The Unpopularity of Jazz: On the 90s Shift

Incredible interview by Rachel Olding with Branford Marsalis. The conclusion:

The more jazz has changed, the more Marsalis has gravitated towards classical music. It’s the reason he moved his young family to Durham, an artistic city in North Carolina, 10 years ago; the New York scene wasn’t inspiring anymore. (He’d also had enough of “New York living”, of five-year-olds calling adults by their first name).

Today’s jazz musicians are too mathematical and wonkish, he says. Jazz clubs are half empty, only frequented by other musicians who appreciate each other’s showmanship. Listeners need music degrees to understand what they’re playing. The music has become rigid. Improvisation is mostly over-rehearsed regurgitation.

“[I’m often asked] the question, ‘Jazz is so unpopular, why do you think that is?’ And the answer is simple: the musicians suck,” he says with typical subtlety.

He says the shift started in the ’90s and I can’t help but think the Marsalis family was not immune. While they still wield incredible clout, nothing can compare to the two decades in which Wynton and his siblings seemed to rule the jazz universe. In 2003, the music critic David Hajdu stumbled upon Wynton playing as a sideman with a band in a near-empty jazz club in New York, and wrote a piece in the Atlantic (tartly titled “Wynton’s Blues”) hypothesising that Wynton’s stifling orthodoxy and nostalgia was partly to blame for both his and jazz’s dwindling relevance.

It’s nevertheless hard to see that Branford Marsalis is slowing down in any way. Not in the flood of opinions he wants to impart. Nor in his commitment to improving music or lifting standards. Not in the pace and scope of his work, nor with that bottle of red wine. And especially not with the tempo of Thelonius Monk.

Help us, O prog rock, you’re our only hope… 

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