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When the Artist's Work Finds the Right Audience...

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @retronius

photo by Michael Benevento

If you’ve been paying any attention to my radio show lately (Fridays at 9pm CDT on [KRTU San Antonio]) or following me on Twitter, you may know I’ve been obsessed with Marco Benevento’s latest album, Between the Needles and Nightfall . I first saw him on the rather impressive documentary series, Icons Among Us, speaking at length about the virtue of jam bands. (By the way, if you want to know what Nextbop is all about in a purely visual sense, Icons Among Us captures the feel of this site perfectly. There’s a reason why we’ve been ranting and raving about it so much.) I may have been thrown off a bit by Benevento’s embracing the title of “jam band” but I did bristle a little less at the sound after his explanation. What is jamming other than improvisation? What is the free-wheeling hodgepodge of music Benevento makes other than jazz that seems more palatable to an audience?

That’s really the matter at hand. We can go on and on about the split between traditionalists and modernists or the distribution of record sales or if the “pay what you want” model works when your name isn’t Yorke (according to Jason Parker, [it does]). The real challenge that jazz faces today is making sure the music finds an audience and ensuring that audience can sustain the creation of future music.

As [Fred Kaplan] and [Patrick Jarenwattananon] recently noted, there is a new audience out there for jazz but they’re put off by high price points (and to a certain extent, an older business model and ideology). Various attempts to lower ticket prices and highlight vivacious acts like the aforementioned Marco Benevento, the efforts of [Search and Restore], the Winter Jazz Fest/Undead Jazz Fest (also done in part with Search and Restore), and other efforts (usually throughout New York, the lucky bastards) have been met with success. The genre, to harp on this yet again, is not dying. But it is doing all it can in various avenues to find its sea legs once more, especially in regards to its audience.

It’s at times like these when we need to think more about that [hermeneutic circle I mentioned last week]. Giving proper consideration to the artist, the work, and the audience is crucial to the perpetuation of art. (See, that wasn’t all just intellectual noodling. There was a point.) Should the artist’s work not find the proper audience, the work may not get consumed as desired (and certainly not with the numbers or fervency one may expect). Should the audience change over time, the artist must recognize such a change in order to ensure the work a) changes with the audience, b) finds a new audience or c) some combination of the two. If this does not happen, the work and the artist fails to innovate and the audience clearly cannot tell the difference in the nuances of what’s happening because they’ve moved on too far to notice.

So let’s bring things back to Marco Benevento (which my BlackBerry’s media player seems to be doing on its own a lot lately). Judging from the clips I saw of shows of his on the Icons Among Us documentary, he seems to throw a pretty jamming show to packed clubs. Yet this same result didn’t happen when [he played the Montreal Jazz Festival]. The artist created a work that was not intended for the audience that was present. Does this make the evening a failure? For what reason? Was Benevento lacking in his own work? The venue? The audience? The festival overall?

Last night, I was watching a DVD I got from the radio station: Reggie Watts’ Why Shit So Crazy? The comedy was too formless for me. I could recognize this wasn’t some failing of Watts, but that his work wasn’t intended for me. It was largely intended for the Williamsburg, Brooklyn-hipster crowd to whom he was performing. I starting thinking about how this will play nationwide and will this work have the appeal he may want for his career (it apparently must work somewhat since he’s been an opening act for Conan O’Brien’s Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour). Reggie Watts has a challenge of ensuring his off-brand comedy is able to find the right audience. It all breaks down to hermeneutics.

When we forget about the hermeneutic circle, we fail to recognize the importance of appropriateness in art. The combination of the appropriate artist making the right work for the appreciative audience is what makes such art flourish. Maybe if more jazz bands could paint themselves as jam bands or look to play for the same folks who’ll listen to Phish, it may be the new audience the genre may need.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for [African-American Reflections] and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on [91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio]. More of his writing can be found at his blog, [In Retrospect] and you can also [follow him on Twitter].