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March 23, 2011


The Brand of Jazz

The issue of branding has increasingly become a driving force in everything we do both personally and professionally.  Just think of Facebook and how we brand ourselves through accumulating the most friends or associating ourselves with certain activities or groups, etc.  Facebook has become the quickest and most accessible form of personal brand recognition. I recently read branding expert Peter Arnell’s book Shift: How To Reinvent Your Business, Your Career, and Your Personal Brand  in which he documents his struggle with weight loss and illustrates how he rebranded himself from unhealthy and overweight to healthy and fit, defying all odds.  As Arnell details his own process, he stresses the importance of rebranding ourselves to initiate change and how that can affect everything we do in life. Well executed branding can transform something that is all but forgotten into something amazingly successful and full of life.  In reading Arnell’s book, I couldn’t help but think of jazz and how a major rebranding can make the music more accessible and relevant in our modern culture.

So what is the jazz brand of today? I’m sure a good many would say that jazz is dead, making the brand virtually nonexistent. Or maybe their best jazz association would be to a legend of the past like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis or John Coltrane. Granted, their contributions are immeasurable but that’s not what’s happening today. Some might argue that Esperanza Spalding is the face of today’s jazz, even though up until a month ago they had never heard of her. I seem to remember the same discussion regarding Norah Jones a few years back and I am not sure how much it has done to move the music forward. But I’d be willing to bet that if you asked most people on the street who they associate with jazz today, they would say either Kenny G or Wynton Marsalis. Cliche I know, but whether we care to admit it or not, they are probably the two most recognizable living artists in jazz. I’m not referring to either gentlemen’s music but rather to their public persona as it is linked to the genre. Regardless of your opinion of either, the fact remains that each have achieved significant success and popularity and are most often associated with jazz by the public at large. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be more opposite. It’s either the smooth jazz guy or the guy on the side of tradition, leaving out everything in between. Perhaps what jazz needs today is a brand that is less polarizing and more on the side of being inclusive rather than exclusive to any one camp. So, what kind of “shift” is it going to take for the music that is best known for reinventing itself, to actually reinvent itself going forward?

For the record, I have not met or worked with either Kenny or Wynton, nor am I attacking or endorsing their contributions. This is less about the validity of their music and more about understanding the image and attitude they project in the overall branding of themselves and how that relates to jazz. What can we learn from their success in defining a new and modern jazz brand? My interest is not in criticizing or complaining, but as a concerned jazz professional and a person of action, I want to be part of the solution and discussion of what it’s going to take to breathe some new life into this music and its brand. Is jazz all but forgotten or is a new image necessary or even possible?

I have invited Kenny, Wynton, Esperanza as well as branding guru Peter Arnell to weigh in on the topic. I’d like to hear their thoughts on the brand of jazz today. So as a part of this ongoing query, I have sent requests to each of them asking a few questions about their brand and jazz and what it all means or doesn’t and I will present their responses in a follow up blog. In the meantime, I would love to hear what you have to say.

– JV

  1. Mar 24 2011

    Wow, this is really a challenging topic. I think so much of what people view as jazz has somewhat to do with their age culture and when and where they started listening. As for myself I came into it listening to bee bop and generally what is considered “modern jazz” with Coltrane, Miles, Art Blakey, Bud Powel, Art Tatum, Eric Dolphy and the list goes on. This happened largely because as a high school student one of my best friends was an avid Jazz drummer and complete jazz freak. So my music DNA. was formed. This doesn’t mean I’m narrowly focused. I listen to a lot of funky and current things. But is does speak to my personal brand associations. Now if I was more of a casual listener and non musician I might have more of a smooth jazz or commercial example such as Kenny G.reference point. It’s less challenging and certainly beautiful in it’s own way. I really can’t see how to re-brand jazz. I guess it’s always going to be a subjective thing.

  2. Mr. Pollard
    Mar 26 2011

    Nothing wrong with listening to various types of music. However, we must keep in mind that Jazz is characterized as one of the only true American Art Forms. It is a music that is Classical American Music, so that whenever Countries request American Classical Music, Jazz is the export. The unfortunate thing is many people don’t consider Jazz as classic, but it is. People think they can just do anything and call it Jazz. Just because people do it doesn’t mean it is. People here have a history of appropriating from others or just making things up and calling them whatever they see fit. Just like European periods and types of music such as Baroque, Concertos, etc., there are similarities in Jazz such as Bebop, the birth of the Cool, and Avant-garde’ for example. This music (Jazz) has to be given much more respect. Don’t take my word for it just ask Wynton.

  3. Mar 30 2011

    Totally agree with this article, I have just finished writing something very similar which will be published on the website in the next few weeks (great minds think alike!!). Essentially I think one of the challenges Jazz faces today is how to make it more “relevant” to the mainstream of music lovers, something Miles Davis considered every time he reinvented Jazz, but few people seem to be doing today. 90% of all the people I know have very little interest in Jazz, and every time I ask one of them what Jazz artists they like, most of them will say something like “….well, I heard Kind of Blue a few years ago, but that’s about it…”!! It’s not their fault, but the more people I hear this from the more it worries and disappoints me. I see and hear much more musical talent in the majority of Jazz musicians today, than in a lot of the so called new breed of pop artists. Yet who are the ones earning £millions, or selling out arena’s, or appearing on MTV etc etc…..not the Jazz artists that’s for sure. For me Jazz needs a re-boot, something to give it a new lease of life and create a sound which is both respectful of Jazz history, but also recognises the types of sounds that the mainstream of people want to listen to. I think if we can get a few Jazz artists doing this, more and more will follow and before we know it, Jazz will be as mainstream as Pop music is today!! Hopefully then we will start to see Jazz artists selling out arena’s, earning the big bucks, and having their video’s shown on MTV! Not sure how long it will take to reach that nirvana, but I for one will be playing my part in helping Jazz on its way.

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