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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor