Parallel Universes

Vijay_Iyer10229_span3 Vijay Iyer in Jazz Times:

Lately I’ve been pulled into discussions about three disparate issues, each with its own frame of reference: the dire economic climate and its effect on the arts, the abundance of jazz education programs, and the obvious significance of social networking sites in our lives. On the surface they don’t really have much to do with each other, but if we consider them together we might better understand America’s current jazz climate.

In summer 2009 I was enlisted to debate the conservative arts critic Terry Teachout about the supposed problem of declining “participation in the arts” among Americans. Some doomsday figures from the National Endowment for the Arts seemed to show that “jazz audiences” were getting both older and scarcer. Upon examination of the data, which, of course, was collected during a recession, Teachout still concluded that the problem was jazz’s fault. He speculated that we musicians had abandoned our audience in moving the music toward an esoteric art and away from populist entertainment. (I suppose he meant to include Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Anthony Braxton and all those other culprits in his accusations.)

I saw this as a reactionary, blame-the-victim argument. The reality is that public and institutional support for the arts in the U.S. has systematically declined over the last 30 years. Meanwhile, as the top 1 percent of private earners amassed unprecedented amounts of increasingly tax-free wealth, they mostly failed to invest in the production, presentation, preservation and infrastructure of jazz.

Which brings us to today’s America: not enough gigs to go around and almost no jazz on television or radio or even onstage, if you don’t live in a major city.