by Jeremy Walker   February 24, 2011

For his fifth essay on jazz for mnartists.org and the Walker, composer/pianist Jeremy Walker ruminates on recent turmoil in the Cities' jazz scene - the closing of the Clown Lounge, no more music at Cafe Maude - and asks, "Is anybody really listening?"

THIS IS MY SECOND TO LAST ARTICLE IN THIS SERIES ON JAZZ for the Walker and mnartists.org, and I think I am more unsettled in these essays' central point now than I was at the beginning. The motivating purpose of the series is to get more people listening to jazz, particularly younger listeners. I can tell you all about artists to check out, places to go, and give you some kind of picture of the culture of jazz. But is anyone listening?

Given the current state of American culture, I am actually surprised at the number of people listening to a form of music that is supposedly unpopular, even dead. In a general sense, contemporary U.S. culture is loud, adolescent, self-aggrandizing, greedy, divisive, and rude, bloated by opinion without knowledge and bereft of any sense of its own history. Living with American pop culture is like sharing quarters with a perpetual teenager -- sullen, shortsighted, selfish, a bit smelly, and with horrible taste. It seems the days of an aspirational culture, one that sought to grow up, work, and contribute to the larger society have been replaced by something much more childish, more self-absorbed.

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For this fifth installment of Jazz is a Bastard, I actually don't feel like saying much. Since the last article was published, the Clown Lounge has closed, ending one of the most durable and reliable places to hear interesting music. Cafe Maude is discontinuing live music. Needless to say, more than ever, it's important for listeners to support what's happening at the Black Dog Cafe on Friday nights. Nathan Hanson and crew are still there putting out creative music. And see if you can find out what is going on at Jazz Central (which will require some Facebook digging). Things are always in flux and places can be gone in a flash, becoming just another part of the legend of the music. The Clown Lounge has now joined this category. Seven years after it closed, I still hear from people about how they loved my club, Brilliant Corners -- or, how they always meant to come out but didn't. I won't explain here how my club came to last only 13 months (due to actions resulting in a legal settlement, and plain old prudence), but suffice it to say those 13 months were magic. The story of that club and what  I could tell you about those days... Well, someday I might write about it, but not yet.

But I still love this music. I love the richness of jazz harmony. I love how the blues can deepen and darken a simple melody, or raise an up tempo celebration to a new level.  And I love swing -- a band swinging feels so good and sounds so right. I know that there is a long-standing debate about whether jazz must swing in order to be jazz. I am not going to enter that debate. I just know I love swing. To me, it puts everything in the proper context, makes me feel ready for anything, you know? Put on Hank Mobley's "This I Dig of You" sometime, or check out Ornette Coleman on "Congeniality" (from The Shape of Jazz to Come), or listen to a Basie record.

I guess the worrisome thing is that the records I just mentioned are all old. The ostensible aim of this series has been to get more people to listen to jazz, especially live jazz. The question of whether that music is in good health is too layered for me. On the one hand, there are many talented musicians filling up each night with great music all over the country. On the other hand, they are making money that puts them well below the poverty line (usually). On one hand, schools are teaching students about the music with a respect on par with classical music. On the other, they are turning out a lot of sound-alike players. And the audience is, by all accounts, dwindling. (Except in another way, it isn't, but more on the later.)

I don't feel qualified to weigh in on the music. No, that's not it. I don't want to. As I have mentioned before, when I started listening to jazz I was a kid the same age as my son is now. I used to read Downbeat and get mad at this or that musician or critic. I used to go to bed telling myself what my good friend Chris Thomson (and great saxophonist) calls "the jazz bedtime story" -- the one where you tell yourself that you'll play like so-and-so to packed clubs around the world.

A lot has happened since that time. People change, but the debate doesn't ever seem to.

Today, I spent the afternoon listening to Chick Corea with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It sounded beautiful. There were a lot of people around listening to the rehearsal, and there are sure to be a lot of people at the concerts. Last month, I sat at the Dakota in a packed house listening to McCoy Tyner and his band. Last week, it was Kenny Baron. I have also spent more nights then I can remember in the hot, stuffy confines of the Clown Lounge, standing room only, listening to various bands on cold, snowy nights.

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When something is worth doing, we will always find a way to do it. So, the record labels are dead. Clubs are closing. Rents are high. Medical costs are rising. Hard things are always hard, and jazz has always risen above them.

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So, which of these experiences suggests that people don't want to listen to jazz?  

It is true that the industry has changed and will continue to change. I don't know what will fill in the gaps. But the music is still out there, and people still find it. The truth is jazz has always been a tough business -- not popular enough to be lucrative, and never really on the receiving end of the sort of the civic and philanthropic support classical music enjoys. Jazz is a bastard industry, no doubt. But the idea that nobody is listening is patently ridiculous; there are packed theaters and clubs every night. To say that we should build the audience is obvious; that is a perennial given. There are always deserving artists who don't enjoy a wide enough audience.

So, we keep fighting.

So, here I am: a jazz musician in the 21st century, living in a country hobbled by celebrity worship, distracted by over-hyped garbage, and constantly driven by hyper-consumerism. The culture is divisive, rude, and loudmouthed. It seems so remote and absurd. America, right?

But that is too easy. The exceptions to this glib assessment are too numerous to be aberrations. There are so many people out there who are warm-souled, inquisitive, community minded, hard working, and engaged. America is still the most charitable nation on the planet, with wallets and doors readily opened in times of tragedy. And at this warm center of this culture sits our music. The blues and country and ragtime,  marches, Texas swing, and even rock and roll; and of course, the music that can encompass the whole range of it -- jazz.

So, the debate about "real jazz" will surely continue, sometimes simmering and sometimes raging. Some will say that the definition of jazz is swing. Some will say is the heart of the music is about constantly pushing forward to new sounds and influences. Others will say the music is dead, its best days long gone, or conversely that it is America's classical music. It is a debate worth having.

For me, it all comes down to the feeling of jazz -- that feeling of personal expression, of welcome, of hope, and of invention. It is that feeling of communication between performers and listeners. It is about inclusion and connection, and it's about having a good time. And it is aspirational: there is always more to know, more to express and master. In a country that seems hell-bent on glorifying youth and flash, jazz offers us a lifetime of connection. I think this is a difficult time for our culture, and we need jazz music, and its self-expression within a group. We need the aspirational demands of jazz. It is so hard to play well, to sound good. And we need things that require us to reach beyond what can be purchased on demand.

The fundamental fact is when something is worth doing, we always find a way to do it. So, the record labels are dead. Clubs are closing. Rents are high. Medical costs are rising. Hard things are always hard, and jazz has always risen above them. I don't really believe that what jazz musicians face now is harder, or even as hard, as what this music was once up against. After all, jazz grew and thrived in the midst of crushing institutionalized racism and the absurdity of segregation.

On a recent snowy night, I was at the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, listening to the great Bill Goodwin playing some delicious swing on his drums (and I was fortunate enough to sit in). The Deer Head has been booking jazz for 60-some years. Due to the snow, it was a slow night, but there were people there, nonetheless, to listen and hang out -- and there weren't people out anywhere else in town.

The next night, Chick Corea played for a packed house at Lincoln Center. Marcus Roberts played for a week of full-houses at Dizzy's at Lincoln Center. The music was swinging, soulful, demanding, and the audience was fully engaged. At that same moment, Smalls was packed downtown. And I am sure there were large crowds at the AQ and the Dakota in Minneapolis.

The news will always be bad, and there is no definitive solution, no marketing strategy that will make jazz a popular music again. The labels are gone, clubs will close, and musicians will struggle. But there is an audience.

The answer I offer is simple: Musicians can still play the music and listeners can listen. And we can do our best to get the word out about that. The responsibility for that comes down to individuals willfully engaging in a group -- there is no institutional sleight of hand that will put people into clubs and theaters to check the music out. The answer isn't non-profits. The answer isn't higher education. The answer isn't a new business model, or even me writing about it. The answer to all these questions is, in the end, music.

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Related performances:

You can hear Jeremy Walker with the Small City Trio on February 25 (11 pm) at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in Minneapolis.

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About the author: Jeremy Walker is a composer/pianist based in New York. He has performed with Matt Wilson, Vincent Gardner, Ted Nash, Anthony Cox and other notable musicians. He was the owner of the now defunct club, Brilliant Corners, and is the Artistic Director for Jazz is NOW! in Minneapolis. Walker currently leads two bands, The Bootet in New York and Small City Trio in Minneapolis; Small City Trio just released their first album, a collection of original songs by Walker called Pumpkins' Reunion, available digitally on iTunes.