Enough with the search for a ‘Jazz Savior’

Every so often, a barrage of articles and blog posts come out claiming that jazz has found the musician or musicians that are going to “save” jazz. More often than not, these musicians are achieving some current commercial success and popularity among a broad audience outside of the typical “jazz head” community.

The newest jazz savior?

Recently, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and keyboardist Robert Glasper have been deemed the new saviors of jazz. Both are very talented instrumentalists, and it is very likely that neither of them, in their attempt to achieve as much popularity as possible, did it with motivation to save jazz from any sort of demise.

In fact, recent albums from the two that have received popularity might not even be translated as jazz to those who end up purchasing it. Spalding’s Radio Music Society might fall more under R&B, while Glasper’s Black Radio certainly demonstrates strong elements of hip-hop.

Who or what exactly are we saving jazz from?

It might be accurate to say that mainstream popularity of jazz ended when people stopped filling the halls to dance to the latest big band hits.

But, does it make sense to ask: Did bebop save jazz as the Big Band Era declined? Did then Brubeck and Getz save jazz after that? How about fusion in the ’70s?

Return to Forever certainly filled the venues. Then there was Grover Washington Jr., Bob James, and the Crusaders. How about Wynton Marsalis? Did he save jazz?

Kenny G sold 75 million albums (somehow). Was his commercial success a saving grace for jazz, even though most jazz purists can’t stand him? You might laugh at that last one, but in a 2010 article in the Pittsburgh Courier, the author actually asked if smooth jazz was the savior of traditional jazz.

Is it ‘real jazz’? Does it even make sense to ask?

I honestly can’t come up with a better idea of what saving jazz means other than commercial success by a current artist appealing to a broad audience. It certainly doesn’t hurt if that audience is young and trendy and is happy buying albums in mass quantity. If so, then it appears that popularity is the road to saving jazz, regardless of the actual music.

I’m not going to get into whether or not the current works of Glasper and Spalding qualify as “real jazz” or not, because frankly, it isn’t all that important. I will include, however, a segment from a very well written post on the blog Mostly Music. It addresses the same topic, and this particular segment from the posts references Robert Glasper’s recent appearance on Letterman:

“There is no way that Robert Glasper’s more mainstream piano trio would ever have been invited onto Letterman. It is precisely because the music he plays with his Experiment band is NOT jazz that it can have mainstream appeal.”

While I agree that Glasper’s trio wouldn’t have ever been invited to do The Late Show but a band featuring a rap vocalist with Glasper at the keys would because of mainstream appeal, I don’t particularly care what label you put on it. Nor do I feel that a professional musician who happens to record jazz needs to be deemed a savior of jazz simply because traditional jazz records don’t sell all that well anymore.

No savior necessary

I remember a line from The Blues Brothers movie when the band arrives at the bar for a performance and they ask what kind of music is played at that bar. The bar owner says:

We have both kinds of music: Country and Western.

While country music is the one genre of music that I overwhelmingly despise, it is a perfect example of a genre that handled change throughout time well. Sure, fans of old country music might hate modern country, and vice versa. But to the best of my knowledge, no musician was ever called upon to save the genre.

That should be the case here.

There doesn’t need to be conversations about jazz being saved, when it is difficult to explain what it even needs to be saved from. There doesn’t need to be ongoing debates about whether or not Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper truly are or are not actual jazz musicians.

What I believe allows a genre of music to continue to be produced (as I’ve said many times before) is quality and entertainment. If it is good and enjoyable, people will listen. If it isn’t, then they wont. No savior necessary. No appearances on Letterman required. That is, of course, as long as jazz musicians continue to produce quality, enjoyable music.

To suggest or believe that the “saving” of jazz will be a result of large-scale commercial album sales is to suggest that every genre of music needs to be saved since album sales overall continue to decline.

A jazz declaration

Jazz will not disappear because of lagging sales. Musicians, starting at a young age, will continue to learn it and perform it. Until the last talented jazz musician on earth decides to give up the craft, mainstream commercial album sales – and musicians who may or may not actually be playing jazz – do not need to be looked to to save anything.

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