This is my first entry in a co-blogging project with my friend and fellow blogger Will C. White, who also happens to be the assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. You can read Will's initial entry, which discussed Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, on his eponymous blog. This is my response.
Fascinating that you should write that jazz is "more fetishized as a commodity" than classical music, and that you think that everyone from "elderly black people in the suburbs [to] the Williamsburg-Wicker Park-Silver Lake set can make their friends think they’re hip when they play Miles or Ella at their backyard picnic." I don't see it that way at all, but I've noticed before that the jazz and classical crowds, equally marginalized in the mainstream, tend to look hungrily at one another and think, "if only I had it like they did." Alex Ross got at this in a New Yorker essay when he talked about his envy for jazz people who referred to their chosen genre simply as "the music" while his chosen genre got saddled with the eternally unhip moniker "classical." He also noted that some in jazz were equally envious, craving the respectability of the term "classical" while wanting to ditch the almost-entirely-lost New Orleans–whorehouse connotations of "jazz."
In truth, I think our lots are just about equal. Jazz might appeal to a larger cultural base than classical music, but classical has been more successful at crossing over into indie culture over the past five to ten years. Nico Muhly has collaborated with Grizzly Bear, after all, while even the most forward-looking jazzmen get stuck as Mos Def's backing band. There might be more jazz musicians than classical musicians concerned with making defiantly modern music—people like Darcy James Argue and Guillermo Klein and Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran—but I don't think any of them have yet landed the kind of quasi-mainstream wallop that Nico and his crew or even, heck, Terry Riley have managed.
But when we speak of the classical and jazz audience, the big difference has to do with the kind of venues in which the two currently are performed. Outside of Wynton's Jazz at Lincoln Center, jazz doesn't operate on the institutional model. Let's put the difference this way: The most famous venue in American classical music is Carnegie Hall. The Chairman of Carnegie Hall is Sandy Weill, who was CEO of Citicorp when it merged with Traveler's Group in 1998. (That's the mega-merger that got Congress to overturn the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act—a decision that played a big role in the economic mess of the last three years. Oh, and Sandy Weill once bribed a nursery school.) Anyway, the most famous venue in American jazz is the Village Vanguard, which has no chairman and, over the course of its 76 year history, has been run by a hard-driving Lithuanian immigrant and, since his death in 1989, his equally hard-driving widow. Sandy Weill and his crowd have no doubt spent plenty of evenings at the classical music halls of America listening or, as you aptly put it, not listening to music. I doubt many of them have set foot in a jazz club, at least not since they rose far into the 1%.
So I don't see the so-called economic capitalistas playing much of a role in jazz, but I'm not naive enough to think that that amounts to a triumph of pure taste. A visit on any night to that very same Village Vanguard would reveal plenty of people who are there for reasons other than to hear the group onstage. There are couples on a third or fourth date who want to do something "different"; there are tourists who flock to jazz clubs in New York the way tourists go to, say, tango clubs in Buenos Aires ("it's a cultural experience!"); and there are old jazz fans who haven't heard an album since Stan Getz and Strings and think it might be kind of fun to drink wine and listen to live music. It's really easy to condescend to these people (as I just did), but the truth is that we desperately need all of them. Part of having a missionary's zeal—something we share—means welcoming all into the church and hoping they find God while they're there.
Outside of a potentially decent date, then, does listening to jazz have any social function at all? The clubs are small. They're far removed from the non-profit gala-benefit set. And most of the novices are extremely unlikely to run into anyone they know. If I wanted to establish myself as a high-status college white-boy, I'd probably do better to listen to either indie-rock, socially conscious rap, or some combination there of. If I wanted to establish myself as a complete eccentric, I might want to listen to, oh, I don't know, classical music or, better yet, Celine Dion. If I wanted to fit in with a more mainstream crowd, I'd listen to anything but jazz.
I don't doubt that my lifelong preference for jazz has deep social roots, but I'm having trouble seeing what they are. I've always been attracted to grand American projects, things that are both forward-looking and deeply obsessed with their histories—things like baseball and long-form magazine journalism and, yes, jazz. But those preferences reveal a pattern not a cause. There's something that draws me to all of them, and I have some theories, but I'm pretty sure they're all bunk.
So, Maestro, maybe you play the analyst on this next one. What drew you to classical music in the first place? How do you see your own attachment to it in a social context? And, you have my eager permission, can you solve the mystery of my attachment to jazz? (Maybe you see it far more clearly and un-mysteriously than I do.)