In advance of tonight’s Vijay Iyer’s show at the Earshot Jazz Festival, The Seattle Weekly ran a story entitled Vijay Iyer and the Outreachification of Jazz.

It attempts to ask the universal jazz question, why is jazz not as popular as rock music? A question that is asked every year by a different music writer.

From The Seattle Weekly:

Vijay Iyer and his March release, Accelerando, brought home a record five awards in Downbeat‘s annual critics’ poll, which earned him a spot on the magazine’s cover. Among people who follow jazz, the New York-based piano player is huge right now. To everyone else–and considering that according to Soundscan, Accelerando has sold a mere 5,000 copies, we’re talking about most people–he’s a complete unknown. So are his peers. Five million jazz records have sold so far this year, compared to 80 million in rock. It’s not a stretch to say jazz devotees are on the fringe.

Accelerando, like many jazz records made today, is jazz for people who already like jazz. Exposing audiences and young people to a variety of music is a noble endeavor, but there is something condescending, institutional, and even self-righteous about the outreachifaction of jazz. If a school has a music program, it’s as disproportionately likely to offer jazz over rock as a person in the U.S. is to buy a rock record over a jazz album.

The Seattle Weekly piece quickly brought a rebuttal from The Chicago Reader and their piece entitled, The “problem” with jazz, part 343: Chris Kornelis at the Seattle Weekly

There’s a lot of uninformed shit written about jazz these days, but a piece nominally about pianist Vijay Iyer published today by Seattle Weekly music blog Reverb might win the 2012 prize for idiocy (you might have seen it already—it was linked in this morning’s “Did you read?” post). Few topics bore me more than “growing the audience” for jazz, as if listeners were some kind of produce: Sometimes marketing is alleged to be to blame, while on other days I’ve heard that jazz players lack good fashion sense. Sometimes it’s the fault of musicians who don’t properly contextualize or explain what they’re doing (or of musicians who explain too much). Sometimes it’s agents who book artists in overpriced, formal venues that keep away young potential fans.

And then Kornelis offers another condescending opinion: “The irony, of course, is that jazz lacks broad appreciation outside academia because of artists like Iyer and albums like Accelerando.” Kornelis seems to insist on looking at jazz through the lens of the pop marketplace—as if a chef at a tiny bistro is at fault because his truffle fries don’t sell as much as fries from McDonald’s. But more problematic is that Kornelis views all these problems as if they exist in some kind of vacuum—discounting the role that media, record companies, capitalism, the economy, education, and a host of other factors play in shaping tastes. No, it’s all Iyer’s fault for making music that aspires to be something more than mass-produced pop. He quotes Branford Marsalis, who has criticized the jazz biz for not being more aware of and sympathetic to what allegedly normal people would like to hear—never mind that Marsalis ain’t exactly burning up the charts himself.

Take a look for yourself and add your opinion to the discussion.

Seattle Jazz

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. I just got home from the Vijay Iyver concert, He made a remarkable comment tonight that really made a lot of sense out of this non stop search for a jazz audience. I’m paraphrasing but he said something along the lines of “the problem is not people understanding or enjoying the music but the lack of access to the music, this music is not seen on the television or played on the radio and in many parts of the country very hard to go out and hear” I agree if you have no exposure to something how can you know if you like it or not.

    It was a fantastic performance tonight.

  2. I was at a concert recently and thought “this is why people in general hate jazz and why jazz musicians love jazz.” The music was “good” but I left feeling tired and uninspired. But still, the way to grow an audience for jazz is to get your butt out the door, pay your money and take your chances. Sometimes it will be transcendent, sometimes not. Seek out the music that turns you on and put energy into supporting it.

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