Jazz and the State

It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Ka-ching): A History of Federal Jazz Policy

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A History of Federal Jazz Policy

It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Ka-ching): A History of Federal Jazz Policy is a revised version of my Long Island University/C.W. Post (now known succinctly as LIU Post) master’s thesis, submitted in December 2011, in “partial fulfillment,” as they like to say, of the degree of Master of Public Administration. In 2013, an extensive epilogue was added to what was already an extensive text—at 290 pages including references, the original thesis was more the size of a dissertation.

Milford Kit Final

Milford Graves’ drums: Africa speaks.

Federal jazz policy turns out to be a big subject for something that may not actually exist. The abstract as it appears in the original thesis:

An investigation of the meanings and motives of federal jazz policy—to the degree that federal interest in jazz rises to the level of what can rightfully be called policy—during the three periods of its chief instantiation: the 1930s WPA Federal Music Project; the State Department’s Cold War jazz diplomacy program; and the National Endowment for the Arts’ individual grants to artists and its Jazz Masters program, as well as jazz-related Congressional resolutions promoted by the Congressional Black Caucus. The examination suggests that a “jazzocracy” is sometimes at work, which may co-opt the Black revolutionary character of jazz and delegitimize the avant-garde as it mainstreams the music and validates largely specious, racially opaque principles of American “democracy.” 

If it appears I have a political bone or two to pick with federal jazz policy, such as it is—”such as it is” being the standard qualifier of “federal jazz policy”—well, I do. “Jazzocracy” and “democracy,” as the book shows, are generally two sides of the same loaded coin.

The thesis grew out of the cultural policy study I chose to focus on in several classes of the LIU Post Master of Public Administration program, examining the history of the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, in papers such as “Constitutionalizing Culture” and “The Renewed Frontier: Rational Elitism and Public Arts Policy.” I also studied Arts for Art, the organization that produces, among many other avant-jazz events, the annual Vision Festival in New York, for a class on nonprofit management. Arts for Art executive director Patricia Nicholson Parker (who is married to bassist William Parker, one of the key figures in the avant-jazz universe since the 1970s), whom I interviewed for this class, was very forthcoming about the challenges of running an avant-garde arts organization, and I was treated to a somewhat “inside” view of this “outside” organization.

The idea for the paper truly began to take shape when I was permitted to take for credit, as part of my MPA program, an intensive summer class at Columbia University Teachers College on international cultural policy, taught by Adrian Ellis, who at the time was executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He was enthusiastic about the thesis idea, out of the blue giving me his copy of the Jazz Masters catalog one day, and he immediately put me in touch with people at the NEA who were very helpful—particularly Katja von Schuttenbach, a jazz historian and a jazz program officer at the NEA, who helped to connect me with, among others, A.B. Spellman, poet, writer (author of Four Lives in the Bebop Business), and one of the driving forces behind the NEA’s jazz program—a crucial interview subject.