Is Jazz a Young Person's Music After All?

A week ago, I went to see Chris Potter lead a top-notch quintet at the Jazz Standard. It was a great set. Potter’s big tenor-sax sound keeps getting more swinging, more virtuosic, yet at the same time tonally subtler. Joining him were Steve Nelson on vibes, Paul Motian on drums, Craig Taborn on piano, and Scott Colley on bass. Potter was smiling a lot during their solos, as if he couldn’t quite believe that he’d assembled such a crew.

But that’s not what I want to write about. I want to write about the fact that the set was jam-packed, and with more young people—including young women, in their early to mid 20s—than I’ve ever seen at this or any of New York City’s other major jazz clubs. Some of these people were familiar with jazz, even with Potter; others clearly were not. But they all seemed to be enjoying it; they were quiet—as quiet as any jazz crowd I’ve been in lately—and very appreciative with their applause.

What was going on here? The answer: The cover charge was just $15, about half the Standard’s usual fare. The set was part of the CareFusion Jazz Festival, which was going on all over town, some of it at places like Carnegie Hall, some at places like the Standard. The festival’s organizer, George Wein, made a deal with the clubs: He would pay for the musicians; the clubs could keep all the door fees, as long as they charged no more than $15. A very good deal for all concerned.

As a result, young people flocked. Maybe it’s not true that the new generation doesn’t like jazz; maybe they just find it too expensive.

The critic Gary Giddins tells me that, when he took the Long Island Railroad into the city to go to the Village Vanguard as a teenager in the late ‘60s, the cover was $2.50. Adjusting for inflation, $2.50 in 1969 is the same as just a little under $15 in 2009.

I don’t know what to do about this. Obviously, George Wein (or some jazz-loving millionaire) can’t subsidize clubs like this all the time. But what if some clubs held a jam session, or a player’s or composer’s series, one late set, one night a week, for a much-reduced cover? (Barbes in Brooklyn, which holds 30 people, who each put $10 in a jar that’s passed around, attracts excellent musicians, who use the forum to try out new material.)

Maybe young people would find out that they like this thing called jazz and, once they had a bit more money, they’ll come back.

RG's picture

It's about the chicks! Chicks are getting hip to the fact that jazz nerds are easy marks. Free drinks all night. Jazz nerds don't mind. They like chicks better than jazz. :-)

Jim Tavegia's picture

I work with a young teacher, low 30's, who is a self proclaimed music expert...just ask him. So he asked me what I listened to and brought him some discs of Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Rene Rosnes, Michel Camilo, Monk, Chick Corea, Shelly Berg, Nicholas Peyton, and Elaine Elias. He didn't care for any of it. He sure loves playing games on his PS3 and thought the Grammy's were great.

Fred Kaplan's picture

Jeez, Jim, I didn't say that ALL young people like jazz. I'm sure you can find a lot of fogeys who don't like Miles Davis either. And by the way how you can write "Miles Davis" and "David Sanborn" in the same sentence is beyond me. If he played the Sanborn first, I don't blame the young teacher for shrugging.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I was only giving him a chance to land on anything, which he just could not seem to do. I also think Kind Of Blue will stand the test of time. If the current pop music is HIS thing, I guess I understand. Music is ART...eash to his own. I can certainly stand David Sanborn more than most of the current pop.

JP Smith's picture

Like Gary I also remember going to the Vanguard, Slug's on East 3rd, the Village Gate and the Five Spot back in the 60s and five bucks would cover your way in and the one-drink minimum (though I was underage at the time; no one much cared).

Fred Kaplan's picture

There still are some jazz clubs that charge very little. I mentioned Barbes. There's also Small's and Fat Cat in the West Village. They generally don't have big names, though they often get some very good musicians. The places are very small, so they can hold only so many people. But I see young people - I mean men and women in their 20s - quite a lot.

Jerry's picture

I think the 20-somethings truly WANT to understand what this jazz stuff is all about, but in the end, like the man said, its about the chicks. I would also add, the alcohol, and looking good. I'm WAY too cynical to believe that they're sincere--or even sentient.

A_young_guy's picture

Hmmm, I'm wondering if young people are stigmatized in this article and in some reactions? I really don't think the price has anything to do with personal preferences. If you love a certain style of music, there's nothing to do about it (and I want to add "De gustibus et coloribus non disputandum")!I know people paying hundreds of dollars to go to a rock festival, to disco's et cetera - I wouldn't even go there for free or for money.BUT I would pay to go and see good jazz musicians. Jazz musicians have to live too and if you compare the money jazz (or classical) musicians get in comparison to some rock stars who don't know anything about music, can't sing... I think money is not the issue.Mainstream music (mostly very bad music I think) will always pleasure the "plebs", whatever age they have!And alcohol or good looks haven't a lot to do with age in my opinion.And about seeing young people: if you look good enough, you will see young people...

Nick's picture

It is funny you mention this, was about to email you the same observation. This past weekend my girlfriend and I took several shows at the Montreal Jazz Festival. We saw Sonny Rollins (brilliant! was moved by his performance), Herbie Hancock and Roy Hargrove and his big band. Since I had very good seats I would turn around and look at who was in the audience and was surprised to see the younger generation amptly represented at all three shows. The younger generation will always break from the norm and seek "new" forms of music, be it classical jazz or any other style that they are not accustomed to, not all of them will do this but some. This is what I did when I was in high school 20 years ago.

Paul S.'s picture

Well I got into Jazz in my early 20s and this was back in the early 90s. It wasn't easy at the time because the internet wasn't widely available at the time so you had to go to the record stores[remember those?] and "guess." So there are young people out there who like jazz. I must say though that I have yet to find a young female who likes jazz so I would consider their presence in the clubs to be suspect. In my experience woman generally hate jazz. More than one has told me that jazz gives them a headache and they don't get the point. But then maybe I haven't met the right women.

David F's picture

Fred: has anyone figured out how they pulled off the Undead festival last month? Tons of young people were there. I usually see kids when I'm in a NY club with the usual cover charge etc. and at Monterey each year despite the price. I think there is a core who always find a way to what they want to hear but there is no doubt there are not enough events or venues with more attractive prices. Of course, I think every fan has to be willing to sacrifice a bit to support the music.

Nathan's picture

I went to the Stone to see Ribot and Greg Cohen this past Tuesday and paid $10. I'm 27, and there was a good number of 20 somethin's in attendance too. In my experience, anyone I know (my age) who is seriously into music likes jazz, although none of them would say that jazz is there favorite genre.

Max's picture

most of today's jazz has omitted one of its key elements it had till the seventies: provocation, aggression, the will to push the aesthetic envelope.not only since marsailis the genre has turned inwards, conservative and predictable. it's a pity.there are few musicians willing to go beyond the pleasing john zorn of course, weasel walter, bands like ahleuchatistas but also the quiet-snobs on the other end of the spectrum: marcin wasilewski, mat maneri etc. esbjörn svensson trio was the last band that did everything right. rip!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Jazz performances at the Fat Cat (cover charge is $3) consistently blow me away. I feel like the luckiest, most spoiled dude in the world every time I'm there.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Oh: And, at 32, I'm usually one of the oldest people at the Fat Cat. The crowd there makes me feel like an old-timer

Jason Parker's picture

The most successful shows I've played in the last year have been at a club that never charges a cover. I have been able to attract tons of new fans, both young and not-so-young, and make money by using a "Pay-what-you-want" model for admission and for my CDs. I firmly believe that if you're playing great music and you take away the barriers between yourself and your potential audience it'll work. You just have to trust that audience to put a fair value on your services. So far I have found that folks are willing to give us money after they get a chance to dig our music.

Dan Clanton's picture

My wife and I saw a great show at the Blue Room in Kansas City. Charles Williams w/Cheyenne Melton & Ron Gutierrez were there, and the cover: $15, which is more than usual, but still affordable. And there were lots of younger listeners. The lesson: great music can be found at great venues with a wide range of listeners for not much moolah. And, as a result, Jazz will continue.

jamesnyc's picture

what you don't realize is that most of these clubs, the musicians are only paid what is in that jar and maybe a beer or 2. Musicians gots to eat you know?You can only be a jazz martyr for so long before the need to make your rent kicks in.

Michael Marks's picture

Hey, there is a great club in Marlboro NY, about and hour and a half from nyc called the Falcon. The falcon has a "pay what you want" motto and has had some awesome artists on their schedule like Brad Mehldau, Marc Ribot, John Scofield, Jack Dejohnette, Joe Lovano, Dave Leibman, Sexmob, and tons of other hip stuff. The Falcon is a real Treasure, and i think my favorite club in the world. Check out their site

Ken's picture

When the subject is expanding the jazz audience, what I want to know is how to get more black people into the clubs. The music is part of their heritage, not to mention that jazz cats, even at their worst, have usually known how to carry themselves in a way that puts their musically impoverished rapper brethren to shame.

Greg Philip's picture

If he played the Sanborn first, I don't blame the young teacher for shrugging. David Sanborn has done some work with Tim Berne and John Zorn on different recordings which can show his ability to be heard in a different context. Tickets for shows certainly have different price ranges. Perhaps, the individual will need to research the many offerings of live performances and conclude with cost effective results.

Rob Alley's picture

I agree Fred. Some of the most sought after jazz musicians have been playing at The 55 Bar in Greenwich Village for around $5 cover for a long time. I've seen Kenny Wolleson, Larry Grenadier, Steve Cardenas, etc. there myself. The average age of patrons is usually mid-twenties. I don't, however, think the musicians get paid much there. But they get to play what they want and hone their craft in preparation for Europe and the summer festivals, which are, of course, the bread and butter gigs. Thanks for writing.

CL Chan's picture

It is interesting to learn how marginalised Jazz is in its country of origin. Maybe it's because it's over-studied, intellectualised. In many parts of Europe, UK and Japan, jazz draws on a much wider audience. There's also the club based the "acid jazz" of the 90s scene and current "club jazz" scenes, which have always attracted the "young 'uns" to the music. (I have personally witnessed the incredible 600 or so kids of both sexes freestylin’ to Blakey's "A night in Tunisia" and Coltrane's "Giant Steps"!)The current intn'l jazz scene also spawn a varied and youthful live scene, esp. in the Nordic countries and Japan. Acts such as Bugge Wessletoft, Five Corners Quintet, Sleepwalker, Matthew Shipp, Robert Glasper and the late e.s.t. keep the message alive for jazzheads, with the under 30s as its majority. Check out labels like Ricky Tick, ACT, online radio programmes like Gilles Peterson Worldwide where Pharoah Sanders rubs shoulders with Hypnotic Brass Ensemble or Nathan Davis with Erykah Badu.

CL Chan's picture

FYI, Here's setlist of one of Gilles Peterson's showOmar Khorshid – Rakset El FadaaConfluence – DakkaPhilippe Bezombes – La Ville Quinteto Villalobos – ReflexosGeraldo Vandre – SarabandaJorge Mautner – Maracatu Atomico Erasmo Carlos – CapoeiradaOs Tincoas – Quem Vem LaModulo Quatro – SalpicandoBandinha De Pifando – Cavalinho CavalaoAlfredo Gutierrez – Guadalupe No VaMensah’s Africa Rhythms – Save MeGuy Lafitte – Jambo The Gale Belle Quartet – Taste Of Honey Kenny Clarke & Francy Boland Clarke – Un Graso de Areia Ethel Ennis – Who Will BuyCharlie Mingus – Love ChantDorothy Ellis – Must Go Out And PlayAmos Milburn – One Scotch, One Burbon, One BeerThe Noc-A-Bouts – Jungle SafariGean Thompson And The Counts – You Don’t Love MeIf you are mentally sorting out what is "real jazz" or not, then you are part of the problem... ;)

Steven schrell's picture

Gary Giddins was born in March, 1948 so he wasn't "a teenager" in 1969, come on. That matters only because the legal drinking age in New York at the time was 18. I started going to the jazz clubs (particularly Birdland on 52nd & Broadway and the Five Spot on St. Mark's Place) when I was around 16 or 17 (Birdland closed a few months before my 18th birthday). If you were underage, Birdland only charged a dollar at the door ($6.67 in today's dollars) and they directed you to the back where there were a half a dozen tables set up on a riser. I always bought a Coke, but never felt pressured to buy another one. I don't remember an admission charge at the Five Spot, but I only went the Vanguard once to hear Miles because it was too expensive (!) and the cleared the joint after the set. I also won "freebies" for the Village Gate by guessing who was playing on the radio. While in college in Boston, I regularly attended the Sunday matinees at the Jazz Workshop which were probably only about a buck.

Fred Kaplan's picture

1969 is just a year for which I knew the Vanguard's admission price. For what it's worth, Gary Giddins was taking the LIRR into Manhattan to go see the Vanguard's weekend matinees five years or so earlier. (He's written about this.)

Gazoo's picture

In the list of good cheap jazz don't forget the jazz gallergy

Nate's picture

It's interesting that so many people showed. Maybe the younger people are looking for something more than the overly commercialized stuff out there. I think mainstream musical talent has taken a dip and the Jazz scene is filling in that gap, as they should. That's what sent me to Jazz - the same beats and chords over and over again. I have a theory that Starbucks has helped advertise the old classic Jazz songs to younger audiences - I'm certain some of us kids have noticed.

Joe's picture

I'm 25 and I was drawn to this article because I like a lot of jazz when I hear it and I want to know what's good. I'm a big fan of jam bands like the Allmans, Little Feat, the Dead, Phish, moe., etc. and they all incoporate so much Jazz into their music and it makes me dance and feel good, so I want to know more about it. As for going to the clubs, I love jazz clubs just as I love any club where good live music is playing. Cover charge does play a big factor, so do girls, but mainly it is about having a night out where there is no T.I. playing and the dancing is fun and not grinding. Some of us 20-somethings actually like going to places where we can have a conversation instead of head thumping club tunes making it impossible to speak. Jazz clubs are the perfect blend of great music, nice dancing, and a good crowd that won't get into your face and doesn't smell like axe body spray. We're not all like that, I'm just looking for good music I haven't heard before and a nice time out.