Is Jazz Popular Music?

This was the original manuscript for an article that was heavily edited by the publisher of The Instrumentalist magazine. It was ultimately published in its edited form in volume 41, number 8 (March 1987) on pages 19-22, 25-26 and 85. It won the Outstanding Achievement Award of the Educational Press Association of America for 1987.

Classifying types of music is always a knotty proposition, and the question of how to classify jazz is no exception.  Confusion often occurs when jazz gets thrown in with popular music, especially when educators and school administrators are trying to decide whether to take jazz seriously.  The following discussion is offered to help clear up some of the confusion surrounding the overlapping categories of jazz and popular music.

Several definitions for popular music are provided here.  But, for the sake of the present discussion, only one definition of “jazz” is used:  improvised instrumental music that elicits what is regarded as jazz swing feeling.

Musicologists are not clear about how to classify jazz, but most don’t want it to be given the label of classical music, “serious” music, or art music.  A few give jazz its own category, and someplace it with folk music.  Most toss it in with popular music.  But should jazz be classified with popular music?

In this article jazz will be matched with these conceptions of the term “popular music”:

  1. “Popular music” means music that is liked by a relatively large portion of the population.
  2. “Popular music” means music of the common people.
  3. “Popular music” means almost all syncopated American music of the 1920s for which “jazz” once was a catch-all term.
  4. “Popular music” means “vernacular music”, in that it is approached unselfconsciously and it serves as dance music, film music, party music.
  5. “Popular music” means music that possesses “an easy accessibility.”
  6. “Popular music” means music that it is not aimed at “an intellectual and artistic elite.”
  7. And, finally, we will address the question of whether jazz can be called  “popular music” because it competes for the same audience that patronizes other music which is more widely regarded as “popular music”.

The first conceptualization for the term “popular music” stems from using the word “popular” to indicate the relative number of people who like something.  If we assume that being a “million-seller” is a relatively well-accepted indication for being popular, then “popular music” is an inappropriate category for jazz because fewer than a couple dozen jazz records have ever sold anywhere near a million copies, and jazz traditionally has held only about a 3% share of the record market.  (FOOTNOTE: see POP MEMORIES 1890-1954:  THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN POPULAR MUSIC and TOP POP ALBUMS 1955-85 by Joel Whitburn, Record Research Inc., P.O. Box 200, Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin 53051.  The term “popular music” can be especially misleading for distinguishing jazz from classical music because over-the-counter sales of classical records currently out number jazz sales by about 2:1, thereby demonstrating that classical music is MORE popular than jazz, though jazz and classical cumulatively account for less than 12% of record and tape sales, thereby demonstrating that neither is truly a popular kind of music.  See INSIDE THE RECORDING INDUSTRY: A STATISTICAL REVIEW, pages 1-25. Recording Industry Association of America, 888 7th Ave, 9th Floor, NY, NY 10106.  END OF FOOTNOTE)

Popular As Typifying the Majority of the Population

If we use “popular music” as deriving from the expression “music of the populace” (of the common people), jazz is ruled out because neither the musicians in jazz nor their fans have ordinarily comprised a representative sample of the American public.  Later in this article, we will discuss jazz fans and come to understand that at least those who have been studied by marketing researchers have rarely typified the populace.  But first, let’s examine in detail the evidence that refutes the idea that jazz musicians are, or ever have been, typical of the common people, the populace at large or the majority of the population.  A central theme that emerges from studying musician biographies is that jazz musicians might have typified their own highly musical family backgrounds, but they rarely represented the social class or neighborhood norms of their childhood.  Most of the earliest jazz players, as well as the prominent players of later generations, usually represented an educated elite.  They did not necessarily reflect their social class.  Even the earliest players had formal instruction, at least in techniques of playing their instruments, and frequently they had instruction also in theory, harmony and composition.  The training was often in tutorial format, rather than in a conservatory setting, but it was not the trial and error blundering that many historians and many current teachers believe it to be.  Pianist James P. Johnson studied under Bruno Giannini.  Clarinetist Benny Goodman studied under Franz Shoepp.  Many of the earliest jazz musicians undertook study of European art music before learning jazz improvisation. Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins began on cello.  Both New Orleans trumpeter Freddie Keppard and Chicago clarinetist Frank Teschemacher began on violin.  Saxophonist Stan Getz played bassoon and attended the New York High School for the Performing Arts.

In addition to demonstrating this common practice of lengthy private study, many of the famous black jazz bandleaders of the 1930s also had at least some college education (Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford, Don Redman, Teddy Wilson, to name just a few).  Keeping in mind how rare college attendance was at that time for anyone, particularly for blacks, we can appreciate how elite was the jazz musician relative to black subculture in particular and to American society in general, even as early as the first twenty years of jazz history.  And, of course, we should not forget that jazz musicians of later periods also had college and/or conservatory training (see footnote).  In other words, ordinarily, jazz musicians are not a reflection “of the populace.”  They are not “street musicians” in the sense exemplified by blues singers and folk musicians.  Jazz has long been created by an elite.  (FOOTNOTE:  To list just a few modern players, John Coltrane studied at Granoff Studios and Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, Miles Davis at Julliard in New York, Bill Evans at Southeastern Louisianna U., Ron Carter at Eastman.  Yusef Lateef, Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd and Billy Taylor all became degree-holding music teachers at one time or another.  And one of Herbie Hancock’s road bands had two members holding doctorates!  Formal training acquired by a few contemporary jazz improvisers include the affiliations of pianist Cecil Taylor-New England Conservatory, bassist Marc Johnson-North Texas State U., saxophonist Michael Brecker-Indiana U, bassist Rufus Reid-Northwestern, pianist Roland Hanna-Julliard, and many players who studied at Berklee College in Boston: vibraharpist Gary Burton, guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Keith Jarrett, etc.)

Linked to this issue, it is important to understand that, in writings about jazz history, the myth of the intuitive genius/noble savage/talented primitive has been perpetuated by the disproportionate amount of publicity surrounding famous exceptions to the extensive training that jazz musicians must undergo to become competent, a depth of training that is well known to insiders. (To be a competent jazz improviser, a musician must understand theory and harmony, have a background of intensive ear training, and be highly proficient on his performing instrument.  Futhermore, his mastery of compositional tools is appraised every time he performs because jazz improvisation consists of simultaneously composing and performing.  A college music professor recently commented to me that jazz-oriented students who enroll in his conservatory classes, straight out of high school, already demonstrate considerable knowledge of theory and harmony.)  Recently a lot of such mythology has been cleared away by jazz historian Karl Koenig who has documented the training that was provided to young musicians in areas surrounding New Orleans during the turn of the century (see his articles about Professor James B. Humphrey that appear in THE SECOND LINE).  And biographies of early New Orleans jazz musicians also frequently mention instruction provided by musicians of the local symphony and opera orchestras (for a bibliography of biographies, see JAZZ STYLES: HISTORY AND ANALYSIS, 2ND EDITION by Mark C. Gridley, Prentice-Hall, 1985).

The well-publicized exceptions, trumpeter Louis Armstrong in particular, frequently are players who COULD read music but somehow found themselves labeled “backward” simply because the writers of jazz history believed these musicians could not read music.  This unfortunate situation is best understood when we acknowledge that, among musicians, it is frequently said that someone who is not a sharp sight reader “cannot read.”  But, though musicians know what is meant by this, the lay person-historian often takes the expression literally and then mistakenly assumes that, for instance, Louis Armstrong was ignorant and lacked basic technical skill, thus telling his readers that the player is an untutored genius, all the more worthy of our awe, because of the romantic notions attached to the concept of the noble savage.  (In fact, Armstrong studied under Peter Davis and David Jones, and musicians generally recognize Armstrong as being among the most technically skilled of jazz trumpet improvisers.  He could read music, and he did understand chord progressions, though, according to some accounts, he was not a sharp sight reader.  I personally cannot believe that a poor sight reader could play with as many reading bands on excursion boats, in theater orchestras and dance bands as Armstrong played with, and I lean toward believing that, as Bud Freeman told me, Armstrong was a good reader.)  This is not to say that all jazz musicians can read music.  Some cannot.  The point here is simply that a disproportionate amount of jazz journalism has been devoted to the retelling of stories about feats of seemingly untutored instrumental and aural prowess that has misled us and clouded the public’s understanding of the prerequisite musical training that is fundamental to jazz improvisation.  Such writing has allowed many of us to confuse the origins of the self-taught folk musician with the training of the jazz musician.

Historical Accident Caused Jazz To Be Called Popular Music

Attaching the “popular music” label to jazz might derive from historical accident.  In the 1920s, the word “jazz” was often used to denote popular music as a whole, and almost every kind of lively American music in particular.  Mary Herron Dupree has pointed out that, in his “New Forms for Old Noises” (League of Composers Review-Modern Music, June 1924, pages 25-6), Hugo Riesenfeld contends that, what was often called jazz in 1924 was really just “popular syncopated music” with “one fixed form which is the fox trot, a slow march with rhythmic complications.”  According to this broad a use, even Guy Lombardo could be said to have played jazz.  In fact, when he emigrated to America, that is exactly what he DID consider his music to be (personal communication from George West, former trombonist with the Lombardo band).  Another telling illustration for the implications of this accident is the name for an Al Jolson movie about a vaudeville singer: “The Jazz Singer.”  Neither this movie nor its recent Neil Diamond remake had anything to do with jazz.  Related to this, we find, in a letter to the editor of THE FORUM, dated December, 1928, George Antheil commented that, “The works of Vincent Youmans are pure clear, and extremely beautiful examples of jazz that is a pure music.”  In the August, 1933 issue of FORTUNE, Wilder Hobson noted that, “To some it means the whole cocktail-swilling deportment of the post-War era.  To others it suggests loud and rowdy dance music.  Many people go so far as to divide all music into ‘jazz’ and ‘classical’.  By ‘classical,’ they mean any music which sounds reasonably serious, be it ‘Hearts and Flowers’ or Bach’s B-Minor Mass,’ while their use of ‘jazz’ includes both Duke Ellington’s Afric brass and Rudy Vallee crooning ‘I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?’…But Duke Ellington bears just about as much relation to Vallee as the ‘B-Minor Mass’ to ‘Hearts And Flowers’…Ellington’s music is jazz.”

Some Jazz Is Popular Music Because It is Vernacular/Utilitarian

The labelling confusion during the 1920s and its perpetuation might stem from jazz being seen as part of a larger group of styles that Wiley Hitchcock has called VERNACULAR music: “a body of music more plebian (than that of “a cultivated tradition”), native, not approached self consciously but simply grown into as one grows into one’s vernacular tongue; music understood and appreciated simply for its utilitarian or entertainment value.”  According to Hitchcock’s conception, this music contrasts with classical music (belonging to a “cultivated tradition”) in that classical belongs to “a body of music…to be approached with some effort and to be appreciated for its edification, moral, spiritual, or esthetic values” (MUSIC IN THE UNITED STATE:  A HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION, Second Edition, Prentice-Hall, 1974, page 51).

Confusion today might be a holdover from the 1920s, when much jazz and jazz-related music was approached quite unselfconsciously and was primarily utilitarian.  And it might persist because some jazz still is.  Jazz, like classical music, has influenced the music used as background for films.  Some films have even contained brief jazz improvisations.  Some jazz, like some classical music, has served as informal dance music as well as accompaniment for entertainment such as stage shows and ballets.  And some jazz and a number of jazz-influenced styles (rock, rhythm & blues, funk, disco), like some classical music, has served as background music at parties and in restaurants.  However, since at least the 1940s, most jazz has been “approached with some effort” and has been appreciated for its “esthetic values” (see “Why Have Bop Combos Been Less Popular Than Swing Big Bands?” by Mark C. Gridley, POPULAR MUSIC AND SOCIEY, 1984, Vol. 9, No. 4, pages 41-6).  For the most part, jazz requires the same degree of attention that classical music requires of its listeners (I know this from having introduced jazz into music appreciation courses for nonmusicians, though it is difficult to prove; see “How Do Cognitive Processes Differ By Level of Jazz Fanaticism?” By Mark C. Gridley in Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson (Eds.), ADVANCES IN CONSUMER RESEARCH, Vol. 14, Association for Consumer Research, 1987, Provo, Utah 84602).  And jazz brings similar esthetic and intellectual rewards to its listeners. (Watch the audience at a jazz concert, or observe jazz listeners in private when you have invited them to your home to hear records with you.  Watch your colleagues while you listen to a jazz research presentation at any meeting of C.M.S., A.M.S., S.E.M., N.A.J.E. or the Sonneck Society).  Therefore, though we can appreciate the origins of the confusion, it is not legitimate to say that jazz has usually been “appreciated simply for its utilitarian…value.”  So, by Hitchcock’s conception of vernacular music, much jazz does not fit.  Instead, it fits the cultivated tradition.

Another source of confusion might be that jazz musicians have frequently played dance music and popular music, and many do so today.  This might be especially problematic because some of the most historically significant jazz musicians were known to the general public not for their jazz improvisations, but rather for their performances of dance music and light renditions of popular show tunes.  Even today, many people still think of Duke Ellington as leader of a swing era dance band, not as a composer of serious concert works that incorporated original jazz improvisations. (He was BOTH.)  Most people probably associate Louis Armstrong more with singing “Hello Dolly” than with developing a style of jazz trumpet improvisation that influenced generations of jazz musicians.  (Though he did BOTH, Louis Armstrong made his living through much of his career by playing popular music, and only a portion of his recorded output is jazz.)  People who define jazz as the music of the “big band era” of the 1930s and 40s are likely to confuse jazz and pop simply because they do not realize that most of the dance music produced during that period was just swinging band music, not improvised jazz.  The fact that many jazz musicians were employed in the big bands and were occasionally given solo spots obscures identification for the basic nature of the big band music.  The truth of this situation echoes in a statement recently made by Bob Wilber in reference to Benny Goodman:  “…had the top dance band in the country, which was also a great jazz group…” (Cadence, August, 1986, vol. 12, No. 8, page 11)    (FOOTNOTE:  In fact, numerous accounts of the jazz musicians’ life during that period emphasize the practice of searching for after-hours clubs in which to improvise jazz after the dance jobs were over, and there was no longer any requirement to serve as accompanists for commercial singers and stage shows.  For bibilographies of these accounts, consult JAZZ STYLES, Second Edition. END OF FOOTNOTE)

Perhaps it would be easier to make the distinctions between art and pop if we consider that, typically, jazz musicians are sufficiently versatile to perform several different types of music, some being necessary for earning a livelihood, some for creating “art.”  Usually the musicians themselves draw clear distinctions between the types of music and their motivation for performing each type (what is done primarily for money and what is done primarily for artistic satisfaction).  For instance, frequently in the same day, Los Angeles trumpeter Conte Candoli plays a few hours with the Johnny Carson-Tonight Show orchestra, knowing full well that it is essentially a pit band for the variety show, then proceeds to a paying engagement in a night club where he will be required to improvise jazz solos, knowing that the product of the latter activity is serious music that requires on-the-spot creativity and draws upon all the instrumental proficiency and knowledge of compositional rules he can tap.  Here are some other examples.  At one time or another during his career, jazz violinist Joe Venuti played in the string section of the Detroit symphony orchestra as well as the dance band of Paul Whiteman AND the jazz band of Bix Beiderbecke, and he would explain the differences to anyone who asked.  Modern jazz bassists Richard Davis and Ron Carter have also derived their livelihoods from a similar distribution of affiliations, and the situations of these players are not especially unusual in the world of jazz.  The point is that an association of jazz musicians with popular music should not be used to mistake jazz itself for popular music any more than we should call performances by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra anything less than “serious music” simply because members of that orchestra are known also to earn portions of their livelihood by recording movie music in Hollywood.

Some Jazz Is Popular Music Because It Is Light

Examine another approach to defining the term “popular music.”  Musicologist Joseph Kerman has said, “…the word also carries an idea of fun; it implies a certain lightness, an easy accessibility, a notion of something not to be taken too seriously” (page 486, LISTEN–Third Edition, Worth Publishers, NY, 1980).  Obviously this criterion allows most “classical” music to be considered “serious music” by contrast with its less weighty counterparts outside of classical music.  We must note that there certainly is light-hearted jazz, as there is light-hearted classical music.  And certainly some music that has been called jazz, including much of what has found its way onto the radio, is light music and deserves the “popular music” label because of its lightness.  However, at least since the late 1940s, much jazz that has survived on record does not possess “an easy accessability.”  In the past fifteen years of research, I have found that liking for most jazz is an acquired taste, among musicians as well as nonmusicians.  That jazz does not generally appeal to young people might be another indication of this. (Only 3% of jazz record sales go to buyers under age 20, 5% of classical record sales going to the same aged buyers.  The age range for the largest single segment of buyers of jazz records is the same as that for classical buyers:  ages 35 and over.  See RIAA report cited earlier.)

Is Jazz Aimed At An Intellectual and Artistic Elite?

Let us now explore the classification of jazz by examining intention and market segmentation.  First let us look at intention.  Joseph Kerman lumps jazz with popular music.  Yet he also claims that a distinguishing trait for “contemporary classical music–the music of Stockhausen, Crumb, Lentz, and the others…is…(that it is)…largely directed to an intellectual and artistic elite” (same book cited above, page 486).  Though Kerman might not know it, like “contemporary classical music,” jazz has a tiny audience that also can be called “an intellectual and artistic elite.”  For instance, in a study of jazz radio listeners, Holbrook and Holloway found the jazz audience to be above average in education and income.  In fact, they termed the jazz purists as “over-priviledged” and “up-scale”.  (FOOTNOTE: Morris B. Holbrook and Douglas V. Holloway, “Patterns of Relationships Among Esthetic Preferences And General Characteristics:  An Application of Multidimensionally Scaled Correlations To Mapping The Market For Music”, November 10, 1978, working paper, Columbia University School of Business, parts of which are summarized in Holbrook and Holloway, “Marketing Strategy and the Structure of Aggregate Segment-Specific, and Differential Preferences,” Journal of Marketing, 1984, Vol. 48, 62-67.   Also see THE NPR AUDIENCE 1981 by David Giovannoni, Effie Metropoulos and Evelyn Jones, copyright 1982 by National Public Radio, 2025 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.  NPR listeners are 14 times as likely as the general population to listen to jazz, therefore characteristics described for such listeners can tell us more about jazz listeners, too. END OF FOOTNOTE)  So, by mentioning elites, Kerman makes distinctions for contemporary classical music that also apply to jazz.   In this way, he provides us with another criterion for distinguishing jazz from popular music.

Before we go further, it must be noted that serious difficulties arise in distinguishing jazz from popular music by determining what audience the creator has in mind.  Music that is made just for the sake of making music and pleasing its creator (the composer or improviser following his own muse) really has no intended audience, in the sense that the categories of “top-40” or “easy listening” define radio audiences at whom certain music is aimed.  Much jazz improvisation is created primarily for the emotional and intellectual satisfaction of the player.  There is no question that most artists would be pleased to learn that someone besides themselves appreciated their work.  But the improvisations of jazz musicians are rarely made precisely for reaching that goal.  Quite the contrary.  Most jazz players improvise to the best of their ability, trying to be as original as they can be, and then leave it at that.  Like many painters and sculptors, some jazz musicians have told me that they play for themselves and assume that listeners will grant them the perogative of their own taste, as with painters who land a commission that carries no stipulations about content or medium.  The patron gives the artist the freedom to create and trusts that the product will reflect the values and skill of the artist.  The problems of appreciating the finished product then lie with the patron, not the artist.

By contrast, what underlies a major portion of works in popular music is quite different.  As is well known by record company insiders and the members of show business, much popular music is made specifically and tailored precisely for particular audiences.  Underlying the preparation of new works in the pop music arena are extensive studies of what sells. (In fact, soon after a “new sound” captures public attention, hundreds of imitations will be rushed to market.)  For much of popular music, the motivation lies outside the creator because the impetus for the creation is to reach the audience.  In fact, among the criteria for defining “popular song”, Charles Hamm states that it is “composed and marketed with the goal of financial gain” (in YESTERDAYS: POPULAR SONG IN AMERICA, W.W. Norton, 1979, first page of introduction).  However, in much jazz, the situation differs considerably because the motivation lies inside the creator who is simply pursuing a personal exploration.  We must remember that, rather than being commercial, most jazz is very experimental, by nature.

In keeping with the above reasoning, then, you can see that much popular music is utilitarian in the sense that it is made more FOR the market rather than being almost exclusively an indulgence of the creators.  By contrast, many jazz musicians just play and are happy that money is available to bring them together with their bandsmen.  Much jazz is made primarily for those who create the music, and then, if others happen to like it, the creators view themselves as lucky.  (In fact, jazz musicians frequently comment that audiences constitute a distraction.)  Among many players it is considered virtuous to remain uncompromising and ignore the wishes of the audience.  In fact, few jazz groups “take requests.”  For many jazz musicians, the popularity of their music is incidental to the creation rather than being central to it, as is so often the case for popular musicians.  (FOOTNOTE: Some jazz musicians have told me that they become concerned if they receive too much applause or if their records sell well.  This is because great popularity is so frequently associated with poor quality products and shallow levels of creativity.  Other jazz musicians have told me that they rarely pay much attention to crowd reaction, and they view response to their music as irrelevant to their work because they themselves know when they are succeeding and when they are failing in what creative act they are attempting. END OF FOOTNOTE)  Conversely, the popular music stars with whom I have performed (a fair number of the Las Vegas, Hollywood, and Motown features) place great stock in crowd reaction.  I have noticed frequently that they consider themselves successful, not by their personal assessment of the artistic creativity of their performance, but rather by the intensity of applause. (We must remember that most of the creativity in stage shows is tapped when the show is being conceived and rehearsed, whereas little occurs in the countless performances of set routines.  Also, for the most part, pop music is packaged and reproduced, whereas jazz is created on-the-spot, fresh for each performance.)  They also take quite seriously the reviews they get, apparently because they have an audience in mind for their work, and the reviewers reflect a slice of audience opinion.  Many jazz musicians, on the other hand, remain quite oblivious to the content of their reviews, and those who do pay attention to them will openly point out, to anyone who asks, how their own view of a particular performance contrasts with that of a critic. (FOOTNOTE:  For example, pianist Clyde Hart and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins expressed surprise that such a fuss was made over their 1939 recording of “Body and Soul.”  They felt that it was merely another improvisation, not outstanding by their standards.  A similar occurrence is documented for the Sonny Rollins recording “Blue Seven.”  Other musicians frequently report similar experiences, also.  And I have run across this in interviewing more than one jazz musician whose recordings I’d analyzed.  In my own public improvisations over the past 25 years, I, too, frequently have noticed that some of my best go relatively unnoticed and some of my worst elicit the most praise. END OF FOOTNOTE)

All the above is not to say that jazz musicians all play exactly the way they wish all the time.  The above points are intended primarily as a description of what determines the content of jazz improvisation (utilitarian vs. esthetic concerns).  Certainly such matters as duration of performance, loudness, selection of tempos and styles frequently also reflect the influence of record buyers, night club owners, disc jockeys, etc.  And, of course, when some musicians are underemployed they will attempt to expand their audience by assimilating a popular trend such as bossa nova, jazz-rock, or by adding vocals or performing a jazz version of a popular show tune or movie theme.  But that is not necessarily true for most jazz musicians, and it says little about the content of jazz improvisation contained within those modified performances.  In other words, the kind of compromises made by some jazz musicians resemble those that are typically made by the creators of popular music, but the extent of such manipulations found in jazz does not approximate the extent, indeed the underlying prime motive, typified by the creators of popular music.

The experience of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond during the 1950s and 60s illustrates some of the problems in using intention for trying to distinguish issues of a product’s artness from issues of its popularity.   Their work was primarily improvised jazz, and it was an honest expression of what they liked to play.  It happened to please more people than just its creators, and it became trendy.  The crucial distinction here is that it did not become popular BECAUSE its creators had an audience in mind and tailored it to that audience.  On the contrary, it became popular because it somehow met esthetic needs in many listeners.  Brubeck did not “sell out.”  He never watered down his products or diluted his creativity to make it palatable to the masses.  His popularity was an accident.  Most jazz fails to appeal to most people.  His jazz just happened to appeal.

Because much jazz is intended for no audience in particular, we cannot use Kerman’s criterion of intended audience for categorizing jazz in the way Kerman uses it to characterize “contemporary classical music.”   We can, however, observe that, for the most part, the jazz audience is an elite group of listeners.  Therefore, if we can sidestep the notion of intention, we might end up with the same conclusion, namely that the audience for contemporary classical is an elite, no matter whether the composers intended it specifically for them, and that the audience for jazz is an elite, too.

Does Jazz Compete With Popular Music For The Same Audience?

Now let us look at market segmentation.  Critic Martin Williams has said that jazz competes with popular music for the same audience.  However, Williams overlooks two facts: 1) rarely do popular music radio stations program any jazz, and 2) National Public Radio affiliates frequently DO program jazz.  In other words, rather than competing with ROCK for its audience, jazz is more likely to compete for the same audience as CLASSICAL music.  For instance, a 1985 Arbitron study of 3000 people who listen to jazz on an NPR affiliate showed that 77% of them also tuned into broadcasts of classical music. (See Tom Church note to Tom McLaren of WQLN dated August 12, 1985.)  In the 1977 study cited earlier, Holbrook and Holloway found that classical music was listened to by jazz purists, those who did not view jazz as dance music or party music and who preferred performers who did not incorporate vocals or rock.  And a National Jazz Service Organization report, published September 8, 1986, said that, of people who attend jazz performances, 34% also attend classical/chamber music performances and 41% also attend operas (available from The National Jazz Service Organization, 1201 Pennsylvania Avenue-Northeast, Suite 720, Washington, D.C. 20004, phone 202-393-8585). (FOOTNOTE:  It should be noted that, at one time or another, several cities have had all-jazz stations.  This might lead us to wonder whether much of jazz has its OWN audience and does not compete with classical OR popular music for its fans.  Just as there are listeners who keep their radios tuned to a solitary classical station, there also are listeners who never budge from a given jazz station. END OF FOOTNOTE) In other words, it may be inaccurate to classify jazz with popular music on the assumption that jazz draws its listeners from popular music’s audience.  Only after extensive market surveys, will we know how many jazz fans listen more to rock than to classical music.  But our currently available data suggest that, if we classify jazz according to where it draws its listeners, jazz lies closer to art music in its listenership.


Now we are in a position to answer the questions that were asked at the beginning of this discussion.

  1. Does jazz qualify as popular music if “popular” means that something is liked by a relatively large portion of the population?  No, because most people do not like jazz.
  2. Does jazz qualify as popular music if “popular” means “of the common people”?  No, most jazz musicians are not “of the populace.”  They reflect a specially trained elite.
  3. Yes, “jazz” once was a term applied so loosely that it denoted popular music in general, and, partly because of that situation, it is accidentally misused now, long after “jazz” has taken on a much narrower meaning.
  4. Yes, some jazz is “popular music”, in the sense that it is “vernacular music”, because it has been approached unselfconsciously and has been utilitarian to the extent that it was used as dance music, film music, party music.  However, much jazz fits none of those qualifications, is not “primarily utilitarian in nature” and better fits the “cultivated tradition” label because it is appreciated primarily for its esthetic and intellectual rewards, is approached selfconsciously and with some effort.
  5. Yes, some jazz does possess “an easy accessability.”  However, much jazz, especially since the late 1940s, does not possess “an easy accessability.”  On the contrary, it “is approached selfconsciously and with some effort”, and it requires a cultivated taste.
  6. Though not consciously aimed at any audience in particular, much jazz does find its primary audience among “an intellectual and artistic elite.”
  7. Yes, some jazz does compete with popular music for its audience.  However, most jazz listeners divide their listening time more with classical music than with popular music.

So how can we answer the question of whether jazz is popular music?  The answer is that some jazz is popular music according to all conceptions of “popular music”.  Some jazz is popular music according to some conceptions but not others.  Some jazz is art music in some respects but not others.  And much jazz fails to qualify as popular music by any conception.  It lies within “the cultivated tradition” and warrants the label of art music.

Mark C. Gridley
Copyright © 1987, all rights reserved.