Jimmy Katz
The Vijay Iyer Trio plays Benaroya Hall Wednesday as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival.
Vijay Iyer and his March release, Accelerando ,


Vijay Iyer and the Outreachification of Jazz

Jimmy Katz
The Vijay Iyer Trio plays Benaroya Hall Wednesday as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival.
Vijay Iyer and his March release, Accelerando, brought home a record five awards in Downbeat's annual critics' poll, which earned him a spot on the magazine's cover. Among people who follow jazz, the New York-based piano player is huge right now. To everyone else--and considering that according to Soundscan, Accelerando has sold a mere 5,000 copies, we're talking about most people--he's a complete unknown. So are his peers. Five million jazz records have sold so far this year, compared to 80 million in rock. It's not a stretch to say jazz devotees are on the fringe.

*See Also: Branford Marsalis: The Problem With Jazz

This is why Vijay Iyer spends a few weeks a year giving clinics in schools and doing jazz "outreach" as an artist in residence at Bay Area nonprofit San Francisco Performances. The intent of the outreach, Iyer told me over the phone recently, is for the organization to gain "deeper roots in the communities in the Bay Area that they can [use to] cultivate new audiences and just a larger appreciation for the arts over the years. I've also done small concerts in community centers, places sort of off the beaten path of the arts-going public."

The irony, of course, is that jazz lacks broad appreciation outside academia because of artists like Iyer and albums like Accelerando.

The album is fascinating, richly textured, adventurous, and full of ideas. But it's completely inaccessible to listeners not predisposed to appreciate jazz. There are few well-structured, tangible melodies--an unmistakable cover of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" being one exception--and little that casual listeners can whistle along to. That's not a knock on mainstream audiences, but an acknowledgment of the fact that Iyer incorporates few of what Branford Marsalis once called the "things that normal people like about music."

Accelerando, like many jazz records made today, is jazz for people who already like jazz.

Exposing audiences and young people to a variety of music is a noble endeavor, but there is something condescending, institutional, and even self-righteous about the outreachifaction of jazz. If a school has a music program, it's as disproportionately likely to offer jazz over rock as a person in the U.S. is to buy a rock record over a jazz album.

And when jazz is brought to schools and places "off the beaten path of the arts-going public," the outreachers are employing one of the genres that Iyer argues "are worth investing in and preserving in a different way that's not about simply what's the most popular thing"--but they're not employing the genres most likely to inspire young people to pursue music. In fact, it could be having the opposite effect: If elementary and junior-high students are listening to hip-hop and rock, do you think they'd be more likely to participate in school music programs if they addressed the beats of Duke Ellington, or of Jay Z?

The truth is that jazz is a wonderful, nuanced genre that, like world music, inherently has a smaller potential audience than rock, pop, R&B, and rap. If there is a problem--and the jazz establishment's obsession with "outreach" and building its base suggests it believes there is--it isn't with the audience or its access to the music. It's with the artists. If they want to be heard by a larger audience, then they need to bring their music closer to what that audience likes. That's going to take a different kind of album than Accelerando.

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