Konik’s Commentary: “(K)Jazz is Dead”

By Michael Konik

Since the 1970s, for as long as I’ve been aware of the music commonly known as “jazz,” various authorities, mavens, and aficionados have been declaring it dead or soon-to-be-deceased. “Jazz is dead.” “Jazz is dying.” “Jazz is going extinct.”

If this is so, the suffering patient has been enduring a kind of decades-long hospice care that would bankrupt Medicaid. While it’s true that jazz record sales comprise a comically small percentage of the (withering) recording industry and an even smaller slice of the radio market, and live music venues calling themselves jazz clubs close more frequently than sales of foreclosed homes, the music itself is gloriously alive.

Michael Konik

Thanks to college jazz programs, the advent of cheap recording technology, and an irrepressible need for members of a free society to express themselves individually and collectively, there are more artists than ever creating modern American music rooted in improvisation. Some of it swings, some of it doesn’t. Some of it employs traditional jazz instrumentation, some does not. (Almost all of it, even the stuff that sounds resolutely “out,” remains firmly rooted in the Blues, the ancestral wellspring of nearly all popular American music.) Most folks who care about profound sounds are uninterested in the banal question “is it jazz?” since the form itself is (and always has been) evolving and shifting shapes. We who admire and revere artists as disparate as Bobby McFerrin, Brian Blade, and Maria Schneider aren’t much concerned with the marketing umbrella these un-categorizable creators fall under. We just know they’re alive and happening and necessary listening. They’re now.

KKJZ 88.1FM in Los Angeles (Long Beach, actually), is one of the few full-time jazz stations remaining in the United States. (New York, Denver, and San Francisco, among a handful of others, are home to thriving and exciting jazz stations, which anyone anywhere can access online.) K-Jazz, as it’s commonly known, is a “member-supported” radio station, which means that in addition to the “corporate underwriting” — read: advertising — they solicit, the station relies on the charitable contributions of its listeners, or “members,” to flourish. One of the oft-repeated and apparently compelling sales pitches the station employs is, “Help us keep jazz alive!” The implication is the same as it’s always been: jazz is a dying art form with a small but devoted cult of supporters, and without K-Jazz nobly spinning the nobly unpopular recordings over the airwaves the noble music will indeed finally suffer the ignoble demise everyone’s been forecasting forever.

If you listen to K-Jazz regularly, or if you examine their archived playlists from the past 6-months or so, since a new Music Director named Lawrence Tanter, public-address announcer of the Lakers, took over, you could easily get the mistaken impression that jazz really is dead, that it is largely the provenance of dead people or those, like Dave Brubeck, in the twilight of their life. Living artists do get played, but they’re a minority. It wasn’t always like this. The KKJZ DJs, who previously were allowed the latitude to program their own shows according to their individual personalities and tastes, drawing on the vast (and sometimes intimidating) trove of new music being produced, are now limited to a narrow palette of aural colors dominated by cats and kittens whose work, while historically significant and possibly immortal, is the stuff of Smithsonian archives and Ken Burns documentaries. Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Art Blakey are wonderful artists. But they’re early chapters in an ongoing narrative, not the climactic finish to the story. Listen to K-Jazz enough and you could get the impression that jazz isn’t a thriving, vital, contemporary art form but something that belongs in a museum. Or a hospital.

Outside of New York City, Los Angeles is home to more brilliant jazz musicians than any place on the planet. These folks don’t just gig in local venues and contribute their talent to movie and TV soundtracks. They make recordings that are played in every region of the United States. Some of them have international reputations and touring careers. Some of them have the powerful marketing imprimatur of Grammy nominations attached to their names. Many of them are younger than 50. But if K-Jazz were your primary source, you wouldn’t know they exist. I recently searched for the names of a dozen Los Angeles-based female vocalists, all of them quite alive, including a couple of the Grammy girls and two singers who currently have albums on the national JazzWeek radio chart. Total number of spins on KKJZ for the past two weeks? Zero.

Speaking of the Grammys, last year’s Best New Artist wasn’t Justin Bieber or a rapper. It was a 20-something jazz musician – bass and vocals – named Esperanza Spalding. She gets played on KKJZ as often as our local stars: almost never.

When the most progressive and current sounds emanating from KKJZ come from the overnight syndicated host Bob Parlocha, who’s steadfastly committed to what he calls “mainstream jazz,” you know that it’s not jazz that’s dead or dying. It’s the station that curates it. I don’t know anyone under the age of 45 who listens to KKJZ regularly. They don’t need to hear “Take Five” or “All Blues” every day. These “younger” people have been given tacit permission from “America’s Jazz and Blues Station,” as KKJZ likes to bill itself, to dismiss jazz as music intended for old folks, performed by old folks, best enjoyed as an antique cultural curiosity.

It’s not. Jazz is the sound of present-day America and, increasingly, the world. Jazz is searching and subversive, bold and beautiful, questioning and quiet, loud and proud. No, jazz is not popular music. In a 140-characters-or-less society, jazz music, like anything else that requires mindfulness and careful attention, appeals to a shrinking demographic of thoughtful and engaged citizens. But dead it’s not. Gatekeepers of the art form would do well for both themselves and the culture-at-large to stop living in the past and start celebrating jazz’s present-day vitality. The labels and genres and marketing tactics will inevitably change; the musical continuum – the entire thing, from Pops to the present — endures.

* * * * * *

Best-selling author Michael Konik is the proprietor of the independent jazz & blues label FreeHam Records. He’s produced several notable CDs, including albums by Linda “the Kid” Hopkins, Mr. Z, and the fast-rising jazz vocal artist, Charmaine Clamor. His latest book is “Reefer Gladness: Stories, Essays and Riffs on Marijuana.”

To find out more about Michael Konik, click HEREFor more information about Freeham Records, click HERE.

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31 Responses to Konik’s Commentary: “(K)Jazz is Dead”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I was wondering what in the hell happened to MY jazz station…thanks for explaining. I don’t listen as often as B;/4. All my Jazz Friends are mad as hell also. I only listen to Jose Rizo and Bubba because I love them both. Parlocha is the only one we all listen because he plays and explains who is on the recording.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I thought this article brilliantly express what we need to do as a jazz community to make sure to “keep jazz alive,” that is, to support, nurture and acknowledge the new artists involved in the evolution of this unique American art form. What better way to do this than give them a platform for their expression on the airwaves? By not playing their music on air refuses to acknowledge their existence.

    Specifically speaking about KKJZ, I’ve been a supporter of this station for years as a donor and listener. I was thrilled and so did many LA jazz artists and listeners for the change in their programming when they allowed the DJs to have their own playlist. Each program has its own personality! Bubba Jackson woke us up in the morning, Brad Williams smoothened as out in the mid morning, and so on and so forth. The moral for the LA jazz community was high. The community was engaged with their radio station. There was a connection. Since the MD changed so did the programming. I agree completely with Mr. Konik. I hardly listen to KKJZ now because of the lack of personality. There is huge disconnect between the artists and the station. How unfortunate.

    I want to quote Mr. Konik on what I believe we, as lovers of this music, should remember and act upon: “Jazz is the sound of present-day America and, increasingly, the world. Jazz is searching and subversive, bold and beautiful, questioning and quiet, loud and proud…Gatekeepers of the art form would do well for both themselves and the culture-at-large to stop living in the past and start celebrating jazz’s present-day vitality.”

    To Mr. Konik: BRAVO!

  3. Anonymous says:

    amen right on. Totally on point and the reason I stopped listening to kjazz

  4. As a Singer of Jazz myself I am always a little frustrated with the numerous comments that I read that there are no good Singers of Jazz after Bille, Ella, Sarah, etc. There are many dedicated and talented up and coming Singers of Jazz and we would all hope that you might take the time to listen to us. We want the music to not only be kept alive, but to flourish! :)

  5. Anonymous says:

    sounds like someone is pissed the station didn’t play his wife’s music. sour grapes are sour

    • irom says:

      For the record, Michael Konik’s wife, Charmaine Clamor, along with Tierney Sutton and Denise Donatelli, were the most played female vocalists on KKJZ from Sept. 2010 to February 2011. Charmaine was also asked to do the station’s Valentine’s dinner. And her “Breakfast With Bubba” (from her “Something Good” album) was the morning theme song.

  6. Bob The Wonder Cat says:

    Especially important in LA, as it is such a car culture, and the car is one of the few places most folks don’t have Internet access (and thus access to all the great Internet jazz radio and podcast options).

    Even just one short show per week devoted to living / local artists would be a great help.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I have often turned on KKJZ and said to myself “do I have the right station?” What are they playing? Often not Jazz. I have heard 3 different versions of the same tune in an 8 hour period. The Jazz music world is huge, there is so much to pick from and so many wonderful artists. Hooray for the article, lets just hope KKJZ reads it and acts on it. Thank you Mr. Konik.

    Anonymous

  8. Anonymous says:

    Perfectly articulated and right on. NG

  9. Will I Am Not says:

    This is what I’ve been trying to say but couldn’t find the right words. Amen. Thank you Michael Konink.

  10. Tom says:

    I’m almost 50 and I don’t listen any more, mainly because I already own most of the music they play and I could always just go to my collection if I want to hear Nat Cole and Miles 5 times a day. The writer is spot on except I don’t think it’s just “people under 45″ that are turned off by the kkjz approach.

  11. Roseanna says:

    Well articulated Truth – Thank you. I was recently on tour passing through L.A. and three of the finest jazz singers one can imagine (yes, Grammy nom and the mighty mite who’s on the charts right now) came to my show. We had a conversation about KJZZ and what the heck is going on ? My recordings were almost always embraced by the station and this visit- no way. I don’t know Mr.Tanner, but I had heard from another well known jazz dj that Tanner is a great guy. I assume the new vision is a strategy to keep the station alive and bring in revenue. But the homogenization of American Jazz radio is sad tale. I miss several of the dj’s and jazz stations that have faded, so I understand the struggle for survival. Jazz music is a living breathing art form and should never be kept in a bell jar. Jazz history is super important but so is the growth of our music. I hope KJZZ comes back to life. Thanks so much for your article Michael. Roseanna

    • james says:

      Roseanna- if only you and your grammy friends would of donated to the station while they were ” playing the music of the people” then kkjz wouldn’t be in the financial state it is in now.

      Listen to all those commercial stations…. they ahve artists coming in and recording liners to help promote the stations image…

      I don’t think i’ve heard one grammy winner on the air?

      • Roseanna says:

        James, I cannot speak for my friends, whether Grammy noms or simply local jazz artists who listened to the station regularly. I feel certain they contributed to the station, I know I did. Many of us sent money answering the call for many fund drives. The program director’s decide who will record liners for fund raisers. An artist doesn’t call up and ask to do a liner, the station asks you. It’s very sad what’s happening to jazz radio, our newspapers and our government, we have to participate and pay attention. I wish kkjz the best of luck.

  12. Paris says:

    If you listened to the station last summer BEFORE Lawrence Tanter got there, they were playing the same sad stuff. When Tanter arrived, there was a shift toward more smooth jazz but it was mixed in with classic jazz recordings and new releases. Konik is on point here except for pointing the finger at Lawrence Tanter. Someone a little further up the ladder is responsible for the crappy programming. Pay attention to your L.A. jazz radio history folks! Jazz ain’t dead, but somebody has stabbed it and is turning the knife.

  13. g says:

    when writing an article like this, and giving specific blame, mr. konik should have the correct information. lawrence tanter has not been the programmer of this station for a while, it is saul levine.
    and i agree…the station is now, tired.

  14. g says:

    p.s: while mr. tanter was station programmer, local artists like billy childs, john beasley, bob sheppard, and brandon fields were in rotation…along with greats like nicholas payton. under mr. levine’s hand, they have all been removed. he is not representing jazz as a continuing art form….and it makes me mad, and…sad.

  15. Bob S. says:

    Just got back from the Central Avenue fest and jazz definitely ain’t dead there. Konik has a great point becuase the station k-jazz sponsors the Festival but you don’t hardly hear any of the performing artists on the station except Gerald Wilson and come on you gotta truly be out to lunch if you don’t play our homeboy. Glad there is JAZZ and glad somebody said something. Outstanding use of the English language.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I completely agree with Mr. Konik’s article. I am a Los Angeles native and a long time jazz aficionado (and, therefore, a listener of KJAZZ). Now that we are mostly in concurrence with the point in this article, what can our beloved station do to “keep jazz alive?” Let’s give them practical (not theoretical) answers.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Man, this article has got people talking in LA! Awesome job in starting the discussion, Michael Konik. And all the talk agree with your view.

  18. dsschicago says:

    I don’t know why Kjazz is failing so bad, but I do know that access to quality jazz being recorded today ain’t the problem. The jazz talent pool is incredibly deep right now. A few years back, I committed myself to listening to only jazz being made in the present day, and it has been an extremely rewarding decision. I am perpetually amazed by how much great jazz is being released these days, from straight-ahead quartets with a fresh sound, to new big bands using classic orchestrations but modern charts to free jazz performances rooted deeply in the blues of the past to piano trios using modern effects to enhance a classic jazz sound. I can recommend a solid jazz new release for each day of the year.

    That this jazz isn’t being played on Kjazz or mass media outlets isn’t a reflection on the state of jazz, but instead on the leadership of the organizations that we once relied upon to help us connect with the music.

    Cheers.

    P.S. Michael, I, also, enjoyed your article.

  19. Nou says:

    Thanks for the post; as a long-time jazz radio programmer (26 years) in the Vancouver BC area I cherish the ability to put together my own playlists and support the music in my community as well as give listeners the opportunity to hear living breathing musicians who are giving their all to express themselves and advance the art form. I hope that Kjaz wakes up and realizes that if its support comes from the community, then it has an obligation to that community … N

  20. Scott Yanow says:

    I gave up on KJAZ years ago. I really don’t need to hear Kind Of Blue every hour. There are too many great jazz recordings coming out for one to waste time with a station that seems to feel that jazz was at its peak in 1959 and died in 1965. I turn on the station once in a great while, and then after they don’t bother identifying who is playing (beyond the leader), I quickly shut it off. It’s largely a waste.

    • Scott, I invite you to join me every weekday at noon for “The Wonderful World of Jazz” on http://www.kebnradio.com. Iplay Miles, Monk, ‘Trane Cannonball and surround them with every local artist in the greater L.A. area. AND I tell you who ALL of the players are. See U on the Internet.

      James Janisse – “The Gentleman of Jazz” TM

  21. don’t believe everything you read…… The politics of jazz radio are bigger than the programmers hired to shepherd the ship. Lawrence Tanter has spent a lifetime in the trenches shepherding this music. His passion is unquestioned by me. I too, am a programmer and when you work for someone else you have to negotiate your territory. It’s not often you actually get to implement what you want and to live and die on your decisions. There are always other hands in the pot exerting their vision formally and informally. If Lawrence Tanter were to execute his vision in the way he wanted, there is no doubt in my mind you would hear a jazz station that had no equal anywhere on the planet. He is a man of integrity in a tough spot. If he can’t do it, no one else can. I speak from experience. I have been in his shoes…..

  22. Sandra Welton-Scates says:

    While it certainly seems that Mr. Konik has done his research-Read:He has presented well in his arguement regarding the disinterest of a larger portion of the younger generation(so called Hip Hop) and his historical context of Jazz is accurate I would like to know if he was under the influence of reefer gladness when he decided to nominate himself to blame Lawrence for what ills that station. Itis a huge disservice to Mr. Tanter Who is, as Bobby Jackson, has stated a man of integrity whose knowledge of music globally and Jazz specifically should not be questioned. An obviously blatant fact that the author of this article had no knowledge of. I applaud and respect Mr. Tanter and I would also like to thank Mr. Tanter for bringing me to Kjazz, a station I would not have listened to because Jazz was something I never understood or liked. I also agree that if LT were to be given autonomy Kjazz could have been a station that would have gone unparelled to anything else representing Jazz in Los Angeles or anywhere else.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Every few months I tune back to KJazz in hopes of finding that there has been new life breathed into this station. The first thing I heard was George Benson playing “Tequila”. *CLICK* back to the ipod.

    • Anonymous says:

      Me, too. It’s sad what has happened to an at times pretty good station. Now it’s pretty brain- deadening. Although someone likes it. I heard that they exceeded their recent pledge drive goal.

  24. Anonymous says:

    So sad…I was wondering if I had just been listening to this music for too long until I read this article and saw that politics are at work. At first I got very mad at KJazz, but after reflection, I would hate too much to see it go off the air so I guess I will keep sending $40 a year. I checked out the station in New York, KBGO, and its pretty contemporary. However, after listening in delight all weekend, I began to miss hearing Wes and Getz. They don’t get played much. My solution is to listen to both stations as well as the one in Denver and SF. I also want to check out James Janisse’s station. However, we can’t just give up on KJazz completely, especially if it is a strategy on their part to stay on the air. I imagine the DJs must just hate the position they are in (well the ones that have been there for many years that is).

  25. frebau says:

    Ironic that the station celebrates a music built on improvisation, but can’t allow its deejays to “improvise” their playlists. I’m tired of hearing “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” or Mile’s version of “Someday My Prince Will Come.” When will we get a deejay with a sense of adventure, and a deeper respect for the full spectrum of jazz? KKJZ promotes jazz ignorance.

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