JAZZ RADIO: THE SCHIZOID SHUFFLE


Jan. 29 (Bloomberg) -- There was something unreal, at the limit of the oxymoronic, about the 34th International Association for Jazz Education conference in New York earlier this month.

Maybe I just can't handle success, yet it seemed to me that jazz should be the antithesis of such a sterile and overheated, trade fair. You just know that musicians improvising in the middle of the afternoon in neon-lit antiseptic rooms built for power- point presentations are unlikely to play their best.

Some 8,000 teachers, musicians, producers and media people from 45 countries were circulating in the Hilton and Sheraton hotels -- where are they all when good bands do not fill 200-seat clubs in major cities the rest of the year? In New York, they were attending recitals, debates, clinics and panels on subjects such as ``Connecting With Kids'' ``Saxophone Mouthpiece Technology'' and ``A Brazilian Approach to Swing.''

I couldn't help wondering if all of the time, energy, know- how, and money might have been better invested in subsidizing saloons and striptease clubs like those where an older generation of musicians learned to play the music. That's supposed to be a joke. For better or worse, it is obvious that today you learn how to play jazz in schools. While album sales and market share have been plummeting, jazz education appears to be flourishing.

Is it possible that, in some way that has not yet been measured, jazz is richer than the data implies? More and more albums are self-produced, sold on the Internet or slip under the radar when they are sold in person at concerts and festivals. Then again, the same can be said about rock records.

Either way, jazz radio is in the process of devolution. A panel on ``Jazz Radio in Crisis: Why That's a Good Thing'' included Jenny Toomey of the Future of Music Coalition; Linda Yohn, radio station WEMU, Ypsilanti, Michigan; Gary Vercelli, KXJZ, Sacramento, California; author and journalist Rafi Zabor; myself and moderator Bob Rogers of WSHA, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Rogers began by talking about ``The Long Tail,'' a book by Chris Anderson published last year by Hyperion. ``With the increasing ubiquity of high-speed Internet access (broadband), the concept of hit records and Top 40 radio formats is becoming out of date,'' Rogers quoted from the book.

``If the `head' is the hits, then the rest is the `tail,''' Rogers said. ``When you sell music on line, you store it as a `bit' on a computer system, where it takes up virtually no physical space, and costs practically nothing to `warehouse.' There will be more money to be made on the music that is not a best-seller. If something sells 10 copies a year, each of those copies is as profitable to sell as 10 copies of a mega-hit.''

Nobody knows how all of this will eventually play out, but, Rogers said, ``All of a sudden, sticking to the music that is `most popular' seems a bit boring, unimaginative, even stupid. To the extent that companies micromanage music presentation on the radio, you prevent anything exceptional from happening on your station.''

The only panelist who does not live in the U.S., I noticed how the Americans were still inclined to think in terms of received wisdom like ``formats,'' and how they continue to have a doctrinaire devotion to the 18-34 demographic. Wasn't our subject how music broadcasting will never be the same again?

When I mentioned that some European FM stations will, at their best, follow a track by Glenn Gould with a Rolling Stones tune in the same key, followed by Joe Henderson at the same tempo, one of the panelists on the dais turned to me and said, with what I took to be a hint of Europhobia, ``That's just schizophrenic.''

That may be true. After listening to too many offensive commercials and dim-witted play lists, I have more or less permanently switched off music radio in favor of my fearlessly schizoid iTunes shuffle mode.

Still, it would be nice to hear radio programming put together by somebody with culture and a sense of humor -- Bob Dylan on Sirius satellite radio is a good example -- ``playing whatever they want to hear next,'' as Bob Rogers put it.

``How about presentation that is personally delivered by the person putting on the show?'' he said. ``Isn't allowing and valuing that individuality simply a better idea than anything anyone could possibly order up from program central? Just play the music; tell me a story.''