[Portrait of Jimmy Jones, John (O.) Levy, and Al Casey(?), Pied Piper, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947] (LOC)

Portrait of Jimmy Jones, John (O.) Levy, and Al Casey(?), Pied Piper, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947 | Library of Congress

My earliest memories of attending live jazz events as a child include my father taking me to hear alto horn player Dick Carey at a club in LA, and an outdoor jazz festival with hundreds of Hawaiian-shirt clad middle-aged people swaying to the grooves on stage. For the past 3 years, I’ve spent a good deal of time in the jazz world, and the audiences in these settings always seem so different from the classical music audiences I’ve been accustomed to. Every time I go to a show, I look around and wonder, “Who are these people who come to hear live jazz?”


Apparently, presenters, musicians, managers, promoters, and journalists spend a lot of time pondering the same question – along with another one: “Who are the people who might be enticed to hear live jazz but aren’t participating yet?” I was curious to explore the unique world of jazz audience development around the U.S, and what might be a shared vision across the jazz community for engaging listeners.


To understand who listens to jazz now (and who doesn’t), we should really start with a few watershed moments from the history of jazz in the last century.

Jazz Shifts to Whiter Audiences

[Portrait of James P. (James Price) Johnson, Albert Nicholas, Johnny Windhurst, Marty Marsala, Sandy Williams, and Danny Alvin, Webster Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1947] (LOC)

Portrait of James P. (James Price) Johnson, Albert Nicholas, Johnny Windhurst, Marty Marsala, Sandy Williams, and Danny Alvin, Webster Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1947 | Library of Congress

In the early 1900s, Dixieland Jazz (aka Ragtime and New Orleans Jazz) became popular with white listeners as millions of white families enjoyed musicians like Scott Joplin and purchased sheet music to play his tunes on their home pianos. The invention of the phonograph continued this trend, as people across the United States heard the sounds of blues songs from the South in the early 1920s.

Prohibition also played a role in attracting white audiences. Venues that served alcohol featured jazz ensembles such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, drawing both white and black audiences from all social classes (check out more about the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance here).

Jazz Shifts to Wider Audiences Through Recording Technology

Millions more Americans gained access to the genre through frequency modulated (FM) radio in 1933, and to full-length jazz records with the introduction of the long playing record (LPR) in 1948.

Jazz Shifts to the Major Stages, Effectively Becoming More “Legitimized” as an Art Form

With Benny Goodman’s performance at Carnegie Hall in 1938, jazz began to shift from underground venues to widely-respected concert halls, where people would pay more money to hear their favorite jazz musicians of the time.

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman | image by Heinrich Klaffs

Jazz Becomes Academic

In 1945, Lawrence Berk founded a school (currently known as the Berklee College of Music) to teach jazz, the popular music of the time. More schools began to offer jazz throughout the 1950s-1980s, creating a new community of students as audience members and an educational tradition of the genre.

But really, it was the music itself that attracted more listeners. As a PBS article explains, “Jazz was different because it broke the rules — musical and social. It featured improvisation over traditional structure, performer over composer, and black American experience over conventional white sensibilities.”

Jazz Popularity Grows

During the 1980s, jazz maintained widespread popularity. A 1992 study by the NEA explains the statistical trends in jazz audiences during this time:

“The potential audience for jazz has grown significantly. About one-third of American adults (up from 26 percent in 1982) reported that they “liked jazz,” and about 5 percent (up from 3 percent in 1982) reported that they liked jazz “best of all” musical genres. In 1992, 25 percent of adult Americans expressed a desire to attend jazz performances… compared with 18 percent in 1982.”

The Jazz Audience Downturn

From 2002-2008, the genre has suffered a serious downturn in audiences. According to the most recent NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the proportion of Americans attending live jazz events dropped precipitously between 2002 and 2008, and the percent of people reporting “liking” jazz dropped from 34% in 1992 to 24.2% in 2008. While people now seemingly have a myriad of ways to access jazz (online, in major and small venues, through schools, on jazz radio and Pandora, to name a few), the figures in this study are the lowest ever recorded.

Creatively Capturing New Audiences

Faced with this shifting landscape, the jazz community is starting to experiment with new approaches in hopes of broadening the music’s reach. For this article, I spoke with presenters, musicians, managers, promoters, and journalists to hear what they’re doing or seeing to creatively invite people to explore and indulge in this fascinating world of improvisation.


A Presenter

Brass, Bows and Beats at Palace of Fine Arts

Brass, Bows and Beats at Palace of Fine Arts | image by Jazz Mafia

One organization that is taking a multi-tiered approach to reaching new audiences is SFJAZZ in San Francisco. Executive Director Randall Kline graciously allowed me to barrage him with questions so that I could learn a little more about his strategies and motives.

One of SFJAZZ’s motives is to reach younger audiences. Pointing to the work of Alan Brown and the research of the NEA, Kline underscored the need to tap into younger audiences if we want jazz to have an audience in the future. However, Kline’s vision reaches beyond the self-interested goal of a presenter to simply build a future audience. “Jazz is a reference point for contemporary culture,” explained Kline. He believes that jazz has a freedom and energy which people can relate to, and he wants to share his passion for this art form by inviting more people to access it in a highly engaging way.

The SFJAZZ Collective is a prime example of how SFJAZZ is innovating with programming and promotion to attract new audiences. Each year, SFJAZZ commissions the 8 members of this performer-composer collective to write one original piece and one arrangement of a single composer, resulting in 16 pieces each year. This year — with Kline’s encouragement –the arranged composer was Stevie Wonder, and it’s no wonder that the live shows were well-attended. While I wasn’t able to obtain overall ticket sale statistics, every night of the band’s Jazz Standard appearances with this program in New York City was sold out in March 2011.

Kline’s matchmaking of the SFJAZZ Collective and Jack Conte — half of the YouTube sensation Pomplamoose — afforded an opportunity to tap into current social media for promotion. Conte recorded a video song of the SFJAZZ Collective playing Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” at his home recording studio and used his YouTube channel to post the video, which has received about 53,500 hits at the time of this posting. Not only was the collaboration a successful foray into using YouTube for promotional strategy, it also connected musicians from different genres. As bassist Matt Penman explained: “It was great to work with someone we admired in a different genre, like Jack, who has become a YouTube star through great music and harnessing a piece of the zeitgeist. It all helps the band reach out to people who haven’t been able to get to a live gig.”

In the spirit of staying current with the interests of young audiences, Kline also mentioned the possibility of offering shorter programs for people who may not want to commit to a 90-minute or 2 hour performance. SFJAZZ has also worked to reach more locals by presenting music at their bars and venues. So far, SFJAZZ doesn’t have statistics for how many of its tickets are being purchased by younger audiences. Nor is there sufficient data as to how many of those young bar patrons actually come to an SFJAZZ concert. However, Kline believes that if you bring the people to you, and program music that people want to hear, you can get more young people engaging with jazz.

SFJAZZ is trying to do just that by building a $60 million venue that will be the first “stand-alone” jazz space in the U.S, as well as the first large-scale jazz venue on the West Coast. Featuring a flexible-seating concert hall, a black-box theater, digital learning lab, practice rooms, and a street-level cafe, the design of the new space is testament to the lengths SFJAZZ will go to ensure that the organization can stay as current and approachable to the community as possible. Kline explains his vision and more about the design in a Wall Street Journal article: There are “cup holders to help concertgoers feel more like they’re in a club; movable seating [for dancing]; high-end coffee served in the café daily starting at 7 a.m.” “It must be open for breakfast!” Kline insisted of the café, “not just when there’s a concert. Make it a community place where people want to hang.”


The Internet

While institutions like SFJAZZ focus on bringing people to live events, there is a parallel push across the jazz world to drive potential listeners to the internet. Innovative promotional organizations like Search and Restore have emerged to create community both in venues and on the internet. “Dedicated to developing and uniting the audience for new jazz music,” Search and Restore “organize[s] concerts and festivals, as well as [a] website which currently serves as a home for concert listings for the jazz scene in New York City.” Founder Adam Schatz recently secured $75,000 on a Kickstarter campaign to bolster the site with video of jazz performances. Why is he doing all of this? He wonders why the jazz concerts he loves don’t attract the same audiences as the rock shows he attends, when some jazz performances are just as edgy, groovy, and provocative as the rock scene. Schatz wants to create an experience, a community of listeners, of jazz lovers, regardless of age or background. As he described in a New York Times article, “’My mission is to bring people together around art[.] We don’t care who you are or how old you are. We just want you to get down.’” Is he successful? Well, that has yet to be seen in terms of statistics. But he thinks so: “I see the same people come to my shows, I know they’re there for Search and Restore, and that’s what excites me.”

Alex Rodriguez from radio station WBGO explained what this balance of radio listenership and internet engagement means for WBGO. On the one hand, the station wants to meet the needs and interests of its listeners, which Rodriguez explained is mainly an over-40 African American audience. To attract new listeners, WBGO combines advocacy for jazz programming with a local outreach news department that deals with communities in Newark and throughout New Jersey. Rodriguez believes that by cultivating local community, the radio has increased its listenership. On the other hand, when WBGO received a grant to open a second content stream over HD radio and the web, Rodriguez was asked to help keep the content fresh, manage the blog, and develop new content initiatives. The goal of this online content stream is to drive more listeners to the internet to discover new and emerging artists, as well as to participate interactively in learning about the artists they’re listening to.

Venues are also exploring how the internet can be useful in inviting people to their spaces to hear jazz. Smalls Jazz Club has even gone so far as to set up a live videocast of its performances. From 7:30pm onward on show nights, Smalls streams the gigs live from a small camera in the ceiling. While the experience of watching the show from what looks like a security camera may feel slightly voyeuristic, it is certainly a wonderful opportunity for people to watch live jazz if they can’t attend in person. (Perhaps one note of caution if you happen to be at Smalls sitting at the bar: watch what you say. The camera stays on during the breaks, and yes, you can hear people’s bar conversations online!)


Jazz festival

Image by woodleywonderworks

Education is as relevant – if not more so – to audience engagement as innovative promotion and marketing. Pianist Vijay Iyer describes the significance of exposure to jazz through education in his Jazz Times article:

“The question boils down not to accessibility, but to access. How do people find this music today? They might hear a little about it on NPR, or they might find it on YouTube, or they might notice the very capable improvisers backing up Beyoncé or Maxwell. But, most obviously, young people are discovering jazz by playing it, enrolling in high school and college jazz programs.”

Synonymous with jazz education, Jazz at Lincoln Center has been inviting people into its home to experience jazz since 2000. If you look at the website for JALC, the list of ways to participate is awe-inspiring in its scope. No matter what age you are or background you come from, JALC has a way for you to experience jazz. Director of Education Erika Floreska kindly agreed to interview for this blog.

Clearly, JALC is positioned to have a huge influence on the way we access jazz. While the marketing department focuses on getting people in seats, the education department is focused more on giving people a rich experience with jazz. The education department reaches people of all ages and backgrounds, from very young children in its WeBop! program, to students and teachers in its performance and appreciation programs, to adults in its continuing education programs.

For JALC, audience development is less about building the next professional jazz musician and more about giving people an opportunity to relate to jazz in multiple ways. Some of these avenues for engagement, according to Floreska, include connecting improvisation to daily life and living, relating to the musicians’ lives and personalities, providing opportunities to experience the culture and social environment of jazz, understanding the history of our country through the lens of jazz, and emphasizing the storytelling element of the performances.

JALC wants to give even the youngest in the NYC community a chance to engage with jazz through its WeBop!program, to children as young as 8 months. Each week, 200 families come to take classes. There’s no advertising, so this number of participants is quite high. Floreska explained that the program is substantive and fun for both children and their parents. But most importantly, this program helps parents identify how their children respond to music, so that they can continue the learning at home and support their children’s continued music making.

While it may not be clear how many of the students grow up to be subscribers to jazz concert series, JALC can track which students graduate through WeBop! and move up through classes sequentially, so the organization understands how many kids are going through the program and coming into the halls to hear jazz.

Floreska considers the most innovative program at JALC — at least in terms of its reach — to be Essentially Ellington. Every year, JALC distributes transcribed charts of the Duke Ellington Orchestra to high school bands around the United States and abroad (96,000 copies of 92 previously unavailable scores have been produced), and has currently reached over 330,000 students. All of the participating bands may enter a recording for a competition, in which selected bands participate in workshops in their communities across North America and as finalists in a three-day festival in New York City.

This year, Essentially Ellington initiated a successful webcasting and social media campaign, connecting both to the home communities of the 16 finalist bands, as well as across the world. A live webcast of the annual competition weekend drew hundreds of consistent viewers from all 50 states and Puerto Rico as well as 51 countries, with the help of Starbucks via a tweet to its 1.5 million followers.

At JALC, engaging audiences means not only younger audiences, but all audiences. JALC wants to reach everyone, because as Floreska explains, jazz can bolster our ability to be creative citizens. From the education standpoint, Floreska explained that it’s not just the ticket sales they’re interested in, it’s the quality of engagement, which is oftentimes far more elusive to capture in assessment data. (For more information on research in jazz engagement, check out Jazz Audiences Initiative, which is setting out to “tackle fundamental questions about how and why people engage with jazz.”) When we evaluate what kind of learning is happening in these jazz settings, we can have a better understanding of how to keep those people coming back for more and richer experiences with jazz in the future.


Salt Lake City Jazz Festival 2010

Salt Lake City Jazz Festival 2010 | image by Jeremy Franklin

From every conversation I had, it seemed that creating a supportive and engaging community in which people can experience jazz must be the goal, not only to increase ticket sales, but to enrich people’s lives by experiencing jazz in meaningful ways. Wycliffe Gordon explains the importance of building community in his article “Megaphone: No Place Like Harlem” in the May 2011 New York City Jazz Record. “The Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival is presented by the Apollo Theater, Harlem Stage and Jazzmobile. Isn’t it wonderful that three competing arts organizations have united to sponsor a festival? … Like Harlem of yesterday, people can go from place to place to hear jazz all night long.”

It may not take developing a brand new building, but if we want to grow our audiences, we need to create environments in which people can connect not only to the music itself, but to an accessible community of people who share a love for or interest in the world of improvisation.


To learn more about other organizations around the country that are actively engaging new — and very young — audiences in jazz, click on the links below.

Jazz House Kids in New Jersey is a creative space for young people to explore the world of jazz and learn about improvisation in life by working with professional jazz musicians and educators. Christian McBride is on the board of directors.

The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s Jazz Alive Program (Orbert Davis, Artistic Director) brings jazz to inner-city kids in Chicago on a linear track from Kindergarten to high school.

Jazz St. Louis has brought jazz to over 90,000 students through multiple education programs in the St. Louis area.

Jazz Arts Group in Columbus, Ohio offers a myriad of ways for diverse populations to access jazz. Jazz Audience Initiative (mentioned above) is a project of Jazz Arts Group.

Jazz Standard Discovery Program: The Jazz Standard, the New York City jazz club, presents an ensemble of young jazz musicians on Sundays as a way to connect schoolchildren to jazz.