Put yourself in this jazz musician's shoes for a minute. Your record label just dropped two of its most acclaimed acts from the roster in order to aggressively pursue pop artists. Still, you think you have a sound that's relevant to the moment—and to prove it, you need a stay of execution from what's starting to look inevitable. So you pick up the phone, dial the label president, and beg for release from the adjective that's become pure poison in the marketplace. "If you stop calling me a jazz man," you promise the boss, "I'll sell more." That's exactly what Miles Davis said to Clive Davis at Columbia Records—more than 40 years ago.
This anecdote—first related by the record mogul in his autobiography—also appears in Jazz, a new, close-listen-ing history of the genre by critics Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux. Even though the trumpeter was right—Miles's Bitches Brew, complete with psychedelic cover art pitched at the Summer of Love crowd, would go gold after its release in 1969—you can't help but read Jazz and not realize that the art's economic fortunes have been dicey for decades. Every few years, a new piece of data comes along to kick up the hoary question: is jazz dead? This year has been particularly ominous. In June a National Endowment for the Arts survey found that the number of Americans attending live jazz concerts had declined precipitously and consistently over a 26-year span. That prompted critic Terry Teachout to ask the question "Can Jazz Be Saved?" anew in The Wall Street Journal, which in turn set off a fiery round of objections from musicians in the trenches. Teachout—who, in his essay, sadly neglected to promote today's forward--thinking players—responded by conceding, sure, there's beautiful music being created, but will an audience ever exist again to pay for it?
Fine, then: it might just be the time to accept that Teachout is, on an economic level, right: as a mass-culture force, jazz is dead. Simply look at the contemporary brand most familiar to a lay audience: the Marsalis family. In the early '90s, one brother (Branford) was leading Jay Leno's late-night band, while another (Wynton) was the preeminent trumpeter on Columbia, Miles's old label. By the middle of this decade, both of them had lost those public perches—and no one has reached that stature since. Status anxiety over whether up-and-coming jazz musicians can (or are worthy to) succeed their elders has existed since at least 1959, when a trio of instant classics—Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um, and Dave Brubeck's Time Out—all appeared, casting an immediate shadow over the class of 1960. If Miles himself already felt burdened by the word "jazz" only a decade later, you can imagine the weight of history on today's improvisers. Just out now is a 70-CD box set of Miles's Columbia albums from the period spanning 1955 to 1985 (give Clive Davis credit for sticking with Miles after that phone call). It's a stupefyingly intimidating trove of inspiration that winds through most of Miles's major periods: from bop to modal to light-touch abstraction, on to deep funk and, finally, a bid at mainstream pop. Multi-disc sets of previously unissued live concerts from Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz are also competing for the public's limited attention span this season. So no wonder folks keep saying jazz is dead: devotion to its past is stealing oxygen from the same room in which the present hopes to draw a breath.
It's easy to see how Teachout came to ask if contemporary jazz can be "saved" in light of comparing its modern station with the past glories. Pops, his valuable new biography of Louis Armstrong, is a study of international jazz fame that credibly treats its subject as a figure of complexity on par with politicians. After all, how did it happen that Armstrong—born into poverty and a dropout by the age of 11—became so internationally beloved that he accrued no fewer than three popular nicknames ("Pops," "Satchmo," and "Lou-eee"), and whose withering critique of President Eisenhower over the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957 counted as breaking news? In his book, which benefits from engagement with the musician's archive of more than 650 personal audiotapes, Teachout argues that Armstrong became a star as much for his appearances in movies (Hello, Dolly!) than for his early blazing, high-C solos. Satchmo's first surviving role, in the 1936 film Pennies From Heaven, was orchestrated by Bing Crosby, who made sure Armstrong received proper billing. And although Armstrong taught Crosby how to swing—"He is the beginning and the end of music in America," Crosby said—Teachout makes a persuasive case that the crooner gave the trumpeter as many lessons on how to become a pop sensation. Perhaps unwittingly, this answers Teachout's question about jazz's future, since his own book shows how serious instrumental jazz music was just one cause of the fame accrued by one of its best-known entities.
It's time, finally, to separate the question of "Is today's jazz good?" from the question "Is today's jazz popular?" It's a difficult, slightly counterintuitive thing to do, particularly because jazz—even before that watershed year of 1959—started out as a dance-hall craze. But the radical blues Armstrong blew—and which Teachout capably helps you hear during several passages in Pops—is no longer the strict language of top 40, which is now ringtone-based as much as it is 12-bar-based. If anything, today's jazz boasts a surfeit of excellent stylists who can speak to that splintering pop audience: pianists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn are both brilliant, though in nearly opposite ways. Iyer is a sometimes cerebral, always impressive player of tunes, whether they be those of Stevie Wonder and M.I.A., or his own compositions (all are featured on the new album Historicity). Taborn is an enthusiastic free-form player, both on his own extended-jam albums like Junk Magic and when playing as part of the exciting, electric-based Chris Potter Underground. Two highlights from 2009—Steve Lehman's Travail, Transformation, and Flow and Stefon Harris's Urbanus—each kicked up a big ol' time by embracing avant-classical sounds and hip-hop sensibilities. Along with Urbanus, John Hollenbeck's bold album for his big band, Eternal Interlude, recently notched a progressive-minded nomination from Grammy voters.
All this music deserves wider hearing, and greater coverage. Sadly, unless you're already a diehard, you may think you don't have time to hear it all. That we need books like Pops or Jazz represents a double bind: at the point where a relatively young art like jazz amasses enough history to merit these important tomes and huge box sets, the more difficult it becomes for the culture to absorb what's happening in real time. And real time is how jazz is best experienced. Like baseball—another great American invention—part of jazz's appeal is in how it unspools without deference to the clock. Just as drama asks for suspension of our disbelief, jazz asks us for the suspension of our need to program our every moment. Meantime, our contemporary mania for abbreviated text updates—think Twitter, Facebook, and BlackBerrys—feels as if it stands in direct opposition to jazz's deliberate, instrumental abstractions. Enjoying the music—really swinging with it—is a glorious sacrifice of the need to micro-manage the moment. And though it can be dreamy, this surely isn't a recipe for amassing a stable brand that can support itself in the modern marketplace. At the beginning of the 21st century, the economic status of jazz is more like that of the symphony orchestra, only without the economic safety net of foundation funding that undergirds concerts featuring Beethoven and Brahms.
In fact, the arts community should debate whether a greater share of the music endowment pie ought to be going to jazz musicians. The rub is that it never will, unless there is an understanding that jazz's economic status isn't a hideous reflection of poor aesthetic health. But even if jazz is finally buried in that (expanding) graveyard of former mass-culture obsessions, that doesn't mean the music isn't still happening, or that it isn't still perfectly capable of talking to us at an individual level. As long as they don't starve to death, committed jazz musicians will be there for you, the forbidding economics of their pursuit be damned. And even if no one you know is talking about what they're playing, be wary of any strangers who tell you they aren't swinging anymore.