What is a jazz musician to do? I mean, REALLY! Where will I work when all the gigs are gone?

There is a very good documentary originally produced and aired a few years ago on PBS that examined jazz and hip-hop. In comparing the two types of music, the producers focused on both types of music and how each was scorned by many at first but eventually became accepted by white, mainstream audiences. The video, titled The Devil’s Music: 1920s Jazz traces the rise of jazz as popular music and shows how jazz was first considered “impolite” and provocative and many critics thought listening to jazz would lead young people (especially young female fans) to immoral behaviors. In the video it showed how some “upstanding and well meaning citizens” thought that dancing to jazz lowered the inhibitions of young people leading them to promiscuity, and substance abuse. These same critics felt that jazz ultimately would lead to the decline of our culture and the fabric that held society together.

 

But it is fascinating to think that these “Jazz Age” teenagers (the first fans of jazz) that fell under the influence of jazz—that “Devil’s Music” (those born between 1890 and 1920)—were some of the same parents and grandparents that led the outcry criticizing Elvis Presley as he danced scandalously on the Ed Sullivan show in the 1950’s. Those Elvis fans—now currently the millennial generation’s parents and grandparents—often decry the popular music genres of the day.

 

Looking over the past 130 years of pop music, a pattern emerges. This pattern begins as a new genre of pop music emerges and is embraced by the younger generation–but the older generation condemns and/or feels threatened by the new music. Eventually the new genre becomes “mainstream” and accepted as the younger generation grows into maturity. Then the cycle repeats. This has been going on since Sousa was the “pop music star” at the end of the 19th century. After Sousa came ragtime stars like Scott Joplin (1900), then Dixieland jazz performers (Louis Armstrong in 1930). The same happened with swing in the 1940’s, rock and roll in the 1950’s, the British invasion in the 1960’s, disco in the 1970’s, hard rock metal bands in the 1980’s, and eventually hip hop and rap.

 

In my last blog, I wrote a little bit about this effect; how music is tied up in the identity of a generation and how each generation “needs” to find its own music in order to become independent and break away from their parents. So in effect, identifying with a new type of music can be a form of musical rebellion providing a sense of identification for a generation.

 

But this cycling of musical tastes and preferences has left many performers and listeners with a problem. As the musical tastes of younger generations continues to evolve, it leaves in its wake a slew of listeners, fans and performers with fewer outlets to enjoy or venues to present “older” styles of music.

 

One example of this pattern is the rise and decline in popularity of swing big bands. In the 1930’s bands like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman were playing dance halls, concert halls and radio broadcasts. As the fans of big band jazz matured and grew up, the big band sound moved into casino showrooms and TV shows (such as the Frank Sinatra TV shows and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show). Big band jazz became the music heard in commercials and was ubiquitous in the 1950’s and through into the 1960’s.

 

But as big band jazz fans aged, the tunes they enjoyed became “oldies” and the crowds turned grayer and more sedentary. Today these great bands have fewer performances, and if you mention “Jimmy Dorsey” to a person in his/her twenties, they will give you a perplexed look and ask “who’s that?” Recently I mentioned to my college students that I was playing in an orchestra backing up “Johnny Mathis” and the vast majority of my students had no clue who Mathis is or what he is known for.

 

To see for yourself how this pattern is playing out, attend a Rolling Stones concert and you will notice how the crowd is beginning to resemble an AARP convention. Or turn on an “oldies radio” station and make note of what they are playing. The play list probably will include Motown groups, disco tunes, and horn bands like Chicago or Earth Wind and Fire.

 

So finally I come to being a jazz musician. Jazz WAS popular music at one time. In the 1940’s jazz made up the vast majority of record sales—today it makes up a very small percentage of the sales of recorded music. It is hard to determine if the music I play as a jazz musician is a classic, an oldie or just an anachronism.

 

Either way, I still see lots of value in jazz and, personally, it speaks to me like no other music does. So I guess it doesn’t really matter how you label it:

 

Classic, Oldie, or Anachronism

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NEIL WETZEL