Jazz in America: Who's Listening?

Jazz in America: Who's Listening?

by Scott K. DeVeaux
copyright © 1999 Scott K. DeVeaux

As a historian, my usual beat has been jazz's (relatively) distant past. I spend much of my research time worrying about what musicians did half a century ago. And yet recently I found myself engrossed in a project that brought me right up to date, right up against issues that concern jazz players in the 1990s.

In 1992, the National Endowment for the Humanities conducted a broad-based Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (or SPPA). This was the third such survey, the first having taken place a decade earlier in 1982. With the help of the Census Bureau, over 12,000 adult Americans were contacted and asked a series of detailed questions about their involvement with the arts. (Ironically, the SPPA was added on to the National Crime Survey, so that people were first asked how many times they'd been mugged, and then how many times they'd gone to the opera.) Jazz was one of seven "benchmark" art forms officially recognized by the NEA (the others were classical music, opera, theater, musical theater, dance, and the visual arts). I was asked to write a report that sorted through and interpreted all the data gathered on the audience for jazz in the early 1990s: Jazz in America: Who's Listening?. In this column, I will summarize some of the findings of this study that might be of particular relevance to readers of this magazine [Jazz Player].

It was an exciting assignment. I spent a lot of time talking to people in promotion, recordings, radio, and non-profit arts organizations and reading through trade and specialty magazines like Billboard and Jazziz, trying to get a feel for the state of the jazz business.

Right away I was confronted with aproblem of interpretation. What, exactly, did people mean when they said they listened to "jazz"? The SPPA depended on a technique called "respondent identification." In other words, "jazz" meant whatever the person answering the questions wanted it to mean, from John Coltrane to Kenny G. The figures, therefore, represented the most inclusive and least discriminating definition of jazz. Jazz purists of various stripes will have to make their own mental calculations to determine what percentage of the total paid attention to "real" jazz.

Some of the overall numbers are encouraging, even if they reinforce the reality that jazz is a minority taste. More than a third (34%) of the adult population said they "liked" jazz, up from 26% in 1982. A considerably more modest 5% said they liked jazz "best of all." This figure may seem small, but it shows a significant increase over 1982 (3%), and translates into nearly ten million people in America who count themselves as hard-core jazz fans. The audience for jazz on radio has grown dramatically: 28% of the population, as compared with 18% in 1982, heard jazz through this medium.

Little of this, however, seems to have directly affected public support for live performance. Approximately 10% of adult Americans went to hear live jazz in 1992, the same percentage as ten years ago. Most of those attended only one or two performances over the course of the year. The real hard-core, those who go to hear jazz at least once a month, form a tiny fraction of this total, probably less than 0.5%. There are a lot of people (25% of the general public) who express a desire to attend more performances, but their presence has yet to be felt in night clubs and concert halls.

One can also learn some interesting things from the 1992 SPPA about who makes up the jazz audience. The strongest correlation for participation in jazz is with education: in plain English, the more educated a person is, the more likely that person is to like and support jazz. This, as it turns out, is true of the arts generally. Since education itself is strongly correlated with income, it is also hardly surprising that support for jazz (especially live attendance) tends to rise with higher income levels, with those earning over $50,000 disproportionately represented.

In virtually all other respects, however, the audience for jazz differs markedly from the audience for more conventional forms of "art music." For one thing, jazz is the only one of the "official" arts in the NEA survey that consistently appeals to men more than women.

This is particularly obvious at the more intense levels of commitment. Men constitute only 45% of those who attended only one concert in a year (compared with 48% of the total adult population), but a whopping 60% of those who attended as many as nine concerts a year, suggesting that some of those one-time-only females may have been dates. Men make up 68% of those who "liked jazz best of all" (not even macho genres like rap, parade music, or rock show such high numbers), and nearly 90% of those subscribing to some jazz specialty magazines. (I didn't have figures for Jazz Player's readership, but I would not be surprised if the numbers were similar.) All of this corroborates anecdotal evidence that jazz is, in the vernacular, a "guy thing."

The situation with race is more complicated. Jazz is routinely referred to as an "African-American music," and the data in the NEA survey provide evidence both to question that view and to reaffirm it. On the one hand, the data confirm what may be obvious: that the audience for jazz is overwhelmingly white. White Americans make up roughly 80% of those attending concerts, for example. But the data also show that rates of participation for African-Americans are consistently higher than those for whites. African-Americans account for only 11% of the adult population, but 17% of those attending concerts and 20% of those listening to jazz recordings. As with gender, these figures rise with intensity of commitment. Roughly 25% of the most frequent concert-goers, and a full third (34%) of those who "like jazz best," are black.

Nor does this necessarily tell the whole story. Since arts participation is connected with education and income (in other words, the educated and affluent are more likely to attend concerts, watch arts programming on PBS, and so forth), and since African-Americans are generally less well-educated and affluent than their white counterparts, these figures probably understate the importance of race in jazz taste. To put it another way: were African-Americans more inclined by educational training to attend concerts and more able to afford to do so, they would support jazz in even greater numbers than they now do. And the data bear this out: nearly half (49%) of African-Americans expressed a desire to attend more jazz concerts, as opposed to less than a quarter (22%) of whites. "For jazz activities," reports a separate NEA study on race and ethnicity and arts audiences, "race or culture is the primary motivation to participate."

One thing is clear: support for jazz is genuinely biracial. According to the NEA survey, jazz, along with the blues, is among the few genres of music that are "liked" by significant numbers of both white and black Americans. Other genres are more clearly stratified by race: white Americans love country, rock, "mood" or "easy listening" music, and classical, while black Americans prefer gospel, soul, rap, and reggae. But even the racial overlap for jazz still leaves room for particularly strong support in the black community. More than half of African- Americans (54%) say they "like" jazz, a figure that is comparable in size only to country music among white Americans (57%) and exceeded only by black taste for blues (59%) and soul (68%). 16% of African-Americans say they like jazz "best of all," second only to gospel music (and compared with 4% of whites). As I mentioned earlier, one may argue about what exactly these audiences, black or white, mean by "jazz." But there can be little doubt that jazz, by whatever definition, is inextricably associated with African-American cultural identity.

What about age? Jazz players may congratulate themselves for having an audience that is youthful relative to the other, more established art forms. Participation tends to peak among the 25-34 age group, as compared with the 45-54 age group for classical music. And yet . . . the jazz audience appears to be gradually graying. In 1982, the highest levels of participation came from the youngest adult age group: 18-24. Those 18- to 24- year-olds are now 28- to 34-year-olds, of course, and continue to support jazz; but the new 18-24 age group seems less inclined to do so.

What to make of this trend? One may speculate that youthful taste for jazz in the early 1980s was driven by fusion, with its rock-influenced high energy appeal. Today's "contemporary jazz," on the other hand, is aimed more at baby-boomers who have outgrown rock. Or perhaps jazz is simply becoming more "establishment," less likely to serve as a symbol of youth rebellion. One may add to this the fact that the population as a whole is aging: there are fewer 18- to 24-year-olds (as a percentage of the population) now than then. Meanwhile, support for jazz has shot up among the oldest Americans: 21% of those over 75 liked jazz in 1992, compared to 8% ten years earlier. As more and more people who grew up with jazz, swing, and (dare we say it) bebop enter retirement age, there will inevitably be more and more grey heads in the audience. For whatever reason, the gradual drift of jazz toward "official" venues (concert series, NPR and PBS) seems supported by a shift in its audience base toward older, more affluent, and presumably more influential adults.

What about jazz players themselves? Approximately 1.7% of adult Americans (3.2 million) report "performing or rehearsing" jazz in 1992. Of these, less than half (0.7%, or 1.3 million) played jazz in public. Given the relatively small size of these numbers, it is hazardous to risk detailed analysis. But a few trends emerge. Jazz players are predominantly male: about 60%, rising to over 70% among public performers. Blacks are also disproportionately represented: 15% overall, about 25% of public performers. Jazz players are relatively youthful, with 71% of the total under the age of 45. Not surprisingly, they are dedicated supporters of live jazz performance. Despite their relatively tiny numbers, they make up about 9% of the jazz audience. At the same time, only about 70% of performers say they attended at least one jazz performance in 1992, which means that nearly a third of jazz players don't go out to hear jazz -- and evidently don't count their own performances!

There are a lot more intriguing wrinkles in the NEA survey, and other useful conclusions that one might draw from the data. If you are interested in obtaining a copy of the report yourself, or suggesting to a local public or college library that they acquire one, they shouldn't be hard to come by. One contact has been: Seven Locks Press: P.O. Box 25689, Santa Ana CA 92799, 1-800-354-5348. Jazz in America: Who's Listening? is an official government document, Research Division Report #31, and at press time was being sold for $10.95 plus shipping. Enjoy.


"I'd forgotten that I wrote this summary of the NEA monograph for Jazz Player magazine a while back," Scott DeVeaux wrote to Bill Kirchner. "This may tell you what you're interested in knowing. Feel free to pass it on to whomever."

JJA thanks to both gentlemen.

Scott DeVeaux is Director of Graduate Studies at McIntire Dept. of Music, University of Virginia.

Email: deveaux@virginia.edu or skd9r@unix.mail.virginia.edu


C o m m e n t s

Thanks! 1 of 3
Jamerica December 13, 10

Thanks a lot for providing all of this very informative information! you've helped me a lot with my research paper for 12th grade English =)

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