Jazz in America/Classical in Europe: Functional equivalence

NPR : Roundtable: The Future of Jazz Radio
News & Notes with Ed Gordon, August 10, 2006 · Some experts say the jazz radio format is in crisis. Some of the few stations devoted to jazz may soon change format. Guests: Suzan Jenkins, president of Jazz Alliance International, an industry group; Tom Thomas, president of the public radio research firm Station Resource Group; and Don Heckman, jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times.

As a lapsed structuralist I like terms such as "functional equivalence".  (For instance, I like the one I read in Dianne Ravinovich that divorce has become the functional equivalent to death.) Another one came to mind when I started listening to NPR podcasts in addition to my beloved BBC Radio 4. The one thing I really like about the NPR is its theme tunes which seem to feature a lot of great jazz where the BBC (or other equivalent radio stations - I know the Czech ones) would have a classical piece (of course, both use pop and rock, as well). Now, this is purely an impression, I'm too lazy to back it up by actually doing research but the conclusion I'm forced to reach is that in the US jazz is the functional cultural equivalent to classical music in Europe. That is, it is a province of educated (older) people and it has a patina of respectability. This  discussion on the future of jazz radio is a case in point reminiscent as it is of a number of moans by European intellectuals about the decline of interest in classical music.

There is a broader issue here, though. And it is one of functional equivalence across cultures. What conclusions can we draw from this? Probably the one that we will probably find certain functions present in cultures of certain complexity. However, there is neither a relativist nor a universalist point being made here, seductive though it may be. This functional equivalence in no way pre-determines individuals to given musical tastes - and furthermore an American of an appropriate class residing in Europe is unlikely to switch to classical music just to blend in. But it does mean that certain patterns of prestige (some would say power) are inevitable with regard to prevalent artifacts.