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As national jazz sales dwindle, genre alive and well in Ithaca

Cornell students promote jazz music through “After Six” band.
Cornell senior Robert Araujo flexes, sitting patiently at his keyboard, waiting for a cue from the sound technician. Even though his band, After Six, is running 10 minutes late for soundcheck, Araujo looks calm. After four years of shows at the University, he knows the drill—never forgetting to make sure the speaker pointed in his direction has a little extra bass coming out. Jazz performances like this one in Cornell’s Appel Commons building, he said, help to maintain the genre’s popularity throughout the Ithaca community, even as interest in jazz dwindles across the country.

“I think that a big reason jazz is popular here is because the college communities are so integral to Ithaca’s existence,” Araujo said.

The 2014 Nielsen U.S. music year-end report released in January found that jazz is now tied with Classical for the least popular music genre in terms of total consumption, at just 1.4 percent of total market share. And when album sales are factored in, jazz ranks dead last, according to the report.

But, despite the national trend, local musicians said jazz performances have remained steady in Ithaca. In addition to regular shows at Cornell, Ithaca College, and Ithaca High School, downtown venues like Bar Argos, The Dock and Carriage House Cafe all feature live jazz at least once a week.

“Relative to the last couple years, I think the jazz scene is definitely thriving,” Greg Evans, a musician who performs in Ithaca with a variety of groups, said. Evans teaches jazz at both Cornell University and Ithaca College.

Last year, Evans launched a Tuesday night jazz jam at The Dock, which attracts an audience of 40 to 75 jazz fans and an additional 15 to 30 musicians each week, according to Angelo Peters, who coordinates performances at the venue.

The Tuesday jams help connect student musicians with Ithaca natives, Araujo said. Student and faculty jazz players have helped build an appetite for jazz downtown, he said.

That appetite extends to Madeline’s Restaurant on the Commons, which asked Evans to begin weekly performances there, starting April 16.

In addition to support from local venues and encouragement from college campuses, jazz popularity has also been aided by the revival of vinyl record sales — and since Nielsen statistics only factor in new album sales, purchases made by hardcore fans willing to dig through boxes at record fairs aren’t counted.

Vinyl LP sales increased by 52 percent in 2014, and now comprise more than 6 percent of physical album sales. Miles Davis’ jazz album Kind of Blue ranked among the top 10 for 2014 vinyl sales.

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Because there are so many crossover genres of jazz, some may be prematurely reporting the genre’s demise, Jack Skutnik, who has been promoting the Ithaca record fairs for more than 20 years, said.

“There are so many subheads it’s crazy,” said Skutnik. “It’s not [always] getting reported or recorded as jazz.”

“Jazz is not dead,” Ron Rambach said. Rambach is the founder of Music Matters, Ltd., a label with exclusive rights from Universal Music to reissue the classic Blue Note jazz records.

Rambach limits himself to a 3,500 copy limit for each album he re-presses but still sells roughly 1,000 records per month.

“They basically sound better than the originals,” Rambach said. “I just wanted to share this phenomenal music with new generations of people.”

That generation of people will continue to live in Ithaca if students and faculty at Cornell and Ithaca College keep playing jazz.

“I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface on what it can become,” Evans said.

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