If you were to ask me, “Where’s the best place to hear some good jazz?” without hesitation I would tell you either in New York City, Europe or on a computer with a pair of good speakers and a fast internet connection. Look for it most anywhere else and you’re throwing darts in the dark.
I love jazz music, but many times I get the distinct feeling it’s playing to an empty room. As a contributor to Allaboutjazz.com I get to hear a lot of stuff I’d otherwise miss completely. Unless you’re fortunate to live some place where there’s a progressive college radio station or an active jazz community, you’re unlikely to be exposed to serious jazz . Oh, and forget about Smooth jazz radio. Screw smooth jazz radio. It’s more snooze than smooth and it hurts jazz more than it helps.
The local outlet, WJZA has no local on-air disc jockeys, plays acts that have lack even any relation to the genre (Alicia Keys? Steely Dan? COLBIE CALLIAT ? Get the fuck out of here!) and features only the most bland, innocuous, boring shit that gets tracked over and over (I dig George Benson but he made so many better records than “Turn Your Love Around”). After each song, WJZA repeats their call letters if you forgot what radio station you had tuned to three minutes ago, but even if they do accidentally play something that sounds good, the only way to find out what it was is to log on to their website. WJZA is so programmed up the ass they don’t even care if you know who you just listened to.Here’s the part that blows: There’s a LOT of great, exciting jazz out there from avant-garde to contemporary to fusion and everything in between. When you listen to jazz it makes the air smell sweeter, food taste better, teeth whiter and you smarter. You just can’t find it to hear it.
Even if you could find out who that was playing that song you liked, where would you go to buy it? Record stores disappeared a decade ago. Maybe if the artist is semi-popular, you might be able to find them in the pitifully small space allocated to jazz at a Best Buy, Barnes and Noble or Wal-Mart, but if you want to check out the artist in question’s back catalog, you’re doomed. I get all my jazz either directly as advance copies from the record companies and what I don’t get from them I order it online from CD Universe or Amazon.
If jazz is in bad shape trying to find any on the radio, it’s in even worse trying to sell it as a recent article in The Root pointed out how poorly the genre fairs in the marketplace: In 1999 the Recording Industry Association of America said that jazz sales were 3 percent of all recording sales. By 2008 they were 1.1 percent. In 2000 Soundscan reported that 18,416 jazz albums were sold; nine years later, fewer than 12,000 jazz-genre albums were purchased.
Are you kidding me? 12,000 albums sold by an individual artist would be no reason to pop the champagne cork. But less than 12,000 jazz albums even bought at all? That’s reason enough for any jazz artist to consider career counseling . I’ve labored under the happy illusion a successful jazz album sold in the low five figures. Don’t I feel like a horse’s ass. Once you learn only 2 percent of records released even sell 5,000 copies, any notion that it’s easy to make it in the music business runs headlong into a brick wall of cold reality.
Then again, I never thought it was easy. I just didn’t know if you play jazz just how hard it is to make a living at it or to get anyone to pay attention.
Recently I reviewed The Stanley Clarke Band and while it’s a kick-butt album it bothers me that it’s doomed to disappear like dropping a stone in the sea because there’s no radio to play it, no television to view it, and few venues to hear it. If you’re not listening to an online music source such as Last FM, Slacker or internet radio, I don’t know where you’re supposed to go for your new jazz music fix. Clarke is touring to support his last album featuring his electric bass playing, but while he’s all over Europe, he’s nowhere near Ohio as .Columbus is pretty much a dead zone for national jazz acts There used to be a handful of clubs that played live jazz such as the 501 in downtown Columbus. Hearing it live is still the best way to be exposed to jazz, but unfortunately the 501 closed several years ago and nothing has emerged to fill the void.
Look, I know you can’t grab somebody and scream at them, “This is really good! Why won’t you LISTEN to it?” People have to find their own way past the b.s. to better music created by real musicians. I’m not hating on rap and pop music. There’s a place for utterly disposable entertainment. My kids haven’t developed a taste for jazz either and I’m okay with that. At their age I wasn’t into jazz as my tastes ran closer to Led Zeppelin and Sly and the Family Stone. You have to get through your Kool-Aid phase before your tastes grow advanced enough for something that’s aged longer than an hour in the refrigerator. Between the triple whammy of smooth jazz diluting the genre down to bland and numbing pabulum, fast buck record companies with no interest in developing, grooming and allowing artists to flourish and corporate chain stores relegating jazz music to little more than an afterthought, it’s easy to be discouraged about the present state of jazz.
Yet despite the gloomy state of the business end, jazz as an art form has a way of defying expectations it’s going to die off, dry up and blow away any minute now. There’s plenty of life left in the genre as young lions such as Robert Glasper, Hiromi Uehara, Stefon Harris, Four80East, Tia Fuller, Eric Darius, Victor Wooten, Esperanza Spaulding, Jessy J. and many others continue to step up to carry on the tradition. Jazz never had to depend upon recognition on American Idol and Glee or selling out stadiums to keep up its vitality. In some ways some of the best jazz I’ve ever listened to I’m hearing now. My worry is if the time comes my kids do decide they want to sample a taste of jazz the only place they will find it is in tucked away in some obscure corner of a museum.Jazz is fine. You’re just having trouble hearing it.