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LJS 24: Why Jazz is Unpopular and What We Can Do About It

Welcome to episode 24 of the LJS Podcast where today we are talking about why jazz is unpopular and what we can do about it. According to Nielsen’s 2014 Year-End Report, jazz is one of the most unpopular genres of music in the United States. In this episode, we take a closer look at these details, try to figure out why, ask some questions, and reflect on what we can do about it. Listen in!

*Correction in the podcast: Jazz and Classical both make up 1.4% of US music consumption each, for a total of 2.8%.

Listen to episode 24

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In this episode

  1. The Nielsen 2014 Year-End Report.
  2. Is Jazz dying?
  3. The problem with jazz music today.
  4. Jazz is art music and music is not a popularity contest.
  5. Where do we go from here? Jazz is changing.
  6. 3 things jazz musicians can do for jazz today.
  7. 2 things both jazz musicians on non-musician jazz fans can do for jazz today.

Listen to episode 23: Gig Etiquette 101

What do you think? Leave us a comment below.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. Great, relevant podcast. Thank you for this, even though it's apparently my fate to hear it late.
    Also, what is the name of the intro music?

  2. Hi Brent, I first encountered Jazz at age 10 back in 1946, my much older brother had a small collection of 78's which included a number of Fats Waller discs which I really dug and still do. I have followed the progression of this music since then as a wanna be musician and record collector. At 80 I still try to play Jazz on the piano but a severe lack of talent prevents me from improvising. I still ad to a substantial record/CD collection and attend live events.
    Jazz WAS the popular music during much of the forties and fifties, I witnessed the latter part of this and the decline with the advent of Rock And Roll, a much simplified music than the Bop of the time and the kids could dance to it.
    To my mind what we term 'Mainstream' Jazz is the most popular of the genre. I have witnessed the change in Mainstream which over the years has picked up the best parts of each new innovation in the music and incorporated them rather than throwing out the old and replacing it. The Mainstream of today is quite different from that of the fifties but still retains the spirit of Jazz which really is swing.
    I am afraid Jazz has become quite elitist, there is a movement in the Jazz studies classes at our conservatorium to dispense with the word 'Jazz' preferring the term 'Improvised Music' with the result , as Andy says in a previous letter, they are their own audience. I do wonder if they will sustain each other financially when there is no other audience of any consequence. Perhaps starving for your Art is a way of life or maybe having music as a hobby. Our local Jazz club caters for a wide range of Musos, both young and old with many different styles and it can easily be observed which ones attract the audiences.
    I wonder Brent, when LJS will offer a list of Acid Free Funk Rap etc. charts and play-a-longs.(TIC)
    LJS is great, I have used a lot of the playalongs on YouTube and it is time I made a small contribution to your cause. I can disagree with your philosophical take on the future of Jazz while enjoying what you provide for mugs like me as well as genuine professional musos. Thanks Brent.

  3. Brent, I think the way to solve the problem would be to make some compromises so that jazz can be accessed by more people while retaining its artistry. One of the best examples of this for me is Herbie's "Headhunters" album from '73 because it has influenced so many people to pick up jazz while being a great & innovative album. I think for jazz to survive we need to revive the tradition of reworking contemporary popular song into new standards but I don't know which ones to choose. Otherwise, jazz will become a form of music, classical, instead of an approach to the creation of music, what it always has been. Any thoughts?

  4. You are completely right! I think the problem is that you sometimes really need to focus on the music. But the more you listen to a track the more interesting it is! Sometimes you need to know the songs before you really understand what the solist is doing. With more popular music it is often the other way around: the first time listening to it may be fantastic but a few times later the song is already boring. I think if music is not that important for you then you don't have the need to pay so much attention to it. They have no idea what they miss!

    Could you give us an advice how to practise the Blues? It is always the same: I want to practise but finally it ends in a jam session and I'm just noodeling. I don't know how to start. Next time I will practise some licks!

    By the way I am from Germany and a real fan of your podcast!

  5. Interesting. And you are correct that it has not ever been overly popular however it is the only art form that the US gave birth to (although and arguement can be made that early classical was also "jazz" but that is another topic) and that should be a source of pride and never understood why it isn't more appreciated for that reason alone. Although, then again, maybe that accounts for the education occurring. I also agree that musicians "trying" to be avant garde and that is problematic. But I do think smooth type jazz (maybe a trio or quartet) does have a place even in dinner type bars and that may provide more exposure and work for musicians. But being satisfied with playing clean, simple, and pure should be just as important as tons of phrases and changes.

  6. Jazz is a performer's art. It is very difficult to play well, and the definition and evaluation of " playing well" rests in large part with the performer. I have loved jazz all my life, starting as a teenager. Evolving from liking trad and big band to bop, hard bop, to fusion and funk, I enjoy listening and as a performer over the last decade, I really love the spirit of experimentation and adventure that comes with exploring the changes. The key point you make is that jazz isn't going away because there is so much happening in schools and communities with really good young players. We are our own audience, and mass appeal is not going to happen. We should not "dumb down" the music…and we won't just by the very nature of the genre. Your blogs on etiquette on gigs and thoughtfulness that folks don't quite understand what we are doing are just right. Thank you for a thought provoking piece.

  7. I agree for the most part with what you have said, and thanks for having the broad outlook and guts to say it on a public forum. The thing that has bothered me the most about "Jazz" is the seeming disregard for the general audience. Maybe that's an "intellectual" thing. It can't be music just for other musicians(e.g.,chops). If so, what's the point except for STROKING ONES OWN EGO?

    • At this point it's been several generations without regard for the audience, even when there still was one. Now that there isn't, it has really turned inward. The focus is no longer even on communicating something fresh intellectually – it is mostly on demonstrating one's skill. And that is self-perpetuating, because it's what musicians need to do to be recognized and move forward.

      • If that's so, and thanks for asserting that point, then there is something seriously dysfunctional going on within the makers/players of this music, in my opinion. To play music only for oneself and a "select" few e.g.(musicians) to "demonstrate one's skill" pretty much goes totally against the "universal language" credo of presenting music and of artistic expression to and for ALL humans. That kind of behavior seems not only selfish, but "cultish", superficial, and unenlightened. The "need to be recognized" sounds like a self-esteem issue(or not having any friends). In my opinion, this kind of aberration should not be present in any art form, including and specifically in "Jazz". This is Music, not self help therapy.


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