The PetitionTo My Fellow Jazz Musicians and Music Lovers,
I am a saxophonist living in New York City. I have lived here for the past ten years, attended and graduated from some of the best music schools in the world. I have toured and played with many of my jazz heroes including Dafnis Prieto, Jean-Michel Pilc, Chris Potter and Richard Bona, and have been a working musician on the scene. I now find myself looking at a broken, antiquated system—a system that no longer serves us and is no longer self-sustaining. The jazz system sends young hopefuls through music schools, charges them upwards of $150,000 and then spits them out into a world where it is almost impossible to obtain the most basic sustenance. We're not talking about low-level products; these are amazing and virtuosic musicians who are struggling for work. How did jazz arrive at this current state?
Until the 20th century, virtuoso classical instrumentalists were often considered the most highly regarded entertainers in the world. With the emergence of jazz, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and the Dorsey Brothers were immensely popular. Coupled with the advent of recorded music, musicians were able to reach larger audiences and make more money as well. They were entertainers as well as great instrumentalists. Next came Bebop in the 1940's. Unfortunately, with the increased musical complexity the American public forced these musicians to make a difficult decision: stay true to their art or water down their music for the sake of entertainment and record sales. This moment was quintessential for the evolution of Jazz; leaving the realm of strict entertainment and becoming an art form. Musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were not only virtuosos, they were innovators. These two founders and the Bebop movement demanded respect. The unfortunate consequence of this decision of art over entertainment was that it often lead to fewer record sales. As hard bop, cool jazz, and later modal jazz developed there was still a small but devote audience for the music. In 1959 Colombia Records released Dave Brubeck's album 'Time Out'; an album that would go on to become one of the best-selling instrumental records of all time. However, in its first year, it sold a mere 50,000 copies. If 'Time Out' had been released today, Brubeck would have been cut and searching for a new label. Miles Davis' masterpiece 'Kind of Blue' (also recorded in 1959) was classified quadruple platinum in 2008. It took nearly 50 years, and Miles had long since passed away.
To compete with the increasing popularity of Rock music, Miles Davis and other jazz instrumentalists sought to reach wider audiences. They combined their music with rock and other popular styles. Stanley Turrentine, Wayne Shorter's Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson were amongst those who achieved commercial success. Then someone came along who took things even further in that direction: Kenny G arrived on the scene and released his first album in 1982. Despite the opinion of many jazz musicians, Kenny G's success actually created a new market called smooth jazz. His music became wildly popular throughout the 80’s. In fact, his Christmas album has sold more copies than any other holiday album in recorded history (outselling Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Sting and Nat King Cole). For the first time in a long time, an instrumental musician was selling millions of records. Also During the early 80's, Wynton Marsalis emerged on the scene. On his arrival, he was viewed by many as a savior of Jazz; someone that could bring the music back to the mainstream. Record labels started to change their view of jazz after Wynton's success. Due to his popularity and the "Young lions" movement heating up in the late 80's and 90's, labels tried to find the next Wynton Marsalis. By the mid 90's he had established Jazz at Lincoln Center and Jazz Education had become a staple of "The Jazz system."
This system seemed to work effortlessly. Jazz musicians were able to make more money than ever before, recording whatever music they chose. Jazz was now in the school system too, all the way up to the university level. When musicians weren't touring they could teach and generate income that way as well. The system worked great until the early 2000's, when the American economy began a slow decline. As America began unraveling financially, so did the Jazz Community. Downloading became the new way people acquired music, with less and less emphasis on physical CD sales. This eventually led to the demise of the record label as we knew it. As the economy slowed over the last 10 years, there were also fewer and fewer opportunities for new jazz musicians coming out of schools; fewer record deals, fewer gigs and fewer teaching positions.
I was a product of this failed jazz system. I studied at The New School and even graduated with a Masters Degree in Jazz from NYU in 2007. Throughout my entire schooling, I believed the propaganda I heard. I watched the "Young lions" get paid to play standards. I vehemently supported Wynton Marsalis and looked down on Kenny G as a sellout. I discredited all other forms of jazz and believed in staying true to the tradition of this music. I studied and learned everything that was asked of me by all of my teachers, but I was blind to the reality of the situation we now all find ourselves in. We overpaid for an education that feeds us into a Jazz system that has no hope of supporting all of our talent. We are the most gifted musicians in the world. We understand theory and function on a level other musicians can't even dream of. Compared to the worlds of Hip-Hop, Rock, Country, and even Classical, we have the most inspiring blend of sophistication, musicianship, and feeling. Though we once believed Wynton Marsalis' success had saved us, it really set us up for a greater failure: the position we are all now in. By recording music in every meter but 4/4 and playing songs that go on for more than 20 minutes we've created a greater distance between performer and audience than ever before. Even the current model for Jazz Clubs is flawed. By setting up performances with such steep entrance fees and food and beverage minimums, the younger audience can no longer afford to see this live music. This is absurd when you consider the fact that young musicians and students are not only the talent but the main financial source of income behind the current Jazz System. We need to find a way to get the music back to the people.
There is so much wrong with the Jazz community, Jazz clubs, and Jazz education. I offer this solution: we split away from this failed Jazz System and start a new genre. I suggest we do a mass re-branding and call the new genre “Stretch.” We can stretch music in ways no other genre has the capacity to do. "Stretch" is a form of instrumental rock/hip hop that is predominantly in 4/4 or 3/4. We have shortened the length of our songs from the 20 minute self-indulgence of Jazz to around 4-5 minutes. We think about what the listener wants to hear. We think about being entertainers again. If we can play 3,000 standards from memory, I strongly believe we can come up with a new form of music that people in their 20's can be fans of. I am not talking about selling out. Part of the jazz lie that we have been fed is this idea that we can't play music that can be both popular and artistically fulfilling. I believe we can, but we have to meet our listeners half-way.
We all are a part of a special time in American history. It is time to be an active part of the change that is happening in America. We have a chance now for a new beginning. Though we will always point to our jazz heroes as inspiration, we have to change something for the sake of our futures. We owe our predecessors respect, but we do not have to live lives of poverty to show it. Sign this petition if you are willing to join in building the "Stretch" genre. Sign this petition if you believe re-branding will save our community. Sign this petition if you believe change is needed. Sign this petition if you are tired of getting paid less than you deserve to make money for artists in other genres. Sign this petition if you believe you deserve something greater than what the Jazz System offers us. I offer this website as a starting ground. I will keep the blog up-to-date. I want to hear your suggestions too, and will post them on the blog and start forums for us to open a dialogue on the subject. I encourage you to get involved in any way you can. Felix Pastorius, Chris Ward and myself are already working to establish a record label to support this new music. Below is a list of musicians who have already joined us. Musicians I know who have the talent to be at the vanguard of the "Stretch" genre. My name is John Beaty, please join us by signing this petition.
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