Is More Better?: Programming Pop Music At Jazz Festivals


The following was written in response to a request from Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen for David Liebman’s views on the direction that Molde and other festivals are taking. As such, it fits into the theme of this issue: where jazz is now:

One can be pretty sure that at some point in the adult life cycle, a mid-life crisis of sorts will occur. It’s a time when one stands on the precipice between a life full of accomplishments (at least to some degree) and the impending challenge of how to grow old gracefully. This is when the distance between long time desires and present reality is measured. The anxiety that accompanies this passage of life is notorious and well documented. Sometimes the remedies one applies may be impulsive or possibly even irrational, but hopefully all works out in the end and one’s future probably doesn’t change much at all.

On several fronts, jazz is going through a mid-life crisis. It can hardly be denied that while interesting combinations of eclectic influences are producing some viable new directions, the emphasis on retro and neo-classic jazz suggests a waning of the innovative energy which jazz enjoyed for quite a long stretch. This can be compared to other art forms at similar points in their development: after the necessary and exciting initial burst of creative fire comes a time of absorption, then retrenchment, then hopefully rebirth. This is a subject which can and should be discussed constantly.

However, a performing art such as jazz actually takes place in the real world and demonstrates every day the working out of the artistic process. From the very important standpoint of who is listening and supporting jazz, there seems to be a loss of confidence as to what we are all about, and our role in contemporary culture. This is reminiscent of a personal mid-life crisis.

Specifically, the question is why more and more classic jazz festivals have abandoned their birthright. They have adopted an attitude of ‘more is better’ and show a compulsive desire to have ‘change for change’s sake’. There is a desire to attract larger audiences, therefore having by necessity to offer more and more well know (and usually pop oriented) acts. It doesn’t take a genius to equate mass appeal with higher income potential- although even that is not an ironclad argument given the high overhead of hiring such performers.

Yes: if pure greed is the motivation one cannot argue with pop appeal. But is jazz a money making machine? Was this ever part of the equation? Those who love the music do so because of the need for reasons that have to do with any great and subtle art-the quest for beauty and honesty of emotions combined with sublime thought. Jazz artists themselves are a very unpretentious group of human beings-almost always self effacing and humbled by the music and its legacy. Why are we competing with a completely different life form-that is the mass appeal entertainer?

Those who make the decisions have abdicated responsibility and are giving in to the simple and easy pull of society’s more base instincts, which have and always will be the desire for power and prestige through making money. We who are aware of this shouldn’t let this ‘more is better’ philosophy subsume our ethic. This is happening all over the world!

There will be those who agree with this reasoning but point to dwindling public subsidies and the need for corporate sponsors which predicates a booking policy geared towards mass appeal. This is not the place to detail how, for example, instead of one mega festival we could have several smaller ones spread out over time and place. Or how to keep the pop and jazz field both operating but not in the same venue at the same time. And so on…

It seems to me that with the kind of sophisticated intellect commonly associated with the typical jazz fan and enthusiast (especially in Europe), we could figure out how to cope with the changing situation. But we must be confident in who we are and what we represent. If we doubt these basic assumptions about the mission of jazz and our role in accomplishing these goals, then we are only operating from a weak and continually threatened position.

It’s really simple and, once again, related to any personal crisis of doubt and misgivings one may experience in life. Realize and accept what you are where you come from and what you truly want-and move on from there. Good Luck.