Earlier this month I was sitting in Birdland, the great jazz club now on 44th St. in Manhattan, sipping the alcoholic beverage of my second choice (the first choice being unavailable, much to my dismay), and found myself wondering over the fact that the Friday night crowd was made up entirely of white people. Even the performers were white; some Hispanic.
Birdland, called "the jazz corner of the world" by the man who inspired its name, the late, great Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. The place where giants of the genre have played over time, including but not limited to--as we lawyers like to say--Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Art Blakley (the list goes on and on) since its founding in 1949. And while I wondered I recalled that in my several visits to Andy's Jazz Club in Chicago, the crowd and performers have always been white, or at least they have been when I may be said to have been sufficiently aware of my surroundings to notice or remember. I have overindulged in liquor there, on a few occasions.
I became a fan of jazz in my college years, mostly. I am one of the unfortunates who lived through the 1970s as a young adult and adolescent. The popular music of the time was for the most part a horrifying mix of cloying sentiment and disco tunes, with the ridiculous bump and other grotesque dances making us look like clowns. We males dressed like clowns as well, of course; most appropriately. I find it hard to even glance at pictures of the time.
There were some exceptions. Rock wasn't entirely dead. But that's when I began listening to and buying the works of the artists I refer to above and others like Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef. I attended the last Newport Jazz festival, disrupted by a bunch of hippies or vagrants who thought entry should be free of charge and so made certain that those who paid could not listen to the artists they paid to see, and that the artists would lose future pay days at least. I saw Maynard Ferguson and his band at a club in Boston the name of which I can't recall, but that particular event I found disappointing; Ferguson and his band seemed to me simply to play uninteresting music very loudly. I was something of an oddity at my Alma Mater, my stereo blaring jazz through the thin door of my dorm room.
There were some white jazz artists even then, like John McLaughlin who played on some albums with Miles Davis, primarily "fusion" artists. And of course Bill Evans and Brubeck and other white folk were outstanding jazz men long before. But it is not inaccurate to say that jazz began with black musicians, and it seems that like other music forms such as rock and, most depressingly, blues what began with black musicians and fans has been or is being overwhelmed by whiteness. There's something about white men singing the blues that seems almost offensive. As George Carlin once said (if I recall correctly) white people don't sing the blues; we make other people sing the blues.
White jazz musicians are certainly not offensive. But I wonder why it is that at least to this observer, jazz is no longer dominated by black artists as it was in the past. Have we white fans chased them away? Is there no longer any real incentive for young black people to acquire the vast knowledge of an instrument required to play jazz, rap and hip-hop being more desirable (and, I think, far less difficult to master)? Is jazz, which created cool, no longer cool?
Popular music has taken an odd turn, I believe (or maybe I've become an old fogey myself). The great stars no longer play instruments of any kind. Instead, they sing (or rap) and dance (or hop), usually in groups, while music is played by others if not manufactured by machines. Popular music (with the possible exception of country music, where it seems stars may still play an instrument) seems to have transformed into a kind of parade of nightclub acts or Vegas shows, full of showgirls and showboys.
Jazz and some of what is called "world music" may represent all that is left for musicians who make new music. I love classical music, but it seems unchanging. The efforts made to make new classical music have in my opinion resulted in what may be called musical exercises, complex but uninspired. They appear to be strained, small efforts compared to the great masterpieces of the past.
Perhaps jazz is becoming a kind of classical music itself, now. It still continues to live and grow, but it may be that its limitations are being reached, not because the form of music itself is limited, but because it no longer attracts the young among us.