Jazz seems to be experiencing a bit of a renaissance among movie directors – look no further than documentaries such as “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, biopics such as “Born to Be Blue,” and recent Oscar winners like “Whiplash.”
While films about jazz are everywhere, evidence suggests that fewer people are actually consuming the music, putting the genre more on par with classical music than with today’s pop artists.
There are a host of reasons for the decline of jazz as a popular music, but the one that interests me as a music historian is the role that academics played.
In our attempt to elevate jazz to the ivory tower, we may have inadvertently helped to kill it as a popular style.
However, all is not lost. While the genre might seem destined for academic obscurity, jazz continues to kick around in popular music – just in subtler ways.
Jazz captivates the country
In the 1920s, during the early years of the Great Migration, waves of black Americans migrated from the South into the industrial cities of the North. Black jazz musicians, particularly those from New Orleans, brought their sound with them. They moved to neighborhoods such as The Stroll in Chicago, Black Bottom in Detroit, 12th Street and Vine in Kansas City and, of course, Harlem. This occurred just as the record industry blossomed and radios became mainstays in American homes.
Jazz was well-positioned to become the most popular genre of music in the nation.
Over the next decade, the genre underwent a transformation. Artists began to amass larger ensembles, fusing the energy of jazz with the volume of dance bands. The Swing Era was born, and jazz orchestras dominated pop charts.
These developments led to a new set of issues. Larger bands meant less freedom to improvise, the cornerstone of jazz. During the 1940s, music recordings became increasingly important, and jazz musicians found themselves frustrated with how little they were being paid, resulting in a series of strikes by the American Federation of Musicians.
By the time these problems were resolved, America’s youth had already begun gravitating toward new styles of R&B and country, which would eventually morph into rock ‘n’ roll:
After that, jazz never really recovered.
From the club to the classroom
Jazz underwent another, more subtle, shift during that same time period: It left the club and went to college.
After World War II, jazz genres fractured and the music became more complex. It also became popular among college students. Dave Brubeck Quartet released several albums in the early 1950s that acknowledged the group’s popularity with the college crowd, including “Jazz at Oberlin” and “Jazz at the College of the Pacific.”
Perhaps university administrators wanted to elevate a distinctly American genre to a status of “high art.” Or, maybe they just wanted to capitalize on jazz’s popularity among college students. Either way, universities started to create curriculums geared towards the genre, and by the end of the 1950s, several institutions, such as the University of North Texas and the Berklee College of Music, had jazz programs up and running.
In the classroom, jazz was explored in a new way. Rather than hearing jazz played while grinding on a dance floor, it became something to dissect. In one of the earliest jazz histories, “The Story of Jazz,” musicologist Marshall Stearns captures this shift. He begins his book by explaining how difficult it is to categorize the spirit of jazz. He then spends over 300 pages trying to do just that.
Popular culture began to reflect jazz’s shifting identity as the music of educated people. The 1953 film “The Wild One” features a bouncing big band soundtrack that underscores the shenanigans of a motorcycle gang led by Marlon Brando.