Music

Jazz musicians see signs of hope despite repeated questions about its popularity

New animated movie, ‘Soul’ stars Jamie Foxx as a jazz music teacher

Born in the 1960s in the city that birthed Motown, Regina Carter can’t remember a time when music was absent from her life. But Carter, a three-time Grammy-nominated violinist, has a specific recollection of the moment she fell in love with jazz.

“Ninth-grade orchestra at Cass Tech in Detroit and Carla Cook [a Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist] was always talking about Eddie Jefferson and Sarah Vaughan and all these artists I’d never heard of,” Carter said. “Then she bought me my first jazz record with three violinists — Noel Pointer, Jean-Luc Ponty and Stéphane Grappelli — and that album just turned my world around.”

Ephraim Dorsey was born four decades later in Philadelphia, the city that birthed the legendary Billie Holiday. The 17-year-old saxophonist can remember the moment he, too, fell in love with jazz.

“I went to a sax camp led by Carl Grubbs, who had studied with John Coltrane,” said Dorsey, a senior at the Baltimore School for the Arts. “That moment, hearing Carl Grubbs play, was when I decided I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”

In a few weeks Nielsen Music will release its annual Year End Music Report for 2020, which looks at data and trends in the industry. And if this year is anything like 2019 (and the year before that), the data on sales for various genres of music will show that epiphanies like those that came to Dorsey and Carter aren’t widely shared. Jazz sales ranked slightly above classical music, and slightly behind children’s music. Jazz accounts for just 1.1% of total sales, with a quarter of its sales coming from physical album sales. Compare that with R&B/hip-hop, which generates almost 28% of total sales and derives only 4% of its sales from physical albums (vs. 91% from streaming).

Regina Carter’s Southern Comfort performs during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2019 50th Anniversary at Fair Grounds Race Course on May 2, 2019, in New Orleans.

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That’s a far cry from where the genre was positioned 100 years ago when jazz, which originated in New Orleans and was rooted in African culture, was considered the world’s most popular style of music. It was popular dance music through the big-band era and musicians such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins were the definition of cool in the ’50s.

But that was long ago, which is why there’s no shortage of entries in the collection of musical post-mortems: Is Jazz Dead? Or When jazz stopped being cool. Or What Happened to Jazz Music?

Pay no attention to them, says Robert Shahid, a drummer and on-air talent at the jazz station WEAA-FM in Baltimore. He laughs when asked about the demise of the music he fell in love with as a young boy while seeing a live performance by the Count Basie Orchestra at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia.

“Hearing what all those horns sounded like live — I had heard them on records — was just powerful,” Shahid said. “The death of jazz? You don’t hear it anymore on mainstream radio. But jazz is alive and well.”


Jazz is alive and well enough to be a main story line in Pixar’s new animated movie, Soul, which will be released on Christmas Day and stars Jamie Foxx in the role of a jazz music teacher. Like La La Land in 2016, it has the potential to introduce the music to new audiences. But is jazz still cool?

It’s not a new question, of course. Nicholas Payton, a trumpeter and 1997 Grammy Award winner, caused a stir in the industry with a 2011 blog post titled On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.

But, as evident from some of the lines of the post, the title is not what you think:

Jazz was a limited title to begin with.

Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians.

Jazz separated itself from American popular music.

Big mistake.

The music never recovered.

Jazz is only cool if you don’t actually play it for a living.

A glaring example of what’s wrong with Jazz is how people fight over it.

People are too afraid to let go of a name that is killing the spirit of the music.

Payton, reached by phone at his home in New Orleans, said he’s caught nearly a decade of heat from fellow musicians who saw the headline of the blog post, but never actually dove into the message in his words.

Trumpet player Nicholas Payton performs at the Radcliffe Institute’s Radical Commitments: The Life and Legacy of Angela Davis on Oct. 28, 2019, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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“My problem is not with the music but the label, jazz, which is derogatory and was forced on musicians,” said Payton, pointing out that many of the synonyms for the word (including baloney, crapola, bilge) are negative. “The music has been mislabeled and packaged with a name that many artists had a problem with, and a name that didn’t have anything to do with the Black community. The music needs to be properly acknowledged.”

Lewis “Flip” Barnes, a trumpet player from New York who was introduced to jazz via the Porgy and Bess studio album recorded by Miles Davis, agrees about the lack of acknowledgement.

“People don’t talk about Duke Ellington as the great composer that he was the way they talk about George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein,” Barnes said. “We, as Black people, just don’t get the respect for our contributions to this music.”

Payton has a term that he believes fits the bill: Black American Music, and he uses the hashtag #BAM to push his projects. “The intent of the Black American Music movement is to give the proper credit to this music.”

There are many artists who disagreed with Payton’s approach including Branford Marsalis, who called Payton’s post “a non-discussion” in a 2012 Jazz Times interview. “The idea that you’re going to change the name and people are going to like it is absurd,” Marsalis told Jazz Times. “Nicholas Payton can further his argument just by playing his horn.”

Payton posted a pointed response to Marsalis on his blog. The two — both from New Orleans — have since had cordial discussions on the topic that stirred the industry.


If jazz was truly on its deathbed in recent years, the pandemic could have buried it for good. Yet while the global crisis has been devastating to the entire entertainment industry, the genre continues to maintain a strong pulse.

It’s taken some ingenuity.

Arturo O’Farrill, for instance, launched a weekly Virtual Birdland Concert Series as he led the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, a labor-intensive effort that involved 18 musicians filming and recording their individual parts before turning their work over to a sound engineer and video editor who worked 40-hour weeks to put on a concert.

The series, an extension of the orchestra’s normal Sunday night gig at New York’s Birdland club, was launched to raise money for an emergency musicians fund organized by O’Farrill, a four-time Grammy winner, and his nonprofit Afro Latin Jazz Alliance.

We had musicians giving of themselves when they themselves were hurting, all in order to help their colleagues,” O’Farrill said. “We’ve had episodes with musicians in five different countries participating — a percussionist in Kuwait, a singer in Paris, a trumpet player in London, and a guitar player in Abu Dhabi, and musicians here — all performing one piece at the same time in a way that you couldn’t do except by amassing a huge debt in airplane tickets.

“Initially we didn’t think this would live in the confines of a computer,” O’Farrill said. “But it has reached people who could never afford in a thousand years to come to New York to the real Birdland. This has truly been one of the very best things I’ve ever experienced.”

Jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill performs in concert at Symphony Space in New York on Jan. 19, 2017.

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For Lakecia Benjamin, a saxophonist and bandleader from New York, the year began promisingly with plans for a new CD, Pursuance: The Coltranes, and a worldwide tour to promote the project. She expected the tour to recoup the money spent to book studio time and for the featured artists who appeared on the project. But the CD dropped on March 25 — just as the pandemic began to force closings across the United States.

Benjamin’s gig at Carnegie Hall, a first as a bandleader: gone. Shows scheduled in 10,000-seat venues in Europe, including a festival in Montreux, Switzerland: eliminated. “I was reaching the place in my career where I was just starting to make a real impact,” Benjamin said. “I was playing at Carnegie Hall with my own group, that’s a place I hadn’t played since I was in a middle school all-star band. It felt I was about to bump up to that next status.”

Benjamin, like O’Farrill, pursued her music virtually. She hosted a question-and-answer series on Instagram featuring music greats such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gary Bartz and Georgia Anne Muldrow. And her CD dropping at a time when many releases were being delayed provided her project heavy exposure. In late November, Benjamin received a notification from Spotify that her CD had reached the milestone of 1 million streams in 92 countries.

“This has made me think of an album differently,” Benjamin said. “I look at it now as a business card to introduce me to a new audience.”

And that new audience has been eager to reach out through social media to express appreciation to the artists they’ve discovered in 2020.

“People have told me they’d never heard of me before, and they’re enjoying the music,” said Carter, the violinist who is nominated for a Grammy for best improvised jazz solo. “It’s difficult to do a concert virtually, because we can’t feel them, and they can’t feel us. But performing has been food for the soul for us, and the audience that have discovered us. When we perform, we’re like little kids at Christmas, and we don’t want to stop.”

Jazz musician Brandee Younger performs onstage with her quartet during a Blue Note Jazz Festival concert at Central Park SummerStage in New York City on June 15, 2019.

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The pandemic forced harpist Brandee Younger to learn skills as a videographer, engineer and photographer to record the Brunch in the Crib weekly concert series alongside her partner, bassist Dezron Douglas. Those recorded streams were recently released as their latest album, Force Majeure, the term that hits close to home: It’s a clause that allows performance contracts to be canceled due to dramatic unforeseen circumstances.

“That clause has never been enforced, until now,” Younger says of the money from scheduled gigs that is forever lost. “The album was recorded during a dark period — the civil rights protests following George Floyd happened right outside our window here in Harlem — and serves as a form of therapy for us.”

And, for Younger and other artists, the pandemic has served as a lesson.

“The approach we have is a new way of life,” Younger said. “The playing field, as a result of the pandemic and the closures, is equal and the audience can choose who they want to listen to for real, for real.”


This new playing field — the virtual recordings, the social media push — plays into the strengths of a younger generation of artists and shows signs of developing a new lane for a genre of music that’s supposedly dying.

O’Farrill, who played with Dizzy Gillespie and was the former bandleader for Harry Belafonte, recalls the vibe at a pre-pandemic Songs of Love and Resistance show in New York that featured his band, a Chilean rapper, Cuban musicians and a DJ.

“I looked across the stage and saw these beautiful characters that were contemporary, new and doing wonderful things,” O’Farrill said. “Looking at that crazy diverse audience reminded me of my philosophy when I’m performing: Perform it so a 6-year-old will be enchanted by it, a 35-year-old will be analyzing it, and someone in their 80s will be comforted by it.”

Benjamin, who grew up in a household where her mother listened to Biggie Smalls and her grandmother embraced the music of Jackie Wilson and Michael Jackson, agreed that the merging of generations and cultures through the music is important.

“Artists like Robert Glasper and Christian Scott are mixing it up a bit where they honor tradition working with the greats like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, while also doing collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Jill Scott,” Benjamin said. “A lot of people think jazz has died. I see it as reaching a new fusion point.”

And that fusion is the lane likely to be taken by Ephraim Dorsey and his younger sister, Ebban, also a saxophonist, who represent the next generation that will keep the genre thriving. Both appreciate the legends of jazz, while at the same time understanding the musicality of hip-hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole.

“I’ve played at places like Dizzy’s Jazz Club [New York], and the Kennedy Center and me and my brother often find ourselves the youngest people in the room and that used to bother me,” said Ebban, 16, a high school junior. “But going to camps and attending different events geared towards younger people, and you realize there are people my age that want to play just as much as I do, even people younger than me.

“That tells me jazz isn’t fading,” Ebban Dorsey said. “It’s definitely still here and still alive. It just needs to be acknowledged.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.