, and he perfected his work to be his very own. He also stated, “We’re not like pop musicians who have to perform the same top ten tunes every night of a tour.” This is also very true. Oscar Peterson did not buy in to the mass consumerism that music is apparently entering into today. His music was purely his own expression. Many of today’s pop idols come to mind when hearing his harsh words that served as premonitions to today’s music industry and where it is headed in terms of quality of work.
Louis Armstrong once stated, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.” And that is the reason why Jazz is not popular today. It seems that listeners just do not allow for the amount of time, patience, and curiosity necessary to enjoy Jazz. The popularity of simple music in turn has limited our possibilities and our progress. The same chords, beats, and even lyrics have been repeated over and over again to make the sale in the Pop music industry. “The Axis of Awesome”, an Australian musical comedy act, actually demonstrated this point in one of their videos called “4 Chords.” They proved that a large majority of songs that have made “The Top Ten Hits” have exactly the same chord progression (E, B, C# and A). In this way, Pop music has gravely limited songs to their simplest form; they have become mass-produced and repetitive. Jazz is perhaps the only genre left that allows the musician complete possibility and freedom. Jazz has absolutely no boundaries allowing the writer to create a domain still undiscovered and in need of exploration. Just think about all the Jazz that has not been heard yet; there is definitely more to be done. Unfortunately, the impatient and undiscerning body of listeners have created a dead-end for Jazz. What we must do is act as explorers and keep learning about the music so that we can carry it forward.
As a seventeen-year-old Jazz appreciator and bass player, I have recorded these observations in the effort to see past modern bias placed on Jazz and the idea of music in general to find out why Jazz is not popular any more. Personally, I hope to have Jazz live on so that it can continue to progress and evolve. I continuingly wish that Jazz musicians such as Oscar Peterson and John Coltrane were not the climax, but the beginning of something great. Some have taken on this mission such as bands like “Wagon Christ (Luke Vibert)”, “Mr. Scruff”, “Jaga Jazzist”, and "Daedelus" who have all put modern spins on Jazz music or sampled Jazz tunes in electronic music. Herbie Hancock is still probably most responsible for the modernization of Jazz by introducing the use of the synthesizer. But, I feel that now, the future of Jazz is entirely in the hands of the young Jazz appreciators and on the Jazz musicians who have not yet been heard. I believe that together, they can bring Jazz back to life.
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