With crowds low and the average fan age high, we ask: Is jazz a dying art form?

On the eve of the London Jazz Festival, Phil Johnson ponders the genre’s future

From this Friday, jazz enjoys its annual moment in the spotlight as the London Jazz Festival kicks off around the capital – but while the two-week event attracts mainstream publicity and popular audiences, the genre at large is in trouble.

Audiences are down every-where – even at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho, whose 250 seats are traditionally a slam-dunk sell-out. Last month’s UK tour by the US saxophonist David Murray (his first for 20 years, and organised by the production and touring agency Serious, who run the LJF), played to half-full houses or less. In Newcastle two weeks ago, I was one of only 40 punters for a 60th-birthday tour date by Paul Dunmall, an English equivalent of Californian Murray’s post-free jazz bombast. The guy who introduced the band even commented on how gratifying it was to see so many of us. The audience demographic was also striking: late-fifties to late-sixties in the main, and predominantly (and no surprises here, I know), male.

It’s not that younger jazz audiences are unknown: LJF shows by Grammy-winner Esperanza Spalding, with her all-female trio ACS, and band-of-the-moment Snarky Puppy will attract very mixed crowds. And nor is there anything wrong with being old enough to appreciate good music. But, to put it bluntly, when ageing audiences’ worries about parking the car start to outweigh their enjoyment of concerts, who’s going to replace them? Young people certainly play jazz, as a steady stream of new graduates from the conservatoires shows. They just don’t pay to get into gigs very often.

Of course, how to pull in those pesky young professionals is a question that vexes marketeers of all art forms. And, when it comes to public funding, the jazz world gets an especially raw deal – opera, for example, receives more than 30 times as much of taxpayer’s money despite attracting similar-sized audiences.

But really, the problem goes deeper; maybe jazz just isn’t hip any more. Discerning young consumers are getting more experimental kicks from folk music, for goodness sake. And as the audience shrinks, so does the music’s purchase on contemporary culture. The essential narrative and context – what is jazz about and who is it for? – grows unclear. An increasing lack of visibility in the mainstream media contributes to a growing credibility gap, too: the few specialist publications and websites that offer jazz coverage are so product-friendly that everything gets a good review, and to read them you’d think we were living through a new golden age.

In truth, anyone can make an album these days, so they do. And young jazz musicians are like badgers: the same few individuals are sighted again and again in different groups, none of which spend enough time together to improve as much as they should.

Still, there are a few positive signs. The success of Cafe Oto in London’s Dalston, which has made its reputation programming free music from around the world to a crossover audience, shows that jazz can renew itself. It could even provide a model for other cities to follow: building an audience from the bottom up through artist-run co-ops and club-nights. Oto’s LJF presentation of US trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith performing the European premiere of his Pulitzer Prize-nominated Ten Freedom Summers (21-23 November), would be my pick of this year’s events. Smith’s subject matter – the Civil Rights struggle – also returns jazz to what might be called its founding narrative: the cultural emancipation of black people in the United States.

Another powerful early narrative – jazz as the sound of modern life: futurist-primitive noise-music that conquered the world – has proved difficult to sustain as jazz styles have rewound towards the past. What drew me to the genre as a kid was seeing Rahsaan Roland Kirk on a late-night BBC2 show playing four horns at the same time and looking like he came from Mars. The latest nostalgia chanteuse or wannabe-Rat Packer on Later…with Jools Holland hardly offers the same futuristic thrill.

But jazz’s past can also be its future, in a good way. At London’s Gearbox Records, a small indie label specialising in high-quality vinyl pressings of both old and new jazz recordings, a little revolution in taste has already begun. Label boss Darrel Sheinman likens what they do to an artisan bakery. “Make a record well and it sounds fabulous”, he says. “You don’t have to listen to things on your phone or on a CD cum beermat. With an LP you can merge yourself into it, form a relationship over the 15 or 20 minutes of each side.” Increasingly, their products are selling to a new, younger jazz audience who get into the music because of the beauty of the sound, and the  fetishistic quality of the packaging. “Putting the ritual back into music listening” is their motto. More ritual (and less hype) might be just what jazz needs.

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