* article edited on November 21, 2012
Recently, jazz journalist Willard Jenkins—in a series of interviews with female journalists and photographers—posed a question about how to increase female attendance at jazz performances. But, after attending shows at the Hamilton Theater and the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC, another question comes to mind: how do we increase the size of jazz audiences in general?
The metro DC area has one of the best jazz scenes of any major city in the country, yet recent audience attendance at some venues has been nearly non-existent. Small audiences usually bode well for this reclusive jazz fan, but let’s face it, small audiences threaten a venue’s bottom line. In order for live music to stand a chance at survival, jazz fans have to be willing to put their butts in the seats. So what’s stopping us?
Admittedly, the Atlas Performing Arts Center and the Hamilton Theater are relatively new music venues in Washington, DC. It’s quite possible that their jazz attendance will increase as their respective jazz seasons progress. But what about those random Wednesday night shows where you might catch Amina Figarova, Gary Smulyan, Jason Marsalis, Orrin Evans, Ben Williams or the legendary Pharaoh Sanders performing a ten o’clock set at Blues Alley (Washington, DC), Smalls (New York City),Chris’s Jazz Café (Philadelphia) , Café 290 (Atlanta), Nighttown (Cleveland), the Dakota Jazz Club (Minneapolis) or Catalina’s (Los Angeles)? What about Monday night sets that are sometimes reserved for local artists to perform in their neighborhood clubs? Where is the jazz audience in these instances?
When “jazz is dead” arguments surface, what festers at the root of said argument is an ever-increasing devaluation of art in favor of what’s popular. At least that’s the way it seems.
After last month’s Monk Competition finals and Diplomatic Gala (which happened to be very well attended), the metro was swarming with Madonna fans who’d packed DC’s Verizon Center for her show. On any given night, sports fans pack stadiums, arenas and superdomes to cheer on their favorite teams—win-loss records matter not. Both groups of fans even pay top dollar for their place in the crowd. But when it comes to jazz fans, apparently nights out are reserved for high profile events or nights at home readying for the next work day? When did we decide to turn our backs on it and why are we pretending that it can thrive without our support? The music has to mean more to us than background noise played at our favorite restaurants.
Jazz fans are not naïve. We know what’s at stake if we continue to sit back and wait for the show or the event that is worthy enough for us to step outside of the comforts of our everyday lives to enjoy. How many article blurbs and radio announcements about club closings and public radio station (the main sources of support and promotion for jazz music) funding cuts will it take before we take ownership of the music? Yes, take ownership.
Jazz music belongs to all of us. It’s the story of America’s history and our rich culture. Jazz musicians are messengers who share jazz’s life with us. The least we could do is be present to receive it.
November is bursting with great jazz. Do yourself a favor: find the nearest jazz club, check the event calendar, pick an event and go see the show.