The Place of Jazz in America’s Music Industry

The Place of Jazz in America's Music IndustryThe Place of Jazz in America’s Music Industry
by Nathan Gold

Jazz can be recognized by its openness to and utilization of harmonies outside the common scope of popular music. There are those in the American popular music industry, many among them musicians, critics, teachers, et al, who speak of how “jazz” has been influential in recent and current popular music, some claiming to have incorporated it into the music they perform, teach, or write reviews of. I wonder what jazz they are referring to.

Let’s take one of the quintessential jazz albums of all times, “Kind of Blue,” released in the 1950s under Miles Davis’s name, which managed to become popular, at least briefly, at a time when rock was already taking over the music industry.

If anything, “Kind of Blue” advanced a standard already being met by jazz musicians of the time and earlier, some known and others not. That standard was shifting tonal centers and a more complex and subtle use of harmony; the kind that can reach those hidden interstices of human feeling in no other way. America’s once most popular form of music had grown into something unexpected, a musical discipline with artistically serious implications. So, then what happened?

In World War II it had been shown that, while not superior to that of America’s German foes, cheap weaponry won the day for America for being easier to mass produce. It was a lesson not lost on enterprising music entrepreneurs, soon to create an industry.

It is said that America created the teen, as though a permanent stage of life. What commerce and victory in the music world required was simpler music, easy to do, something most anyone with a guitar, for instance, could do; something almost anyone could imagine themselves doing.

Jazz had become associated with the war. The war was over, and people wanted to forget the war. Besides, the new jazz, Be- Bop, could not be danced to. It was easy to dumb down a nation without an artistic history it was willing to cling to.

Children now determine our music culture. And a few smart entrepreneurs determine which children. Payola and the broadcasting industry see to that.

America, despite its self-assessment, as we’re beginning to see, is no better than any other nation or earlier civilization. It just does the same in different ways. It is the first civilization to put a money value on each of its citizens. Everything being determined to have a marketable price, a man or woman is only as good as they are employed or as they employ others. Concerns of the heart and soul do not matter.

Beginning in the late fifties and continuing to the present, an out-of-work jazz musician has become a well-known figure. The often disdained single minded determination of a jazz musician to stay with his art despite the economic impracticality is the stuff of contemporary legend.

But, concerns of the heart and soul do not matter.

The art of music has been confounded with the industry of music. You will hear around songwriting circles how a song not written to the needs of industry is not worth the writing. “What good is a song sitting at home in a drawer?” is an additional charge. Songwriting contests are about making money, mainly for those putting on the contest; and you will get little on the art but a great deal about the business of music in books on songwriting.

How much a song garners in revenue, or appears to have by amount of airplay, is its measure of value, as clearly demonstrated at the Grammy Awards ceremonies. And the public is made to think that what is being awarded is the best music in the nation.

Robert Hilburn (Los Angeles Times, 1/5/2000) says of the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards: “As part of this year’s voting process, the Grammy organization set out a 241-page book with a list of almost 900 eligible albums and more than 500 singles. In retrospect [after the winners were determined], all the academy [would have] had to do was send out the SoundScan list of the year’s Top 20 sellers.”

Members of the music industry hold that what gets put out there is in response to the public declaring its musical wants, a matter of changing popular taste. A democratic process. The leavings of the male bovine! Popular taste is manipulated by what is given for it to pick from. And, I’m sorry to say, this also is the reason for the popularity of some jazz artists. It is, and has long been, a closed market.

Sen. Russ Feingold agrees. His current effort is to introduce a bill in the Senate that will attempt to open up a now nearly closed market resulting from, in his words, “a concentration in the radio, concert, and promotion industries.” The bill means to attack the climate that bolsters the historically rampant practice of “Payola,” exacerbated by “loopholes in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that has allowed owners of multiple radio stations to shake down the music industry, establishing exclusive agreements with independent promoters, collecting fees in exchange for access to the airwaves.”

The music on the album “Kind of Blue” was considered “cool,” hardly a selling point in a society clamoring for excitement. Yet, “Kind of Blue” is still selling in the 21st century – nearly fifty years later – while the entire popular music industry, harmonically speaking, has still to exit the 19th.

One tune on the album, “Blue In Green,” a collaborative creation by Bill Evans and Miles Davis, evokes the music of Debussy and Ravel, mainly due of the chord voicings laid down by pianist Evans. It reflects a longstanding quid pro quo relationship that has existed between jazz and 20th Century Classical composers, pantonality, shifting tonal centers.

Mostly hidden from the general public by the riotous clamor of the succeeding decade, “Kind of Blue,” was seminal to one of the most creative periods for acoustic jazz, the 1960s, at a time when jazz radio had all but disappeared. Current jazz stars, such as Wynton and Branford Marsallis, still relate their own music to the music of the era inspired by Miles Davis.

Concurrently, there also began “Freeform” and the “wall of sound” style of performing some jazz groups were doing in an effort to be heard over the noise. It is these latter two schools that seem to have had a more lasting effect upon the majority of jazz players since then, especially Freeform in Europe, in that they were easier to perform, being less involved with advanced harmonies.

They were also, though sometimes distantly, beneath what has given rise to the jazz today that, by virtue of current marketplace practice, is most popular with the general public. Freeform especially is supported at the state level by some socialist nations in Europe. Talk about a level playing field!

A contemporary myth in America is that only youngsters can make music that is new. Quirky, out-of-the-ordinary sounds discovered by electronic coincidence – monochromatic when compared to evolved harmony – simplistic chord patterns, but a dancy rhythm, rule the day. Not because it’s the best of the newest music possible, but because it is what gets put out there by masters of the marketplace, selling the idiosyncratic novelties of those who, as far as jazz is concerned, should be considered beginners in need of instruction.

America has been denigrated by other nations as being culturally adolescent. Or, if you will, having a culture of disposable cultures, no better demonstrated than in its popular music industry. Culture is what ties one generation to another. What we have is more often music that separates one generation from the other.

What goes around comes around. Some who have benefited from the status quo are beginning to reap what they’ve sewn. A professional in the music industry recently lamented: I can try to sell a guy who sings better than the biggest pop star, writes better than the biggest country star, dances better than the biggest rock star, and the only thing that will matter is how old he is.

In a previous article, “G. F. Mlely, A Trail Of Endurance,” I noted how the pianist-composer created new and exciting music from within the mainstream. There is great latitude in jazz that allows for both tradition and experimentation to take place. The music industry, of course, doesn’t care about that. The one place, though, that should doesn’t as well, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which presents the Grammy Awards.

In the Grammy nominating process, one category wherein the general membership of NARAS does not get to vote is Best Arrangement. Voting in this category is limited to a pre- selected list of arranger members of NARAS. The logic is that the general membership could not be counted on to know enough about music in that category to vote reasonably or fairly.

Precisely how it should be for jazz, but is not. Once upon a time a distinction was made between music and entertainment. Perhaps that should again be the case with respect to jazz and the popular music industry.

To quote G. F. Mlely, a former voting member of the NARAS, from his essay, “Why I Quit The NARAS,” published online at

“Jazz that is really jazz rarely gets a hearing.  Of course, not just jazz, but Individual songs on little-heard albums as well.  So what? Well, the NARAS talks about a song as being the ‘best.’ Do the majority of members of this organization know what they are voting on? What standards are being adhered to in the nominating and voting process? 

“I don’t think much time need to be spent in finding the answer. Popularity is the standard. If it’s popular it’s good.  If it’s the most popular it’s the best. Like politics like high school, so goes music and art [in America] …

“What is wrong with the popularity standard?  Nothing, if you’re a fan. But, the voting membership of the NARAS is, ostensibly, professional or some about to be.  When a song is nominated in the Best Song category, for instance, what matters is not the performance of that song, but the crafted song itself regardless of the goodness of its performance – regardless of how well it’s been sung or arranged or the catchiness of its beat, and so forth. 

“A fan cannot be expected to know this.  But, neither do most of the voting members of that organization, as history of the NARAS reveals. It’s stating the obvious to say that what the Grammys honor is not so much excellence as hype.  And that the hype and the channels for that hype are controlled by a very limited number of industry forces. And that these forces, considered as a group, could be reasonably defined as an oligarchy – rulers by way of wealth and power – able to control what the public will see and hear. And that this control is primarily effected through control of the media. 

“Of course it’s understood that the Music Industry, being the industry it is because of its control, has little to do with music, per se. The Music Industry is about merchandising and profit. Music is merely the excuse. The NARAS, on the other hand, for what it means to project of its image to the public, is [supposed to be] about “art.” 

“Commerce panders and plays down to people, always striving for success (popularity); art serves and plays up, always striving for perfection (completion). While the Music Industry renders a fairly clear picture of its purpose, the NARAS, being a subjunct of the Music Industry, pretends.”

Advanced harmony is one of the world’s great achievements, resulting from, and made possible by, the development in Europe of octaves and the well-tempered scale. The way a jazz musician relates to it in his composing and performing is a standard – that met in “Kind of Blue” and lesser known releases before and after. Where in America’s Music Industry – where the economic river for music runs -do achievements in such jazz standard regularly find place?

It will be pointed out how it’s a free country, that anyone can produce a CD. What is not pointed out is the closed market, the near impossibility of getting enough airplay for such CD to be able to take with an audience. The airwaves officially belong to all of America’s citizens, but the doorkeepers to those airwaves – station managers, programmers, and their business partners – are able to block access to them with impunity.

Audiences not being served in America are passive about this situation only because they’ve not been educated to it. They are unaware that their choices are being arbitrarily limited. There are other achievers not getting a fair shake; and not just in jazz. There is more to America’s musical content than what children and teens want in the way of new music. There is more from among America’s jazz musicians than what is being presented to the public. Truly, any genuinely good new music will find a supporting audience, but, in this modern age, only if it is given sufficient broadcasting. Any system that denies airplay in such a manner and to the degree it does in our contemporary times is repressive.

It might be a cliche to say that music is magical. But, even Plato, not a respecter of musicians, recognized the power of music, and how it could be misused to a society’s harm. Though Plato did not hold to the divine origin of music, it was before and for centuries after his time, widely regarded as being the result of inspiration. That is, to have been suggested by a divine or supernatural influence. The Christian church, of course, especially during the Middle Ages, counted on it.

It was during the time of the Roman empire, a martial nation still admired, that music and the musician were regarded as utility items. Much as it is with the music industry of today. In fact, much as it is with the country.

Again quoting Mlely: “Being an accomplished artist has never been good enough in America. In America a person’s worth is based on his usefulness, his utility. That is shown by his earning power. A person may be an artist. But unless it is clear that someone is making practical use of his services, he is not a respectable member of society. Until he can satisfactorily answer the question as to what he does for a living, beyond being an artist, he is suspect.”

So it is for jazz musicians. The apocryphal jazz musician is an impractical cypher. In America everything must be useful. Within the closely controlled music industry, jazz is good as it can be usefully altered for whatever is being promoted as the hot item of the day. Thus the creation of hybrid forms, unattached to any historical process, skewering the picture for real jazz.

This has nothing to do with the creative process, and it is not the fault of the kids who do it. Neither is it against pop music. Jazz certainly has its pop styles in addition to what it offers for the more musically demanding. What is objected to is totalitarian repression by an industry. It has to do with the cynically underhanded marketing of youthful ignorance to an intentionally uninformed and misguided citizenry.

For America’s industry of music, concerns of the heart and soul do not matter.