NEA/Jazz Masters

Pulitzer Prize in Music: Jazz Notes

pulitzer-prizeA Pulitzer Prize, even outside of its traditional journalism purview, is a weighty honor indeed, conferring incalculable credibility, though, at $10,000, it doesn’t have much pecuniary punch. The Pulitzers are not federal policy, of course, but with respect to the music prizes they can be considered a form of American institutional cultural policy (in this case administered by Columbia University).

Of particular note from an improvocracy perspective, Wadada Leo Smith’s monumental Ten Freedom Summers was nominated for a 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, but lost out, somewhat ironically, to a 30-year-old White woman, Caroline Shaw, who, according to The New York Times, did not consider herself a composer, but simply a musician. I haven’t heard Partita for Eight Voices, and I’m sure it’s terrific, but it’s not Ten Freedom Summers. At any rate, the Pulitzer Prize in Music goes back to 1943, but jazz-based Pulitzers are few and far between. There was a brouhaha in 1965 when the Pulitzer jury wanted to honor Duke Ellington, then 67, but the board rejected the notion, allowing Ellington to add to his collection of quotable witticisms with, “Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” In 1999, the Pulitzer committee awarded Ellington, who died in 1974, a special citation, commemorating the centennial of his birth. These posthumous jazz citations, in contrast to Jazz Masters, which awards living artists only, are a periodic Pulitzer peculiarity. Scott Joplin was so honored way back in 1976; George Gershwin in 1998; Thelonious Monk in 2006; and John Coltrane in 2007.

Gunther Schuller, who lives in both the classical and jazz worlds (and who is a Jazz Master), won in 1994 for a classical composition, “Reminiscences and Reflections,” but the first out-and-out jazz Pulitzer was awarded to Wynton Marsalis (also a Jazz Master, along with his entire family), who is one-third of what is known in Ka-ching as the Axis of Reaction, for a three-hour oratorio, Blood on the Fields. Nat Hentoff, who reported Ellington’s fury in 1965, thereby immortalizing the “too young” quote, writing of “Blood on the Fields” in 2004, said, “With respect to Wynton—and I mean that because he keeps growing not only as a musician but also as an educator and composer—that composition does not measure up to Ellington, Mingus and Monk.”

Nevertheless, the Marsalis award signaled a revision in the Pulitzer music rules, allowing more leeway for jazz and the citing of recorded works in addition to compositions. This resulted not only in the aforementioned special citations, but, in 2007, Ornette Coleman won the music prize for “Sound Grammar“—not a composition, a record, which is the first live jazz recording to win the award, notes the Pulitzer site, which goes on to point out that the prize is for “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year,” though Sound Grammar was recorded in Germany. Whatever. While singling out this particular quartet record for a Pulitzer may seem a bit bizarre in the context of Pulitzer music history, at least Coleman was alive to receive it.

Between Coleman’s win and Leo Smith’s nomination, nothing happened on the jazz front but for Don Byron’s “Seven Etudes for Solo Piano,” a finalist in 2009. Byron, who is best known as a reed player, particularly a clarinetist, wears a variety of musical hats spanning everything from the avant-garde to the traditional. His Pulitzer-nominated work would not be categorized as jazz, of course, but the composer notes, “At this point in musical history, post-Stravinsky/Schoenberg, playing complicated rhythms correctly enough to create a groove may be the new frontier for the modern classical player.” Not only was Byron a Pulitzer finalist in 2009, he created quite a groove that year, also winning a Rome Prize for music composition.



The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra

smithsonian-jazz-editedAs John Conyers has pointed out in one of his Congressional statements, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, founded in 1990, is America’s only federally-chartered jazz orchestra and the only such ensemble with resident status at a museum: the National Museum of American History, no less. This is a piece of jazz policy that fell outside the scope of Ka-ching, but the SJMO’s continued existence, as below-the-radar as the band may be on the national jazz picture, is hardly irrelevant as an instrument of jazzocracy. Conyers, in his 2010 statement—he makes these pronouncements occasionally just to remind everyone in the House that there’s such a thing as jazz—explains just what the SJMO means, and the following bullet points are pulled from the conveniently downloadable Word doc on Conyers’ official House site, which also features statements honoring Gerald Wilson, Miles Davis, and Marcus Belgrave. Actually, there are two statements honoring Davis, one an updated version of the other, both in support of H.Res. 894, the “Kind of Blue” resolution, reaffirming jazz as a national treasure, and both statements curiously include in their summations, after Conyers runs down the allegedly spectacular Kind of Blue backstory: “And that is why jazz has such a special place in Americana and is revered by so many.” Americana?! I’m trying to imagine a Whiter, more Norman Rockwellian word for the place of jazz in America. But perhaps there’s a method to Conyers’ madness—he’s talking to the House of Representatives. But I digress; the excerpt from the SJMO statement:

• The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra educates the public about the history and development of jazz as an art form and means of entertainment. It promotes a greater appreciation for jazz as a valuable American treasure by performing jazz masterworks, and presenting educational activities that engage the public with this great music.

• Further contributing to its status, the orchestra is led by the internationally famous Maestro David Baker–the world’s leading jazz educator, author of over 70 books and 400 articles, and recent recipient of the prestigious American Jazz Masters Award given by the National Endowment for the Arts.

• Madam Speaker, the orchestra has special expertise in engaging and educating its audiences—young and old—about this vital part of American culture. I am pleased to recognize its service and accomplishments over the past 20 years.

You gotta love this, even though the SJMO is resolutely retro, which of course comes as no surprise. The 2013-14 concert season features programs such as: “Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds and ‘Empress of the Blues’ Bessie Smith”; “Suite Ellington”; “The Genius of Charlie Parker”; and “Forms of the Blues,” which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” I know, I know, it’s just not reasonable to expect the federally funded Smithsonian to be bankrolling, say, the Celestrial Communication Orchestra; it wouldn’t just be weird, it would be unseemly.

Anthony Braxton: Vibrational Jazz Master

Braxton NEA speechAs noted in the epilogue of Ka-ching, it was indeed quite a surprise when the ultra-avant-gardist Anthony Braxton was named a 2014 Jazz Master. Braxton is only the fifth name to be added to what I consider the Jazz Masters free-jazz pantheon—“free jazz” continuing to stand in for all iterations of the avant-garde, and the four earlier members of this select group being Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Muhal Richard Abrams. Braxton, only 68, is a professor of music at Wesleyan University and one of the most rigorously, intellectually out-there musicians on the scene, and that would be any scene, since in one way or another he’s on every scene. The quote that opens his bio on the Tri-Centric Foundation site (linked above) is interesting, to say the least: “I know I’m an African-American, and I know I play the saxophone, but I’m not a jazz musician. I’m not a classical musician, either. My music is like my life: It’s in between these areas.”

How does someone who’s not a (mainstream) jazz musician become a Jazz Master? Via a very expansive notion of what jazz is, i.e., a notion several light years beyond jazz as defined by the Axis of Reaction (Crouch, Murray, and Marsalis). At the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters ceremony, held at the potentially anti-avant-garde enemy territory of the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center on January 14, Braxton offered an acceptance speech, which has been most helpfully transcribed, in which, right off the bat, he noted his “outsider” status. “Boy, was I surprised,” he said of his Jazz Masters acknowledgment. “I mean, for the last fifty years, my work has been viewed as not jazz, not black, not contemporary classical music, [and] my work doesn’t swing.” And yet he’s a Jazz Master, and precisely the same can be said of Cecil Taylor, who was named a Jazz Master way back in 1990. Some particularly relevant remarks from Braxton’s speech:

The award of the Jazz Masters is a profound honor. It’s understood that the men and women of the Jazz Masters group— their work has provided a vibrational factor that has helped define present-day reality. What an honor to go from the spy who’s out in the cold to a guy whose work can be brought back into the family, whose work can be brought back into the community.

Wow, this was a surprise. And I’d like to hope that inside of this surprise is a reconcilement. We need to have a reconcilement, not just in the music but in our country. We find ourselves in this time period as a country in a complex kind of way.

In his acceptance speech, Braxton, quite understandably, didn’t go into detail on the “complexities” of what ails America, nor did he raise the issue of race, but I think his comments speak directly to the sometimes subversive federal policy implications of Jazz Masters and the NEA, even if those implications ultimately carry little or no weight in “present-day reality.”

Defense Spending vs. Arts Spending

Defense_f35_cupcake-6-960In the section of Ka-ching devoted to the NEA and federal arts spending, I compare the cost of a single F-22 stealth fighter (circa $150 million) to the NEA’s annual budget to make the point that the cost of an F-22 is the NEA budget. In the epilogue, written about two years later, I discuss the F-35 boondoggle, which replaced the F-22 boondoggle. Now, in late 2013, as the Pentagon, not unsurprisingly, weathers the sequestration storm to come out on top with a $32 billion increase for 2014, Mother Jones offers a series of graphics that illustrates why guns beat butter every time. As the article points out, “The F-35 program has 1,400 suppliers in 46 states. Lockheed Martin gave money to 425 members of Congress in 2012 and has spent $159 million on lobbying since 2000.”

Even John Conyers, Jr., he of “jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure” repute, got a little piece of Lockheed Martin treasure in 2012, a mere $1,000. But, on a more encouraging note, the biggest contributor to Conyers’ campaign committee in 2013 is the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, to the tune of $10,000: the labor to Lockheed Martin’s management.

Addendum: In 2014, Conyers briefly found himself off the ballot for the August 5 primary, thanks to his Democratic challenger, Rev. Horace Sheffield III of the New Destiny Christian Fellowship Church (yes, the pastor of a Black church is attempting to unseat Conyers), who charged that some of Conyers’ petition circulators weren’t registered to vote, which in fact is a requirement for this work, but it’s a rule not writ in stone, apparently. When the Conyers camp sued, charging that the requirement prevents people from expressing support for candidates, thereby violating freedom of speech and political association, in late May a U.S. District judge restored Conyers to the ballot, and Michigan is not pursuing the matter further.

Meanwhile, Rev. Horace Sheffield III has been dissing Conyers up, down and sideways:

“He has diminished capacity. Everyone knows that and people talk about it all over town. … The fact of the matter is, he’s lost quite a few steps. The congressman is not all there,” Sheffield said on the Frank Beckman show on WJR Thursday morning. He’s not backing down from those statements.

“I just think that he’s tired, and I think that the people who know him know that sometimes he’s not even sure where he is. If he doesn’t know where he is, he can’t help us go where we need to be,” Sheffield tells FOX 2’s Amy Lange.

Talk about lèse-majesté, not to mention arrant ageism! Never mind the charges against the good pastor for misdemeanor domestic violence against his estranged wife; simply opposing Conyers is a moral felony.

Addendum to the F-35 boondoggle: The latest mishap, as reported on July 4, 2014—how perfect is that?—in The New York Times:

The Defense Department has grounded its fleet of F-35 fighter jets after an incident in which one of them caught fire as it was preparing to take off at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the Pentagon said. The grounding is the latest in a long string of delays that has plagued the Air Force’s newest, and most advanced, fighter aircraft, and comes just days before the plane was to make its international debut at an air show in Britain.

The article ends with the wry observation, “The planes . . . have run into delays amid criticism of the costs, which can vary wildly.”