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The University of Hartford

Music Biz Confidential
A Hard-Nosed Look at the State of Jazz Today
By Jazz Officer Spaak
WWUH Jazz Director, Autumn 1993-Spring 2001

        One thing I learned for certain during my dozen years (including my stint at another radio station) serving as a Jazz Director is that The Music Industry is unbelievably screwed-up. This inevitably rubs off onto the jazz divisions of the (now handful of) major corporations which dominate the production and distribution of recorded music in the world today. The amount of time, money and energy spent on promoting "crap" (to be as polite as possible) to radio, and the general public, is staggering. In the realm of jazz, specifically, "the holy grail" is to place high on the chart tracking radio play of jazz releases maintained by the Gavin organization. Unfortunately, success in that endeavor does not automatically translate into retail sales success, and the competition for the top slots in the Gavin report is intense. Independent projects do sometimes break through the logjam created by the industry heavyweights, but many deserving (on artistic merit) releases don't stand a chance. Distribution channels and shelf space in
retail outlets are also, of course, dominated by the corporate "big boys."
        The industry heavyweights are in a trend of paring the number of slots in their rosters of jazz artists. Everyone wants to know who will be "the next" Josh Redman, or Diana Krall. Every year, universities mint (collectively) thousands of graduates of jazz studies programs, all (presumably, at least) possessing basic competence, some of whom doubtless have great potential--but will it be realized? It seems to this observer that, by now, the odds of achieving financial success in this field must be as slim as for youngsters dreaming of becoming stars in the National Basketball Association. I wish each and every one of these young folks the best, but my sincere advice to them is: Get yourself a good "day job," and work at your music in your spare time. Meanwhile, Miles Davis' vintage "Kind Of Blue" remains on the best-seller chart year after year. It has always been far cheaper--and thus more profitable-- for the recording industry to repackage and reissue their back catalogs than to groom new artists for success. This is especially true in jazz because of the limited segment of the music-buying public that will ever purchase a jazz recording.
        Enough months have passed since the televising of Ken Burns' much-ballyhooed ten-part documentary on jazz for our perspectives to mature. Many jazz fanatics despised the whole project. I have some severe criticisms of it, myself. However, I now feel that Burns was definitely on to something by focusing on the connection between the dancehall and the popularity of the music in the 1920s through the World War II era. Swing music was, indeed, this country's popular music. But, things change, don't they? The world is still waiting, after all these centuries, for "another Michelangelo," or "another Mozart, Beethoven..." whatever, fill in the blank. So, who will be "the next" Louis Armstrong? Duke Ellington? Miles Davis? John Coltrane? The simple answer is: No one. I don't mean to suggest that it's impossible for our music to find new directions, and I'm not putting down the current crop of musicians, by any means. But, I think it's time that we face this reality: Jazz will never again be "popular" music. Jazz is an
acquired taste, beloved of a minority among minorities of the populace. I will go so far as to suggest that we are nearing the point where it becomes the "property" of almost a "secret society of jazz priests and priestesses," not unlike modern day Druidism or Witchcraft.
        Can jazz be "saved" from such a fate? I see but one hope for, at least, delaying the arrival of such a state of affairs. This hope rests in you, dear reader. If you have bothered to read this far, it is fair to assume that you do, indeed, care about our music. Now, what are you willing to do beyond scanning lines of type on this paper? Will you join a local or statewide jazz society? Will you purchase at retail outlets recordings by artists who are still among the living? Will you find it in your household budget to attend live jazz performances, so that presenters are encouraged to continue jazz-related endeavors? Will you contribute a few bucks to enable noncommercial radio stations to continue to broadcast jazz music? If not you...who? If not now...when?
   Some will say, "These are the thoughts of a deep pessimist." I say they're the outcome of thoughtful realism. Let time be the judge.

Copyright©WWUH: July/August Program Guide, 2001

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