Do read the whole article, but here are some relevant quotes to us over in DCI-land.
Look, I'm under no illusions about jazz music's unpopularity. I grew up playing jazz, went to school to study jazz, made a living as a jazz musician for a while out of school. Jazz is beautiful, jazz is the best. And people, by and large, don't care about it at all.
"How do we make jazz vital once more?" is a question frequently raised by the jazz scene's various curators. The mission statements of many jazz educators' organizations, from the now-defunct International Association for Jazz Education to the still-fledgling Jazz Education Network, contain at good amount of the following mantra: By educating people, mostly high school students, in how to play and understand jazz, we are building an audience and ensuring the art form's future. Jazz education is not just musical education for its own sake, its an investment in the preservation of an art form and of a vital piece of America's culture.
But the vast (vast!) majority of students I've had were never going to become pro saxophonists, or pianists, or guitarists. They liked music, they wanted to play music during the day, but even after four years of Monk and Dameron and Mingus, they never really liked jazz. They didn't listen, they didn't care. My co-director Scott and I would beat our heads together getting these kids legitimately excited about playing jazz music.
Despite our best efforts, results were mixed. (I'll certainly allow that this was because we simply weren't very good teachers, but I don't actually think that was the case.) As difficult as it is to get a friend or significant other interested in jazz, it's much more difficult to get a high schooler to care. It's a demanding type of music to listen to; the sounds and textures are rich and often unpalatable, and the melodic language requires understanding to appreciate.
"When we ask 'How do we develop and maintain a strong jazz audience?'" Ellenberger writes, "what we are really saying is 'How can we convince millions of people to alter and expand their aesthetic sensibilities and their cultural proclivities so that they include jazz to such an extent that they will regularly attend concerts and purchase recordings?"
Jazz music is no longer relevant to popular cultureómusic has simply evolved beyond it, and like any outdated musical style, it's now the province of niche interest groups. (I realize this is an oversimplification, and that there are myriad other contributing factors to jazz's decline.) That's not to say that it is any less vital, lovely, exciting or fresh today than it was thenóby its very nature, Jazz can never become stale or routineóbut it does go a long way towards explaining why modern audiences are no longer particularly interested.
But you know what? Jazz's constant evolution is precisely why "How can we make jazz vital once more?" is in some ways the wrong question. As I see it, jazz has had no problem keeping itself vitalóit's just that it's evolved beyond the musical paradigm we typically associate with 'Jazz.'
That's a tall order that seems insurmountable. Frankly speaking, it can't be done, at least not as part of a prefabricated "strategy" to build an audience. You'd no sooner be able to create a sustainable audience base for jazz as you could for medieval plainchant.
Yeah. The closest we'll come to a resurgence will be cultural aberrations like the swing-craze of the 1990's. But that obsession was surface-level at best.
That's the fact that just as music has evolved, so too has jazz. He's right that acoustic bebop on traditional jazz instruments will never again rope in big audiences or lead to huge album sales. But jazz itself has diversified beyond that until it's essentially unrecognizable.
All of this is to say that yes, I think Ellenberger is correct: The audience for jazz as he describes it isn't really going to get any bigger. There's nothing anyone can do about it.