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.