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The Present Struggle : Jazz Facing Crushing Odds in Marketplace

February 20, 1987|GARY GIDDINS | Giddins, a New York City jazz writer, is the author of "Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker." and

Jazz, more than any other art, is peculiarly susceptible to generational assumptions. When I first became aware of jazz, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it had an aura of hip, upscale success. It was cool and inside, but also sexy and ostentatious, as so many consumer goods of that era were. Jazz was as modern and portentous as the tail fins on your new car, or the lavishly endowed women in Playboy and Esquire.

Not insignificantly, those were the kinds of popular magazines that most frequently ran articles on the jazz heroes of the day: introverted Miles Davis, extroverted Dave Brubeck, brash Maynard Ferguson, cool Gerry Mulligan. Stan Kenton's music was as progressive as a pink dinner jacket, Duke Ellington's as suave as pomade.

In the 1950s, jazz was adult vernacular music. Rock 'n' roll was for adolescents. That changed in the 1960s, as rock received a second wind from abroad, and jazz was stigmatized on several levels: It was esoteric, therefore elitist (a buzzword of the decade); it was rooted in history, therefore remote; it was adult, therefore suspect. The decades of musical accomplishment in jazz--the tradition of cross-generational influences, of young players proving themselves in the company of honored patriarchs--worked against it at a time when music was supposed to follow a party line. The word was out: Jazz was too serious, it lacked humor, it was difficult, it was irrelevant.

Now, nearly 20 years later, jazz seems to have made a comeback. I say "seems" because the evidence is shaky. On the one hand, jazz-is-back articles proliferate, a handful of musicians and singers associated with jazz have built national followings and reissues of classic jazz albums occupy almost as much floor space in leading metropolitan record stores as classical European music. On the other hand, jazz struggles in the marketplace against crushing odds. Most of the important jazz players of every generation record, if they record at all (many don't), for small labels, often based in Europe.

In the absence of media attention, the sales potential for those records is severely circumscribed. Jazz in the United States can't claim a first-class record company or a first-class magazine. There are no commercial jazz radio stations in many key markets (including New York), and it is virtually banished from television. Most major publications pretend it doesn't exist. The myth that record companies would renew their commitment to jazz in light of the popular successes of Wynton Marsalis, George Benson, Manhattan Transfer and Stanley Jordan is a myth. Atlantic Records, which earned several Grammys with the Transfer, has just wiped out its jazz department. Warners cashed in on Benson's rise to stardom by signing, several years later, the even glitzier Miles Davis. Columbia's jazz policy is a shambles, despite the attention accorded Marsalis. RCA has initiated a new series of recordings that confuse jazz with that bizarre yuppie Muzak known as New Age. Even the much heralded return of Blue Note has, with rare exceptions, failed to take notice of the best in modern jazz.

The most important jazz labels at the moment are sisters, Black Saint and Soul Note, and are located in Italy. The most admired jazz magazine, Swing Journal, is published in Japan. Even the Soviet Union's state-owned label, Melodya, is issuing jazz records, usually with musicians who are pale imitations of Americans. Jazz makes the whole world feel slightly American, but remains underground in its native land.

The blame lies not with the musicians, although it is indicative of the '80s that those who have achieved commercial success are the most musically conservative. The tables have turned. What was once fashionable is now seen in perspective, and what was once uncommercial has assumed the status of classic. I suspect that in a few years, serious listeners will be less enchanted with Benson's condescending pop guitar, Marsalis's button-down versions of old Miles Davis formulas, Manhattan Transfer's tricked-up versions of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and the navel-gazing of New Age.

The core of musicians who are continuing the jazz tradition into a genuine New Age, who exemplify the struggle for individual expression in spite of marketing blandishments and fleeting Zeitgeists, have a hard time being heard. But they are here, and they have followers, and someday they will receive the attention they deserve.

Which 1980s jazz will still sound fresh and vital a decade from now? Here's a short introductory list:

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