What Is the Future of Jazz in New York?

A nighttime look at 52nd Street, former hotbed of jazz, circa 1948. (Photo by William P. Gottlieb)
A nighttime look at 52nd Street, former hotbed of jazz, circa 1948. (Photo by William P. Gottlieb) Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Being a jazz musician in New York City has never been easy. For most of its century-long existence, jazz has gotten by on the margins, and so have those who’ve played it. But the gloomy consensus last night in a panel discussion at the CUNY Graduate Center was that being a jazz musician in the city has never been harder.

“In every decade, New York has welcomed, housed and encouraged jazz,” said Gary Giddins, a former jazz critic for The Village Voice and the director of CUNY’s Leon Levy Center for Biography. Now, Mr. Giddins noted, that no longer seems to be the case. 

Mr. Giddins was moderating a talk called “Jazz and New York: A Fragile Economy” in the Proshansky Auditorium. It featured the pianist Jason Moran, Motéma Music founder Jana Herzen and Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of the Tisch School of the Arts. The audience skewed old, white and male—a pretty good representation of the kind of listeners jazz attracts. (Make of that what you will.)

There are any number of reasons why jazz might not have the same foothold in the city’s cultural milieu as it once did. Venues, for instance, are disappearing, rents are rising, critics are being cut from newspapers and the recording industry is in flux.

Mr. Giddins pointed to particular periods when the city’s cultural infrastructure supported a thriving jazz scene, like the bebop era of the 1940s and the 1970s loft scene, an economically trying time for musicians but also an artistically rich one for music. (See Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D.) What was it about, say, the loft scene that fostered—and allowed—such creativity?

“It’s a real paradox,” Ms. Campbell said. “New York was on the verge of bankruptcy then, so there was abandoned real estate and artists could squat and lay claim to that.”

“The poverty of the city,” she added, “in an ironic way, worked to the advantage of artists.”

So, what can be done now to help artists? “Whatever model we had in the past doesn’t work because we have a different city,” Ms. Campbell said, suggesting that subsidized low-income housing might help musicians find their way. (The unacknowledged fact was that there are more jazz musicians than ever before, so providing affordable housing would be difficult.)

The panel wondered how affordable venues might be created in the city. Mr. Giddins recalled learning from Max Gordon, the late founder of the Village Vanguard, that upscale clubs in Manhattan are priced toward German and Japanese tourists, which makes jazz in the city especially forbidding to younger musicians who would benefit from seeing it. (Venues in Brooklyn, like Shapeshifter Lab and IBeam, offer less pricey shows.)

While discussing record sales, Ms. Herzen said that “developing artists” on her label might only sell 200 to 300 albums in a year. But when asked how important the recording industry is to a working jazz musician, Mr. Moran, as well-established as any jazz musician out there, noted that he’s never made any money from his albums anyway. Playing in front of audiences, he added, is where the bulk of his finances comes from.

By the end of the talk, it was clear that New York is not an especially accommodating place for jazz musicians, but it still somehow remains the world’s jazz hub. (Another paradox?)

Mr. Moran, who moved to New York in the early 1990s, said that the city, to him, “always seemed an impossible place to live.” He still tells musicians to move here regardless. “People who are curious about jazz and what it sounds like have to come to the city and hear it.”

“Fresh, ignorant knowledge,” he said, keeps the art alive. Mr. Moran recalled walking down Houston Street one evening in the 1990s, rounding a corner and happening upon the musician Cecil Taylor, who was, much to Mr. Moran’s surprise, playing piano with a Japanese dancer in the middle of a closed-off street.

“And this was free,” Mr. Moran said. “That was why I came to the city.”

What Is the Future of Jazz in New York?