This month, two pieces of jazz-related news made my January even gloomier. The first was the annual report from Billboard and A.C. Nielsen which reported that jazz represented 2.3% of all US music sales in 2013. Frankly, I’ve never trusted these numbers as many sources may not be included, such as albums self-distributed by artists, recordings sold at live performances and music camps, and any music—new or used—sold on eBay. Further, there is a significant number of jazz fans who prefer older recordings, and with few active reissue programs from the major labels, there’s less music available for purchase. Still, jazz comes nowhere near the whopping 34% of the market commanded by rock and pop music.
So, with all these fans, rock and pop artists should have their own music festivals, right? And if jazz is so damned unpopular, why would anyone want to call their event a jazz festival, especially when they feature few (or no) jazz artists? And that brings me to the second piece of depressing news: the artist lineup for this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They’re bringing in Bruce Springsteen, Christina Aguilera, Boz Skaggs, Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton. Now to be fair, they’ve also booked Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Gregory Porter, René Marie and at least three members of the Marsalis family (Ellis, Branford and Delfeayo), but to find them and other jazz musicians, you must look further down the press release or explore the website.
Now, I understand the concept of bringing in a big name to increase festival attendance, but New Orleans’ approach seems a little (pardon the pun) ex-TREME. Apparently, the city fathers have pushed for more rock acts, and now they are getting their way. That is especially troubling considering that the pop acts have virtually nothing to do with the musical heritage of New Orleans. The dependence on these non-New Orleans acts detracts from the mission of the festival and should be an embarrassment to both the city and the festival presenters.
Consider the logistics. A different rock or pop headliner was booked for each night of the New Orleans festival. Without a doubt, these performers will be the last to take the main stage on each evening. We can also assume that some of the bigger jazz names will also play on the main stage on the evening concerts. But even if it’s not announced or presented as such, the jazz musicians will be the opening acts for the rock and pop performers. This, at what is supposed to be a jazz festival! In one rather extreme example, Pharoah Sanders and Christina Aguilera are performing on the same night. Obviously, these two performers have very different fan bases, and should Aguilera’s fans turn up during Sanders’ set, they are likely to be noisy or otherwise disrespectful while he plays. (Sanders’ fans would probably just leave before Aguilera takes the stage). Sanders may be a polarizing figure—even in jazz circles—but he deserves to be heard, and he should have a better fate than being Aguilera’s warm-up act.
I’m sure that Springsteen, Clapton, Skaggs, Santana and Aguilera realize that they don’t belong at a jazz festival. But I also hope that they respect jazz musicians and would like to help the New Orleans festival. So why not join forces for a benefit concert? A pop and rock concert would draw a large crowd of fans who would be willing to pay top dollar to see their favorite artists. If the artists would play for free—or at least a reduced rate—such a concert could raise a lot of money for the festival, and it might even encourage some of the audience to check out some of the jazz artists when the actual festival occurs. At that later event, the jazz fans would not have to pay higher prices for artists they may not want to see, and the festival would be able to celebrate the music that its title indicates. And finally, some of the lesser-known jazz artists might have a chance to perform on the main festival stage. The exposure would certainly benefit the artists, and the festival could boast of its insight in booking talent deserving of wider recognition.
Thankfully, several of the major US festivals—Newport, Chicago, Detroit, Monterey and others—are still committed to presenting jazz, in genres from Dixieland to free. New Orleans used to be in that company as well, but the desire for larger crowds and bigger ticket grosses has steered them astray. Jazz may only be the 2.3 percent, but that translates into several million fans. We need to stand up for this music, shunning the in-name-only jazz festivals, and supporting those that present the music we love. We’re small, but mighty.