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Woe is Jazz: If We Build It, Will They Come Back?

Philip Booth reflects on the future jazz audience

With the JJA (Jazz Journalists Association) Awards next week, and an abundance of high-profile shows – including Herbie Hancock’s 70th-birthday salute – and summer jazz festivals in New York, around the U.S. and worldwide, jazz seems to be grabbing the spotlight.

More good signs:

• The first conference held by the Jazz Education Network brought more than 1,150 participants to the St. Louis event in late May. The second conference, slated for January in New Orleans, could turn into a worthy successor to the ginormous annual conferences once held by the now-defunct IAJE.

SF Jazz recently announced plans to build a 35,000-square-foot building, with two adaptable theater spaces, in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. The SF Jazz Center, slated to open in fall 2012 “will entail a $60 million capital campaign, including a $10 million operating endowment,” according to a recent New York Times story. The organization, with 3,000 subscribers, puts on almost 100 concerts a year, including a highly regarded annual festival.

• HBO’s Treme, largely focused on the lives and work of jazz musicians in contemporary New Orleans, has picked up critical acclaim and enough goodwill to convince the powers-that-be to let the series run for at least two seasons.

• More colleges than ever are offering jazz degree programs, and more students than ever are studying jazz.

• The flow of new jazz releases, and reissues, continues unabated, as evidenced by the numbers of review copies that come through my door every week.

But drill a little bit deeper, and what hurts is the truth: The audience for jazz is shrinking faster than the Gulf Coast’s chances for an economic recovery any time before 2012.

The stats, as related by Village Voice writer Stacey Anderson (in the course of a long, terrific piece on Woody Allen’s work as a clarinetist and early-jazz advocate), aren’t shocking, given what we already know about the decline of interest in jazz. Still, they’re downright sobering:

• The median age for adult attendees of jazz concerts in 2008 was 46, while it was 29 in 1983, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

• Jazz sales comprised 1.1 percent of all music sales in 2008, down from 3.4 percent in 2001, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Anderson’s conclusion, the same one reached again and again by jazz observers in recent years (with no recipe for redress in sight) – The audience for jazz is going away, and it won’t come back.

“Jazz is showing a dangerous lack of renewability with future generations, and what is not heard is not preserved,” Anderson writes. “New York, while still a slightly stronger jazz microcosm than the country at large, exhibits the same warnings signs: a shrinking number of venues, a lack of mainstream exposure to entice new audiences, and a splintered community of performers, fighting artistically among themselves.”

If we build it -a bridge, that is, making sure that young listeners are at least exposed to jazz, maybe by way of short courses or seminars for elementary- and middle-school students-will they come?

I’d like to say yes, but, honestly, I don’t know anymore.

My own unscientific case study has been conducted at home: For years, I’ve played jazz (and other music) around the house, and in the car. And now, my son, 14, listens to rap and hip-hop constantly, much to his dad’s chagrin. And my daughter, 10, is “trending” in that direction.

See my shoulders? They’re in full shrug.

Got ideas?

Originally Published