The topic and question for one of our forums reads:
THE DESTINY OF LIVE MUSIC VENUES: What is happening to live music venues locally and nationally and why? Are live musicians an endangered species or will we stand up and fight back? Weigh in!
I found that topic interesting but found I had to read between the lines a bit. I can see the Music Center with Disney Hall from my high-rise in LA where the Philharmonic and other classical groups play to large audiences and can report to you that it is doing just fine, so I don't think we have to worry about the future of classical live music venues, even in the recession.
So of course we are talking about Jazz music. Today, I learned that The Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles (Culver City) lost its lease and will close on May 31. While I am always sorry to lose a venue I think we need to look at the big picture.
While Jazz is an art form many groups play and enjoy and I support that, I am in no mood to pander around with political correctness on this subject. The truth is that Jazz (and all popular music in America for that matter) originated from the African-American experience. The African-American has dropped the ball in being the keepers of the tradition and have left it to others to care for it and to house it.
Jazz tends to be more unique than other genres on how it can be marketed. It is harder to manipulate, pimp and bling-out like Rap and R&B. Lee Morgan in one of his later interviews spoke about this very issue on how the mainstream media ignores Jazz. Lee said, “Jazz is a true thing, and it's got to be surrounded by truth. And they don't want to get into truth -- not when they can do something else and make just as much money.” Lee also stated that the truth of Jazz could get people in the habit of thinking. And it is very difficult to manipulate people when they think. Thus, Jazz will always be less commercial and as much as I don’t like it, I think we must understand that. Yet, as Lee also pointed out, classical music is not commercial music either. Tax dollars subsidize classical venues in every major city for symphony halls. (A great example is how a county bond was issued to help finance Disney Hall in Los Angeles.)
So why classical and not Jazz? Because classical is deemed worthy by those in power who then use the taxpayers to subsidize their taste. (Note: I play classical piano and love the genre dearly so I have no problem with classical music being nurtured. I just find it a crime that America’s own music, Jazz, is not given the same respect.) So Jazz is left on its own to thrive or perish.
Without the subsidy from the fancy elite, and although many may support the music personally (although I am unaware of any proposing a county bond to build a large Jazz Hall), Jazz is typically played in small clubs, hotel lounges, and festivals with a hit or miss type of consistency. I also believe that many of today's Jazz venues are overpriced. Not because many talented artists aren’t worth every penny they receive or more, but one has to look at what the consumer gets overall in the experience. With parking, drinks, and cover charges many people who would and could love Jazz simply cannot afford the luxury.
And what is the value added for this experience? You sit around at many of these places on your butt and feel no sense of community and for me at least, that affects the experience. The market dictates in Jazz just like anything else and that will spell trouble in a recession.
Contrast that to the Jazz venues of the past. Decades ago, when Blacks had less money and opportunity, their communities nevertheless had viable live music venues in every city. The big cities even had music districts located in the Black communities: Central Avenue here in Los Angeles, and the South Side of Chicago for example (the latter city had a club where my Mom still talks about meeting Duke Ellington). People would get dressed up, see a fancy floor show with several acts, dance, have fun with their neighbors and rub shoulders with the elite of the Black community. They could feel special on those nights as opposed to their lives during the week when they were discriminated against constantly and made to feel like crap. Were Jazz clubs worth the price of admission? You betcha. There’s your value added.
Where are these places now? Gone. Why? Because in sum, integration and the exodus of the higher socio-economic members of the Black community led to the demise of Black businesses. That 'choice' of being able to shop everywhere has killed us. There are actually those who think it is racist for Blacks to Buy Black, now how crazy and regressive is that? On the west side of LA there is an entire community filled with Jewish businesses, do these people think something is wrong with that? There is Koreatown, Chinatown, Greektown, and every Euro group you can think of with businesses in their own communities, downtown, uptown, all around town. Hispanics have their own businesses, often because of language and unique cultural tastes. But thanks to integration, the only Black businesses left are beauty shops, barber shops, and funeral homes...basically those strongly ethnic personal service businesses that non-Blacks have left for us to do for ourselves.
When we have no control over business decisions it affects our culture and self-determination. You can see this in the film industry in Hollywood. Blacks are powerless consumers and we are left to the whims of others making business decisions which often devalues who we are as a People.
Black music, whether it be gospel, Jazz, R&B, etc. is a part of the Black experience. It was how we expressed ourselves when we were not allowed to express ourselves in other ways. Gospel has a home in Black Christian churches. Where is the home for Jazz in the Black community? How can we expect others to love us more than we love ourselves? Case in point:
I had a conversation last year with a very prominent Jazz artist who is up in age now. He was telling me how gigs had become more scarce over the last decade because venues (the one example he gave was a high-end hotel in Beverly Hills) had changed hands and the new owners and management had decided that they did not want to book Jazz acts. And this was when the economy was strong. Entrepreneurs decide based on a variety of factors where they wish to invest and often their personal tastes will dictate these decisions.
As this economic recession deepens, business decisions continue to be made as to what is important and what is not. Business owners make decisions on how they desire to invest their money and will pull up and leave (or throw out a tenant) if something is not in their opinion a good investment.
We can make lemonade from this situation by going back and investing in ourselves and our own communities, where land has always been cheaper anyhow. The era of big and greedy has imploded. Their bubble has burst and I say good riddance. Many pundits have already predicted that the new growth will come from quality goods and services as our economic landscape changes. Shouldn't that bode well for quality live music?
It is time to bring our music home where it can be loved and appreciated. Real estate has always appreciated less and even depreciated in predominantly Black communities. Everyone else these days is just catching up to that way of life, to them I say welcome to the club. So prices will be lower, but you know what? Maybe it will serve to expose more people to live, non-canned music. Those who appreciate this will visit our communities and share in it just as they did decades ago. Things of substance may rise and decline, but they will not burst. Real is forever. Jazz is forever.
Postscript: In reflecting on how Jazz reflects truth, I am reminded of the recent revelation that American composer John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts," that beautiful classical piece played by the celebrated quartet at President Obama's inauguration was pre-recorded, coining in my mind a new term, "play-synched." The reason given was that the quality of the sound on such a large stage would have been diminished had the musicians performed live. And yet, imperfection proved perfection on Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" where Miles successfully argued to his producers not to edit out sounds of the squeaking floor and other rustlings which he felt were part of the process and thus a part of the music. Truth prevails.