Interviews

“Jazz in the Modern World” — a Roundtable discussion with Joshua Redman, Bruce Lundvall and Ben Ratliff

Roundtable

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Jazz in the Modern World

An October 2, 2003 Jerry Jazz Musician hosted discussion on challenges facing jazz,

with

Bruce Lundvall, Joshua Redman and Ben Ratliff

Photo © William P. Gottlieb

Photographer William Gottlieb’s 1947 photograph of the well-stocked Commodore Record Shop — an image from the era when jazz and the phonograph record ruled.

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What are the boundaries of the jazz idiom? What is the role of jazz in today’s world? To download or not to download? What is the future of retailing and how does that affect the art of making music? What is the value of recorded music?

As ever, jazz faces an array of questions, certainly more than three people can address in an hour. The hour spent in this particular discussion among men at the top of their respective fields focuses on confronting the challenge of marketing a music filled with nuance and passion to a modern audience conditioned by technology for instant gratification, and the issue of competing with its own historic past.

In a Roundtable hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall, saxophonist Joshua Redman, and New York Times critic Ben Ratliff lend their perspectives.


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JJM  We live in a push button society, where our patience is constantly being tested. We rapidly click through television stations, web sites, songs on CD’s, and demand instant communication at work. What challenges do these sorts of social behaviors pose for jazz, and how does it affect the art?

JR  That trend poses a great challenge for this art form. I do think that we possess more and more a fast food cultural mentality. It is becoming more image oriented, more sensationalist, more attuned to the simplistic and really overt, and we have become more materialist and more commercial. It is a culture of immediate gratification.

BL  Yes.

JR  This is a general trend, obviously. There are alternative currents out there, but in terms of the mainstream culture, the trend toward commercialism is getting more intense.

That poses a great challenge for jazz, and creates a tough climate for an art that in its essential nature is a music of tremendous substance and subtly. Jazz is a very textured music. It is heavy in nuance, and also very detailed. It communicates outward, but is very introspective at the same time. It requires patience and participation from its audience. Jazz isn’t the kind of music that pushes a listener’s buttons and creates certain immediate emotional responses. It is the kind of music that can deliver as much passion, intensity, emotion and inspiration to its audience as any other music, but it requires an audience to participate, to really listen and put themselves within the music, and to be patient with it. You have to work for your pleasure in jazz as a listener, and that does run counter to a lot of the trends in our culture. I think it’s a tremendous challenge.

BR  I was talking recently with the drummer Eddie Locke, who used to play with Coleman Hawkins. He was speaking his mind about the jazz scene today and the way jazz is going, and he feels sort of excluded and alienated and can’t quite figure out the vibe anymore. He was talking in very general terms, but I felt like I understood where he was going. He was saying that for one reason or another, people don’t really want to hang out together as much anymore. This is attributable to a whole bunch of things, including the fact that if you are a working musician you have to leave wherever it is you live to go do other gigs in other places. But also he was talking about how the young players don’t really come to him anymore to soak up his knowledge. He sort of assumes that because he knew Coltrane and all these other people that they would be curious. He wondered whether it was because everybody could listen to his contribution by buying a reissue.

JR  Yes, or just by downloading the song.

BR  Right.

BL  I don’t know. I find that the young musicians are very interested in meeting with the older ones who have this knowledge and knew these people. My experience is just the opposite, frankly, at least with the artists I deal with. The more information the better. They are really very curious.

BR  Yes.

BL  Most of them, anyway.

JR  What I hear Ben saying is very interesting. I saw the issue presented in terms of the relationship between the jazz community and trends within the mainstream culture, and how there may be a kind of disconnect between the two. What I hear Ben saying is that there may be something going on within the community itself, that the musicians of today, because of the cultural trends, may be less eager or willing to bond together, and especially to seek out the advice of elders. I am not sure, that may be true in some respects, but I do agree with Bruce, that there are certainly a lot of young jazz musicians out there who crave that kind of contact.

BR  Yes. Sure.

JR People often ask me how I see jazz today — the community today versus the way it was during the golden years of jazz — and I can’t answer that question because I wasn’t around. My sense is that the scene may be more fragmented now, but I don’t know. I have this image of jazz in the fifties and sixties as being this sort of paradise, where all this creative music was happening.

BR  Yes, with lots of places to play. Jam sessions…

JR   I am sure a lot of that is true, and some of it is probably a myth as well. I don’t know what the differences are in the relationships among musicians today compared to then, but I believe that young musicians hunger for information, and have a desire to connect with their history and their elders and to get as much information as they can.

BL  In response to what Joshua was saying about the first question concerning how jazz is affected by today’s culture, I believe what he said is very true. We live in an era of instant gratification. There is too much information, too many ways to communicate and entertain, and no one has the patience or the time. Jazz is an art form that requires serious listening, and it requires a lot of one-on-one participation with friends who act as mentors for other younger people. I have seen this many times. How does one become a jazz fan? Well, somebody a little older who is already a jazz fan spoon-feeds music to listen to, and suddenly they get it. They may start by collecting records or going out to clubs. This is not so much different than it was when I was a kid buying records, when it was a major event to buy an LP. I would spend every last dime I made on LP’s, and then I would live with those records until I memorized every solo.

There is too much to choose from now, too much information, and CD’s are far too long. No one can focus on a seventy-four-minutes of music, and chances are it is not going to be good all the way through. People should make shorter records with better content, and keep the extraneous stuff off of it. Period. Not everyone wants to hear seventy-four minutes of a vibraphone player.

JR  But do you think there is an expectation now on the part of the consumer that artists deliver that much music?

BL  It’s probably true.

JR  What is someone going to think purchasing a CD for eighteen dollars and there are only forty minutes of music on it?

BR  I have never heard anyone say it wasn’t long enough.

JJM  Actually, the reverse psychology seems to be going on in some sense. What I hear a lot now is, “There are fifteen songs on that CD but there are only two good ones.” Consequently, the value of the product is out of skew.

JR  Yes.

JJM  Maybe it’s because of my background in music distribution, but I kind of agree with Bruce about CD’s being too long. A way to reach today’s consumer may be through a message of “quality over quantity,” partly because of what we are talking about here, that people don’t have the time for excess or superfluous information — and what little free time the audience we market to does have wants to spend it on quality pursuits.

JR  As an artist, I agree. I think CD’s are too long, and I think my CD’s are too long. When you are a recording artist, it is very easy to lose perspective. You record all this material and you want it all on the CD, and it is hard to edit yourself. I think from an artistic standpoint, you are definitely right, that in general CD’s are too long and it should be about quality rather than quantity.

BL  You are right though about the consumer’s expectations, they want as much music as you can get onto a CD, I am sure.

JJM  The current music retail store business model is dysfunctional, and music is being distributed on the Internet illegally and legally at a high rate. Bruce, you said in a recent conference, “The way to get the music to the public has narrowed in many respects even though the media has certainly increased in so many ways.” How does the fact that the old business model for selling records in retailers like Tower Records is in such disarray affect the future of jazz?

BL  Anything that moves slowly like classical or jazz or other special categories of music that are not pop, are being moved out of the store or are being reduced in terms of the amount of floor space it commands to make room for things like DVD’s, which are hot items now. Even music DVD’s are popular. So, more and more, the Internet is becoming a way to reach the consumer. We still need those retail stores though. I hate to see them go. Now we have to see what is going to happen with Universal’s lower pricing, although I don’t think they are lowering their pricing on classics and jazz.

JR  I thought it was across the board. No?

BL  No, not on classical and jazz. They kept the old pricing.

JR  That is probably going to hurt the music, right?

BR  Is it going to affect the other major companies? Are they going to have to reprice too?

BL  Everyone is sure to be thinking about it.

JR  I would think they would have to, you know? If a major competitor is offering CD’s at three dollars less, they are going to have to. There is going to have to be some new industry standard.

JJM  I understand the distribution and retail community is not particularly pleased with the new situation because the margins are not good.

JR  Yes, and it would seem to me that that is going to hurt the mom and pop stores — to the extent that they are still in the business at this point anyway. And I think it is even going to hurt the Tower Records of the world. I used to think of Tower as this monolith, but the reality is that Tower is more of a specialty store than the Best Buy’s and Sam Goody’s of the world, who sell other mixes of products in the stores. I think that the only stores that are going to be able to handle this new pricing scheme are the ones that have tremendous volume, because from what I understand, their profit on each CD will go down. Is that right?

BL  Yes, it will go down, and they have apparently removed retail advertising entirely, so there is no co-op advertising, but you get the low price. And apparently they have taken the position that in order to buy their goods direct and get the best price, thirty percent of what a retailer stocks has to be Universal product. I don’t know if that will work. I am sure there will be many modifications as time goes on.

JJM  So, amid this changing marketplace and dwindling shelf space, how is a jazz artist going to survive?

JR  Gigs!

BR  Yes, gigs.

BL  It is a tough one for us. Our sales on straight-ahead jazz have declined, and part of it is the retail problem, obviously. I don’t really know what the answer is. You have to make records more intelligently in terms of budgets, that is for sure. At times, frankly, we have had to go to our artists who want to do an ambitious project and tell them that it’s fine if they want to do it, but they are going to have to lower their advance a bit because Blue Note would not come out well on the project. I want to keep these kinds of artists on the roster. I don’t want to drop them, and we haven’t dropped any, really.

BR  What about appealing to different audiences, not by profoundly changing your music so it becomes something that you are not, but by finding new possibilities for people who might like it for what it is? I was wondering about this, Josh, when I saw you play over the summer at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee.

JR  Wow. You were down there for that?

BR  I was, yes. Since Bonnaroo is an enormous annual hippie festival, I wondered what a gig like that could do for you in terms of changing or increasing your audience.

JR I have always believed that there is a greater audience for this music out there than is currently supporting the music.

BR  I totally agree with you.

JR  I have always believed that there is a way to bring a larger audience to this music on its terms, without having to change the music aethestically in any way.

This music will never be a mass popular music again. Other than during the Big Band era, I don’t know if it ever was. I don’t think this music will ever be that again, and it shouldn’t be that again and I don’t want it to be that again. But I do believe that there is a wider audience for this music than currently exists today, and I think that it is a matter of exposure.

The problem is that our outlets for exposure in the jazz community are shrinking. We have no major television and video exposure, no commercial radio, very little public radio, and very little print media exposure. It is getting harder and harder to let people know this music is out there and to reach a potential new audience. I do believe that integrating jazz music where it fits in a performance opportunity like Bonnaroo has potential. There are bands that seem to be able to bring jazz into what they are doing, and jazz does seem to be able to communicate to that audience in some ways. I am a musician who feels relatively comfortable in a performance situation like Bonaroo. I enjoyed that gig even though it was something completely different from anything I have ever done.

I don’t know what my personal fate as a performer will be, whether I am going to reach a greater audience in that way or not. I try not to think about that. I can’t say I don’t think about it, but my priority has to be who I am as a musician, where am I now, what kind of music I want to make, and how I make that music. That has to remain pure and sacred. It is important that I create the music as I hear it and as I believe in it, and then trust other people to properly market it. A marketer must take an artist’s music and their vision as a given, and once they know that vision, must ask himself how to best reach a wider audience.

JJM  Bruce, you have had a lot of success at Blue Note. Norah Jones is your label’s most obvious recent example.

BL  Just as many people will tell you she is not a jazz artist.

JJM  Whether she is or not, the fact that she is on a label like Blue Note associates her with jazz. What I am curious about is if there is any evidence within your company that suggests people who buy Norah Jones subsequently get into Coltrane, Greg Osby or Jason Moran?

BL Probably not, but I have a good example of what Joshua was saying. Virtually every week I receive a phone call from one of the film studios who want to use Norah Jones in a soundtrack. I frequently tell them I want to get Jason Moran or Jacky Terrasson or Cassandra Wilson or Dianne Reeves or many of my other artists. They are not interested. They want Norah Jones. I say this is impossible! How can this be? These are great artists, and Cassandra and Dianne have both been in films in the past, but there is not much interest in them for this purpose — they want Norah Jones. Everyone wants Norah Jones. No one wants anybody else, and I am sure that was the case with Diana Krall and others who sell beyond the perceived jazz audience.

But on the positive side, last night I went to see Jason Moran at the Vanguard, and last week I went to see Joe Lovano at the Vanguard, and in both cases the audience was made up mostly of college-age kids, and I was very encouraged by that. When I was that age, we would go to the Band Box next to Birdland — which was a long time ago. I could sit there all Sunday afternoon and hear Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt…for one dollar! Why can’t this happen today? I understand that the economics may be against it, but there should be one time when kids can go into a club when they don’t serve alcohol and witness a concert. This doesn’t seem to happen anymore, but I think if it did, there would lots of interest among young people to attend. Or even a concert that we could put on at Town Hall through Jazz Alliance, as an example, featuring some of the young artists, where no music is compromised. The players are whoever they are, playing whatever it is that they play, and as many record companies represented as possible. Put it on for five or ten bucks, making it more affordable for young people. That is not really happening and I think that is a shame.

BR  Yes, I agree. In the absence of a lot of marketing money, it is “scenes” that create excitement among listeners. Everybody likes the feeling of being in the right place, and it feels so good to be in a jazz club when there is a crowd of young people who didn’t have to pay a lot of money to get in, and who are enjoying jazz presented in a club atmosphere rather than in the living room of a mansion. Those kinds of settings feel uncomfortable to a young audience.

JR  Yes, that’s right. Back to the original question of how jazz is going to survive as an industry in this shrinking retail marketplace with the changing technology, I think that the answer is “gigs.”

BR  Yes, I agree.