Tag Archive for Barack Obama

Smooth-Jazz Diplomacy: Kenny G Invades Hong Kong

Kenny G Hong KongWho could have predicted Kenny G’s Twitter intervention of 10-22-14 in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution? Prior to this revolution, who in the U.S. even knew, outside of perhaps his fans, that Mr. G’s 1989 hit “Going Home” is the official closing-time anthem of China? Mr. G, who is discussed in Ka-ching in reference to the meaning of “jazz” and the defining characteristics of a jazz musician, has struck, wittingly or not, an astounding political blow for smooth jazz—a genre not known for its left-wing activism. All he had to do was show up at a pro-democracy demonstration—he has been touring China of late—and post a picture of the moment to Twitter, as he stands in front of a banner that says in part, “Democracy of Hong Kong by Hong Kong,” accompanied by the speciously neutral tweet, “In Hong Kong at the sight of the demonstration. I wish everyone a peaceful and positive conclusion to this situation.”

Yes, he even got “site” wrong, in typical social-media fashion. But note that he wants a positive conclusion to the situation, which clearly speaks to the success of the Umbrella Movement. China picked up on this immediately, of course, and a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said:

We hope that foreign governments and individuals speak and act cautiously and not support the Occupy Central and other illegal activities in any form. . . .  I don’t have a specific grasp of the situation regarding the American citizen you raise who is in Hong Kong participating in the illegal Occupy Central, [but it is requested that all foreign governments and individuals refrain from] using any methods to support Occupy Central and other illegal activities.

Mr. G’s later Facebook/Twitter recantation . . .

I was not trying to defy government orders with my last post. I was in Hong Kong as a stop on my way to perform at Mission Hills and happened to walk by the protest area as I was walking around Hong Kong as a tourist. Some fans took my picture and it’s unfair that I am being used by anyone to say that I am showing support for the demonstrators. I am not supporting the demonstrators as I don’t really know anything about the situation and my impromptu visit to the site was just part of an innocent walk around Hong Kong.

. . . rings painfully hollow, of course. An innocent walk? He’s been in China and Hong Kong for weeks and he doesn’t know anything about the situation? Kenny G as the Clueless American, even if he doesn’t know “sight” from “site”? That’s just as credible as claiming this is (smooth) jazz “black ops” diplomacy as it might be engineered by the State Department and/or the CIA, in an effort to further destabilize China’s hold on Hong Kong. In fact, the Voice of America, a bastion of American jazz diplomacy, ran with this story under the rousing headline, “Kenny G Vexes Beijing Brass with Visit to Hong Kong Protest”:

The pro-democracy group Global Solidarity HK shared the musician’s photo with its more than 3,600 followers on Twitter, adding the comment: “‘Going Home?’ Not without Civil Nomination.” Fans thanked the musician on the social media site and asked that he not let Hong Kong police use the song to disperse the crowds that have held constant rallies in the city’s streets for more than three weeks.

One can only hope that Kenny G’s recantation is as insincere as one suspects his music to be (having heard it only in malls, assuming the only soprano sax-fronted tracks one hears in malls belong to Mr. G). On the other hand, according to the New York Times, there are those who suspected, prior to the incident, that Mr. G may even be an agent of the Chinese government.

But an opposing theory that surfaced last week on Twitter said that Beijing might send Kenny G to Hong Kong to play “Going Home,” and that the protesters, who have occupied sections of Hong Kong’s business districts for weeks, would finally disperse. Harlem Lo, a protester and Kenny G listener, scoffed. “We didn’t leave when the police used tear gas on us,” he said. “Why would a single Kenny G tune shake our determination?”

One also can’t help noticing, in the context of Kenny G as jazz musician, the irony of a Hong Kong dissident named Harlem Lo. At any rate, if Kenny G’s political disavowal is legit, woe unto him. As the Times article notes, “ ‘Don’t worry Kenny,’ wrote a commenter from Hong Kong, Andy Yip. ‘The money from China will keep coming. The jobs from China will keep coming, because you’re exactly the type of people they like . . . People with no souls.’ ”

Addendum: Mr. G continues in his role of jazz-policy piñata. In a New York Times “The Stone” column of 8-19-15, Cornel West, venting about “black prophetic fire” and Obama’s lack of same, mentions Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and, of course, John Coltrane as musicians in that Black prophetic tradition and closes with, in reference to the failure of Obama, “we were looking for a Coltrane and we ended up getting a Kenny G. You can’t help but be profoundly disappointed.” West also says here that “the love ethic is at the very center of” this prophetic tradition, and “it has to have that central focus on loving the people.” One can’t help noticing yet another irony: according to his Wikipedia bio, “Kenny G’s career started with a job as a sideman for Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra in 1973 while 17 and still in high school.”

 

Jazz Masters 2015: Escalator Up

Carla Bley band flyerThe NEA has announced the 2015 Jazz Masters: Carla Bley, George Coleman, and Charles Lloyd. (Joe Segal, founder of the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, is the recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award, but I’m focusing here on the musicians.) It’s not that one wants to argue with these choices; it’s just that, as usual, many a free-jazz giant has been overlooked. Indeed, how about this quote from the always bizarrely witty Carla Bley in the NEA Jazz Masters press release: “To receive the NEA Jazz Masters award is a great and unexpected honor. I can think of many musicians who deserve this award, and won’t be getting it. Luckily, I’m not one of them.” Yes, there are many in the jazz avant-garde who deserved this award and who have passed on, which is to say they won’t be getting it. Nevertheless, from an avant-garde jazz perspective, these 2015 selections must be considered something of a triumph, since the avant-garde is present and accounted for. Tenor saxophonist George Coleman is the reliable mainstream choice, of course, but not only does fellow tenor Charles Lloyd—in a career that has been all over the place, from massive popularity to total obscurity—have one foot left of the mainstream, pianist/composer/arranger and bandleader Carla Bley, in addition to being a woman and not a singer, which already puts her in very select jazz company, boasts major a-g cred.

She’s probably best-known for Escalator Over the Hill: an ambitious, wildly eclectic 1971 three-LP jazz opera that was described by the Guardian as one of the “50 great moments in jazz” and “the Sgt Pepper of new jazz.” The work featured the a-g likes of Gato Barbieri, Don Cherry, Rowell Rudd, Leroy Jenkins, Karl Berger, and Charlie Haden as well as the voices of Linda Ronstadt and Warhol superstar Viva. Bley was also closely involved—along with among others Michael Mantler, her eventual husband—in the near-utopian experiments known as the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra (and its related Jazz Composers Orchestra Association) and the New Music Distribution Service. The JCO grew out of Bill Dixon‘s short-lived Jazz Composers Guild and the 1964 October Revolution, one of the milestones of jazz avant-garde Bolshevism.

Incidentally, Paul Bley, the avant-garde piano giant and Carla’s previous husband, was also involved in the Jazz Composers Guild. Bley is now 81, but Jazz Masters honors are not an issue in his case—though a longtime resident of the U.S., he’s Canadian by birth, a Montrealer. In fact, he was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2008, an honor also bestowed on the late Oscar Peterson (also a Montrealer) in 1972, whose keyboard style may not be diametrically opposed to Bley’s but it’s a close call. Not that this has anything to do with the Order of Canada, which honors Canadians of all stripes, commercial success sometimes trumping artistic achievement, it would seem. For instance, Winnipegger Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive was one of Bley’s fellow inductees in 2008.

But I digress northward. To get back to Bolshevism, Charles Lloyd’s wild biography includes his 1967 tour of the Soviet Union (and subsequent live record release), not arranged by the State Department but by “invitation of the Soviet people,” as it has been Wikipedia‘d around the web. To get back to Jazz Masters, here’s the 2015 selection panel, compliments of Elizabeth Auclair, NEA public affairs specialist—the NEA knows how to do transparency: The layperson—the panel always includes an “outsider,” though I have yet to inquire how this person is chosen—was Luis Alvarez, president/CEO of the Alvarez Technology Group, Salinas, Calif. The academic/arts panelists were Laura Johnson, interim director of education/arts consultant, New York City Ballet, and Ellen Rowe, chair of the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan. The working musicians: Ramsey Lewis, Mr. “In Crowd,” who is 79 and a 2007 Jazz Master; Tia Fuller, a saxophonist and at one time a member of Beyoncé’s all-female band, who more recently toured with jazz-pop sensation Esperanza Spalding; and, get this, Mr. “Cecil Taylor is total self-indulgent bullshit” himself (see Ken Burns’ Jazz and Ka-ching), Branford Marsalis, who is a 2011 Jazz Master, part of the Marsalis Family (male musician members only) JM general induction of that year, one of the more inscrutable moments in the history of federal jazz policy.

Perhaps the Carla Bley selection has something to do with the number of women on this panel. At any rate, it’s all well and good that the NEA is honoring these particular musicians as they approach their 80s; Lloyd is 76, Bley is 78, Coleman 79. But Sunny Murray is 77, Andrew Cyrille is 74, and Milford Graves is 72—and that’s just to name three worthy a-g drummers. Hey, maybe their Jazz Mastership is coming, they’re young yet.

CHARLIE-HADEN-CARLA-BLEY-photo-by-Thomas-Dorn

Photo of Haden and Bley by Thomas Dorn

Addendum: Not long after the JM 2015 announcement, Charlie Haden, a 2012 Jazz Master, who’d been struggling for some time with the degenerative effects of post-polio syndrome, according to Nate Chinen’s New York Times obit, passed on to that great Liberation Music Orchestra in the sky, as someone on Facebook put it. Indeed, the Haden obits usually noted Carla Bley’s essential collaborative role as Liberation Music Orchestra composer-arranger, and this is a band that lived up to its name, whose last record was pointedly titled “Not in Our Name.”

Left politics and Jazz Masters don’t cross paths all that often; in the case of Haden and Bley, these paths cross most distinctly in their names, the record title notwithstanding.

As Chinen’s obit notes,

The Liberation Music Orchestra, which released its debut album in 1969, was Mr. Haden’s large ensemble, and an expression of his left-leaning political ideals. The band, featuring compositions and arrangements by the pianist Carla Bley, mingled avant-garde wildness with the earnest immediacy of Latin American folk songs. Mr. Haden released each of the band’s four studio albums during Republican administrations; the most recent, in 2005, was “Not in Our Name,” a response to the war in Iraq.

Mr. Haden, who liked to say he was driven by concern for “the struggle of the poor people,” hardly restricted his opinions to the Liberation Music Orchestra. While playing a festival with Mr. Coleman in Lisbon, in 1971, he dedicated his “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, and was promptly jailed.

Another addendum: On April 10, 2015, Karen Mantler, Carla Bley’s daughter, posted on Facebook a scan of the presidential Jazz Masters congratulations letter, presumably a form letter, with the announcement, “My mother just got a letter from President Obama! —  feeling proud.”

Carla Bley Obama JM letterWhile the writer of this presidential letter is presumably making an effort to be uncontroversial about jazz, the phrasing, one will note, is fundamentally jazzocratic—which, of course, in the federal policy mindset is being uncontroversial about jazz.

“A uniquely American art form that echoes across generations, jazz gives voice to our experiences as a people and continues to be a defining part of who we are. By creating complex, soulful sounds in a spirit of artistic exploration, you have played a role in expanding horizons and breaking barriers . . .”

A strange piece of boilerplate, indeed. The bit about “complex, soulful sounds,” etc., could just as easily have been written on behalf of, say, Arnold Schoenberg. Perhaps this is not the standard Jazz Masters congratulations letter but rather the standard Jazz Masters avant-garde jazz congratulations letter?

The NEA’s New Leader

Charlie Parker headstoneCirca Valentine’s Day 2014, as if Cupid shot an arrow at the arts, and about 14 months after Broadway moneybags Rocco Landesman stepped down from the post, Obama finally named his pick for a new NEA chair (subject to likely approval by the Democratic-controlled Senate) to replace acting chair Joan Shikegawa: Jane Chu, president/chief executive at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri, where she’s been since 2006, long before the center even opened. This yawning NEA leadership gap is discussed in Ka-ching‘s epilogue; the question now in a Ka-ching context: Is there any jazz connection to the Chu appointment beyond Kansas City being Charlie Parker’s town, hence this otherwise completely irrelevant image of his final resting place in Missouri’s Lincoln Cemetery (photo by Morir Soñando)? Probably not. Jane Chu does have a music background: she holds a Bachelor of Music in piano performance, as well as a Bachelor of Music Education, from Ouachita Baptist University, in addition to a master’s degree in piano pedagogy from Southern Methodist University, among other degrees, all well off the beaten Ivy League governmental path, but it’s not clear at this point what role, if any, jazz plays in these studies. The always stimulating Los Angeles Times Culture Monster blog took a somewhat dim view of the appointment, in a piece headlined, “Obama picks low-profile arts center executive to chair the NEA.” Writer Mike Boehm went on to note:

Chu, who has spent most of her life in the Midwest and Texas, has had a much lower national profile than most nominees for the NEA chairmanship over the past 20 years. Obama’s first appointee, Rocco Landesman, headed Jujamcyn Theaters, a leading producer and landlord for Broadway shows, before Obama tapped him in 2009. . . .  Apart from a brief round of wider attention when the Kauffman Center opened, a search of Nexis, a publications data base, reflects scant press coverage of Chu outside of Missouri.

Boehm also reiterated the sad truth of Obama’s arts legacy:

Under Obama, the NEA’s budget appropriation has fallen each year since 2010, when his Democratic party lost its majority in the House of Representatives, which controls the budget reins. Funding fell from a recent peak of $167.5 million in 2010, according to the NEA’s website, to $138.4 million in 2013 following the most recent round of cuts due to the government-wide “sequestration” policy that aimed to reduce the federal deficit. . . . Adjusting for inflation, the NEA’s funding remains far below where it stood early in the Clinton administration. Severe cuts were enacted after Republicans gained a House majority in 1994 and made “culture wars” a cornerstone of the GOP’s campaign to brand Democrats in general and the NEA in particular as out of step with mainstream American values.

Well, Chu, despite being a Chinese-American woman whose father was an economics professor, is perhaps in touch with what passes for “mainstream American values” among Republicans—she was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and raised in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, in the heart of Mike Huckabee country. Huckabee, in fact, majored in religion at none other than Chu’s alma mater, Arkadelphia’s Ouachita Baptist University. Maybe Chu will soon be known as Aunt Sugar.

Addendum: On June 10, 2014, the Americans for the Arts Action Fund sent an email soliciting its members’ signatures on a letter to the Senate in an effort to light a fire under the do-nothing posterior of this august body.

Can you believe the National Endowment for the Arts has been without a Chairperson for 18 months? President Obama finally nominated Kansas City performing arts presenter Jane Chu to lead the federal arts agency this past February. Her nomination has since been quickly and unanimously approved by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Now, all that awaits us is getting the Senate to find the opportune time to bring this nomination to the Senate floor for a final vote. Will you help by sending a letter to your Senator urging them to bring Jane Chu’s nomination as NEA Chair to the Senate floor by the end of June?

The Senatorial letter notes that the Senate HELP Committee unanimously voted on May 14 to advance her nomination to the full U.S. Senate, a full three months after the appointment was announced. Now Americans for the Arts is looking for a vote before the July 4 recess. Good luck with that. As Chaucer once noted, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”

In point of fact, however, Chu’s nomination was confirmed within 48 hours of the Action Fund email, on June 12. According to McClatchyDC, “The nomination has been non-controversial and Chu was confirmed by the Senate today by voice vote with only a few members in the chamber.” And so it was too for the earlier HELP Committee vote. According to The National Memo, “The National Endowment for the Arts is so non-controversial these days that the Senate committee that oversees the federal agency approved its new chairman Wednesday on a voice vote with almost no discussion as senators raced off to other meetings.” The article goes on to note that Chu “has drawn strong support among Senate Republicans”—she must be as non-controversial as the NEA, which is not really surprising, but, interestingly, she’s taking a very non-Republican pay cut for this job. “The annual salary for the NEA chairman is $167,000, according to the agency’s office of public affairs. Chu’s salary from the Kauffman Center is $225,703, according to an IRS filing for the nonprofit.”