Editorial – The Death of Jazz

The Death of Jazz
Going Down One City at a Time…

by S.H. Watkins, Sr.

The last couple of years there has been a lot of hoopla about the decline of the jazz industry, and the poor sales that jazz puts up against other categories. Before I relate some of those numbers to you, let me tell you a really short story that brought the decaying condition of our beloved art home to me personally…

Growing up in Chicago, there was live jazz music available every day of the week. I spent many an evening at the Jazz Showcase, listening to the likes of Roy Ayers and Freddy Hubbard. So when I moved to Portland, Oregon in the early 80’s to raise my kids I was glad to find a thriving, vibrant jazz scene in the great Pacific Northwest. There were many good jazz clubs around and the local Mt. Hood Community College had a good part-time jazz station as well as a great jazz festival each year. There were local artists like Tom Grant, Nancy King, Ron Steen and Mel Brown jammin’ every night. Artists like Jeff Lorber and Kenny G incubating and developing the sound that later became known as smooth jazz. My musical life was pretty good.

February 1st, 2002 I turned on KKJZ, our local smooth jazz station, and they were playing soft rock(?!?!?). While making inquiries into this sudden disappearance of smooth jazz here in Portland, the very cradle of the genre, I discovered that someone had bought the station and quietly converted to a more revenue-friendly format. There were still upcoming jazz events sponsored by the station, and now it was gone! To make matters worse I also discovered that for the first time in 20 years there was NOT going to be a Mt. Hood Jazz Festival. Rumored to be many thousands of dollars in debt, the event is cancelled for 2002 with no word about the future. This was waaaaay too much bad news for one day, so I took a ‘time out’ and listened to Bitches Brew.

The point is, that it CAN happen to you, in your town. The numbers don’t lie and jazz IS dying out ever so slowly-but-surely. We’ve all got to support jazz with our active participation, our attendance at events and our purchasing dollars in the marketplace.

There is no ‘magic bullet’ that we can use to rescue jazz, rather it is going to take a turning around of the wave. The primary focus has to be exposing youth to jazz and getting them involved. If you don’t like the new directions that some of them are taking the music, at least they are keeping it alive. Jazz is all abour pioneering and innovation and only the good music stays around anyway. We must influence our youth and educate them on the heritage and history of jazz and so they CAN keep it alive. Without them jazz will die with us.

Now, for those that don’t know…

  • In 2000 Diana Krall accounted for 25% of total jazz sales.
    (that would be cool if there were only 7-8 jazz artists in the world)
  • In 2001 there were a total of 4.4 million jazz units sold, down almost 2 million from 1990 sales.
    (sales went down as the population went up. hmmmmm…)
  • For the first time in years, acoustic jazz out sold contemporary 2.3 million to 2.1 million.
    (the rapid decline of modern jazz???)
  • Of that 2.3 million over 33% was related to the Ken Burns series.
    (hey, at least he got their attention!)
  • Of the top 25 selling acoustic jazz artist from last year, only five were alive and were vocalists… Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Tyrell and Tony Bennett.
    (pretty soon we’ll need the annual ‘posthumous jazz music awards’.)
  • The same names will dominate the list this year, with the addition of Norah Jones, who at one point in March was selling well over 10,000 records a week.