Jazz Is Not A Dead Man’s Genre

Whenever I talk about jazz with people, they always seem to reflect on the past. Whenever I ask someone about their favourite jazz artists, nine times out of ten they’ll name someone dead. Even though there is nothing wrong with latching onto the days gone by and hero worshiping the “greats”, have we as jazz fans taken it too far? By constantly looking back at “the golden era” and reminiscing on the days when jazz was the main aspect of popular culture, are we overlooking this current generation of jazz musicians? Has jazz become a ‘dead man’s’ genre in the eyes of the masses? It’s strange to see how much of a niche market jazz has become, with record numbers of young people choosing to study jazz, and with jazz scenes being stronger then ever in many cities worldwide, the problem doesn’t lie with a lack of new music, the genre isn't dying, it’s thriving in many ways. The problem with modern jazz isn't the music, it isn’t the artistry, it’s the culture surrounding it. If I say the word ‘jazz’ to somebody, there is nothing present in mainstream pop culture they can connect with, jazz has lost it’s power to relate to a wider mainstream audience. So how can this be fixed?

All genres of music survive in the mainstream by adapting. Adaption is key to the survival of any genre, and the key to adapting and surviving is to connect with the youth. The youth has alway dictated the path of mainstream culture, from the creation of rock and roll and punk, to the mainstream breakthrough of hip hop and rap, the youth are who shape the face of popular culture. Each and every one of the genres of music I just mentioned all had/have something that jazz needs, and that is it needs to stand for something, not necessarily in a political way, but in a social and cultural way.

If we look back through the history of modern music we can trace where jazz started to loose its wider influence in popular culture. At the very start around the 30’s and 40’s jazz was ‘pop’, it was social music, it was the dance music, club music of its day. In the ‘50s we saw the very early formations of rock and roll, and even though rock and roll produced the biggest star of that decade (Elvis), jazz didn't loose its place in popular music. Really up until around 1980 jazz had a strong place in popular culture, it was still a ‘social music’.

However after 1980 things got dark for jazz as a whole, it got pushed aside, it wasn't what the “in crowd” were listening to, jazz had lost nearly its entire connection with the mainstream. The only exposure the majority of people would really get from jazz would be the occasional ‘nostalgic’ look back or through jazz being sampled in hip hop records (especially in the ‘90s).

So where does jazz stand today?

Well I’m going to state the obvious…

It obviously isn’t holding a place in mainstream culture, but thats not necessarily a bad thing. Jazz seems to be in a unique position. The genre is more innovative and musically diverse as ever before, with new jazz musicians taking less influence from their predecessors and taking more influence from other modern music genres, in the age of the internet, jazz is adapting and reaching an entire new audience of people. Jazz has definitely become a sub culture, but it is not dying, it is thriving, just silently.

Maybe it’s good jazz isn’t as popular as it was back in the ‘day’. It’s popularity was a contributing factor to its demise, people grow tired of the same old same. Every genre has a life span and sadly in the eyes of the mainstream, when your time is up, it’s up. People quickly grow tired of the same formula, and with jazz that was clearly evident, was it adapting with the times or was it just a stagnant genre is a fast moving world? Jazz’s new place on the musical spectrum as a ‘niche’ genre is the best place it has been for years, not in terms of commercialism but in terms of musicality and artistry. Nowadays for a jazz artist to even move out of the ‘jazz niche’ and move into the wider and far more popular realms of ‘alternative music’ (still not a mainstream audience however), it takes a lot of work, it’s far harder for jazz musicians to break free of the ‘jazz tag’ (which can be a negative factor on artists career progression) and crossover into the wider musical spectrum.

Look at BadBadNotGood, a jazz group who have gone onto achieve widespread acclaim and popularity with a young audience, by cleverly reinventing hip hop songs, and collaborating with notable artists like Ghostface Killah, whilst still writing original jazz material that is relatable to a young audience in a musical sense. BadBadNotGood are proof that jazz isn't dead, what BadBadNotGood have done is adapt and evolve traditional jazz, to fit a modern audience, by taking influence from what is popular now not what was popular in the 40’s, and thats where so many jazz artists go wrong, if you want to be relatable, don’t copy what happened in the past, adapt to what is happening now. Jazz can be strong again, it can be popular again, but it needs to move on from the past and step into the present.

Below is an incredibly brief introduction to modern jazz. Have a listen if jazz is a genre of music you've never considered exploring before.