A neat theory, but one derived from my buying into the common wisdom: that jazz is intrinsically instrumental and that cyclically, vocals "crowd out" instrumentals for the public's attention. Reasons used to explain this are as useless as the bromides used to explain fluctuations in the stock market. So, to replace this flawed common wisdom, I hereby propose a new Unified Vocal/Instrumental Jazz Field Theory:
|Einstein could never come up with this|
Instrumentalists have been responsible for the dynamic musical changes in jazz, but without the presence of singers, or hybrids (think Armstrong) absorbing and translating these changes into vocals, which then fed back to soloists (think Lady Day and Lester), jazz would have been listened to and respected, but it never would have inhabited the center of American musical culture. Rather than "crowding out" instrumentals, vocalists have actually sustained jazz as a popular force.
The perceptive will note that this is actually the current status of jazz: respected, listened to by a relatively small group, ignored by most; essentially a niche music. For instrumentalists today, the vocal context is where jazz soloing is more likely to be heard, expanding audience exposure and possibly opening up employment possibilities for musicians in a non-vocal context.
At this site you can find one person's notion of the "Top 25 Jazz albums of all time." They're all instrumentals and I bet vocals would be hard to find on anyone's list out there.
Here's another chart, of The Most Successful Artists of Each Decade. They're almost all vocalists.
This site, by a Swedish statistician, has something he calls The Top Songs of the Decade.
Take it as you like. In this nebulous statistical world, cases could be made to fit a great many theories (jazz crop circles outlining II-V changes?)
In any case, I don't think this breaks down to the Low versus High Music dichotomy. At least, it may not be a useful way to see it, as the musicians who made jazz happen are on record as preferring the "good vs bad" model of music, as opposed to the "high-low" one. Is Shaw's Begin the Beguine High or low? What about Armstrong's Dinah?
Is the general misperception about the relationship between instrumentals and vocals in jazz the result of a yawning crevasse between the makers of jazz and the writers on jazz, with listeners wandering bewilderedly in critical limbo? Or-although this is almost unthinkable-am I just plain wrong?