Tag Archive for Jazz Masters

NEA/Jazz Masters: Intro

JazzMastersPosterRevThe NEA—that’s the National Endowment for the Arts, not the National Education Association, which precedes it in a Google search—was created in 1965, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). As with various policy plans, they were originated—along with, for example, the Great Society and the Vietnam Conflict, as the war was known at that time—during the Kennedy Administration, but they saw their full flower under the Johnson Administration. The Jazz Masters Fellowship program was a latecomer to this federal arts party, debuting in 1981, though the first individual grant to a jazz musician was awarded in 1969 to George Russell.

Rather than recount the jazz history of the NEA, which includes the long-lost years of grants to individual artists, as well as Jazz Masters, or compare jazz support to classical support, all of which is covered at some length in Ka-ching, this section will examine other jazz-related awards, both public and private, and offer additional considerations of Jazz Masters honorees, particularly the handful of avant-gardists among them. I’ll also take a supplemental look at related Congressional jazz policy issues (can you say “national treasure”?), which, again, are examined in the book.

 

Jazz and the Library of Congress: Don’t Burn Down the Building

Library of Congress logo1

On July 31, 2014, The New Yorker’s online edition ran a short attempt at humor that played mostly as tragedy in the jazz world. Titled “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words,” and featuring a photo of Rollins, who is still going strong at 83, it painted a bitter picture of a life “wasted” on jazz, and it came off about as funny as gangrene. Though no one at all familiar with Rollins would confuse this comedic whimper with reality, even before an editor’s note was added to indicate it was “a work of satire,” it will likely strike most readers that it was published with his knowledge and approval, which, it turns out, is not the case—Rollins knew nothing about it, according to jazz writer Howard Mandel’s blog. Credited to an Onion writer who goes by the name of Django Gold, the piece was vilified every which way in the online jazz universe, but, interestingly, it was rarely branded as outright racism. Mandel’s blog attack on the piece, for instance, doesn’t go anywhere near the race issue. Django Gold, judging by the haggard photo on his Twitter and Facebook pages, is a young White guy, as might be expected of an Onion writer; he even tweeted, about a week before the Rollins piece appeared, “so embarrassing when I take my shirt off and I’m the most racially pure guy at the beach,” which, in light of the Rollins fiasco, assumes its own curious racist implications.

Outspoken “Black American Music” bandleader and activist Nicholas Payton, however, took the bull by the horns on his blog: without using the word “racist,” Payton makes it clear that The New Yorker piece is just that. “Blacks have been satirized in the media as Niggers for years,” he notes. “I get that White people and Black people have cultural differences and thus a different sense of humor. Given that to be the case, White people: stick to satirizing those who get your sense of humor. Leave Black people be.” In other words, Mr. Django, Lady Gaga is more your speed.

On the night of August 4, Rollins himself made The New Yorker blunder into a media event on his website with a live interview that opened with his startling admission that he subscribes to MAD magazine. Who knew there was still a MAD and it had a senior readership? He ceremoniously dumped all over The New Yorker for what he perceives as its attack on jazz, as if they’re kicking it when it’s down, and interviewer Bret Primack, aka Jazz Video Guy, led him on by asking if the piece was a symptom of the corporate elite’s attack on free expression. Rollins appeared to agree, equating jazz with freedom, and he and Primack more or less agreed that both were endangered. But Rollins went on to insist that jazz was above politics and economics, as if art and activism were perhaps incompatible. When asked what an individual can do to effect change, he suggested we practice our instruments. Solidarity and collective action did not seem to be the order of the day.

But Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were name-dropped as “truth tellers” when Rollins was asked what he reads, suddenly introducing the Far Left into the proceedings. Rollins’ environmental activism and his Global Warming album of the ’90s were also mentioned. (Personal reminiscence: I saw Rollins in concert at the Planting Fields in Oyster Bay, on Long Island’s Gold Coast, at the time of Global Warming, and he introduced the title tune by quite seriously telling the audience, “You’ve got to get rid of your SUVs!” Maybe two people clapped.) Somewhere in the course of the interview Rollins’ Freedom Suite was mentioned, when Primack confused it with Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. Rollins’ parting words, however, were “It’s all good”—this was largely an acknowledgment of the transcendent qualities of art, and while it may not be reasonable to expect Rollins to issue a call to the barricades at this point in his life, the interview seemed a missed opportunity to present something a bit more politically focused in response to The New Yorker‘s provocations. The issue of racism, unsurprisingly, was not broached.

OK, so that’s a bit of Rollins and politics. What does any of this have to do with the Library of Congress (LC)? Well, near the end of The New Yorker piece, quite gratuitously, Mr. Django supplies a perfect federal jazz policy tie-in when he has Rollins say: “Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground.” As inscrutably humorless as this sentiment may be, it raises the question, What has the Library of Congress done for jazz?

Far too much to detail here, though, like the NEA, it could surely do far more, and unlike the NEA, it’s not laughably underfunded. The LC has a staff of about 4,000 and an annual budget of $750 million. As far as the pinnacle of recognition known as the National Recordings Registry goes—this extremely wide-ranging list of American sound recordings, deemed of sufficient historical or aesthetic importance to merit special LC preservation, was established by an act of Congress in 2000—Rollins is included only in Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners, selected in 2003. Among the “modern” jazz records in the Registry, and it is easy to argue that there aren’t enough of them on a list that has reached 400 recordings, with 25 presently added per year: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue; John Coltrane’s Giant Steps; Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um; Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come; Dave Brubeck’s Time Out; and Bill Evans’ Complete Village Vanguard Recordings. The inclusion of Herbie Hancock’s 1973 Head Hunters on the basis that it was “his first true fusion recording,” which, though it was “belittled by many jazz purists as ‘pop’ ” has “proved to be influential not only to jazz, but also to funk, soul and hip hop musicians,” is presumably a nod to the LC’s eclectic/populist side—Head Hunters set sales records for a jazz album in its time.

Monk Coltrane Carnegie coverOn a more significant historical/aesthetic note, back in 2005, you may recall, the widely publicized Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall tapes from 1957 were found by chance in the LC’s Voice of America collection—a record that has yet to be selected for the National Recording Registry. But recently the LC was in the news on two occasions not for jazz recordings but for jazz archives of another sort, with a distinctly avant-garde and activist bent: the papers of Max Roach and Eric Dolphy. The five boxes of Dolphy’s papers, donated to the LC’s Music Division by composer/flutist James Newton, will surely shed more light on a career cut tragically short in 1964; Dolphy died at 36, “perhaps too young to settle his reputation,” as Ben Ratliff noted in the New York Times.

Roach, on the other hand, died in 2007 at 83, and though he never completed his memoirs, the LC has acquired, from Roach’s family, “400 linear feet of his life” in the form of “scores and lead sheets, photographs, contracts, itineraries, correspondence, reel tapes and cassettes and drafts of an unfinished autobiography, written with the help of Amiri Baraka,” explains Ratliff in the Times. To cite one small example on the activist front, Ratliff, who had some time to examine the archive, notes: “There is also a one-sentence telegram that Roach sent to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller after the Attica uprising in 1971: ‘Does your belief that prisoners are not human justify the loss of 42 lives?’ ” If this recalls Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” and “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” well, the Charles Mingus archive is also available to scholars in the Performing Arts Reading Room on Capitol Hill, along with the collections of Billy Taylor, Gerry Mulligan, Alvin Ailey, Dexter Gordon, Louis Bellson, and Shelly Manne, among others. Ratliff notes that Roach was “archivally minded”; so too is the LC, of course, which often makes for one of the more significant aspects of federal jazz policy, such as it is.

In addition to its archival achievements, the LC also likes to hand out honors in the manner of the NEA—but, ironically, sans cash. The LC’s Living Legends award, established during its Bicentennial celebration in 2000, as the Living Legends site notes, is

selected by the Library’s curators and subject specialists to honor artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures and public servants who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage. The professional accomplishments of the Living Legends have enabled them to provide examples of personal excellence that have benefited others and enriched the nation in a variety of ways.

If that sounds like a “bipartisan,” as the mainstream media loves to say, celebrity grab bag, it is, and the awards categories are curious, to say the least. Among the political honorees: rabid neocons Madeleine Albright and Jeane Kirkpatrick are Leaders and Statesman, but so is civil rights activist Julian Bond; Colin Powell got his Activists and Reformers award in 2000, before he crashed and burned as part of Dubya’s duplicitous Invasion of Iraq team, and he’s joined by the radical likes of Pete Seeger (a communist!) and Gloria Steinem; the Writers and Artists run the spectrum from (career racist) William F. Buckley to Toni Morrison; and jazzwise, the Musicians and Composers include Dave Brubeck, Benny Carter, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, and Gunther Schuller, all of whom are also NEA Jazz Masters but for Charles. The unfortunately named and bizarrely grouped Athletes and Entertainers category includes Leontyne Price, Merce Cunningham, and Big Bird from Sesame Street—’nuff said. But among the LC’s dubious award precedents, the Ezra Pound-Bollingen Prize for Poetry scandal cannot go unmentioned. As Jed Perl writes in the New Republic:

Pound is nowadays much less admired than he was a generation or two ago, and it is perhaps difficult to grasp the intensity of the controversy that erupted in 1949 when this man who had done radio broadcasts for the fascists during World War II was awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress for The Pisan Cantos, published the year before. Arrested by American troops at the end of the war and charged with treason for the broadcasts he did for Radio Rome, Pound never actually stood trial, but was pronounced insane by government psychiatrists and locked up in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where he remained until 1958. That ten of the fourteen Library of Congress Fellows in American Literature voted to give the first Bollingen Prize to a man who had worked for the enemy and was unabashedly anti-Semitic was bound to cause trouble, and the debate raged for some time.

The LC did not continue to host the Bollingen Prize for some time, however; in the face of immense blowback from the media and from Congress, this was its first and last such award, the Bollingen Foundation moving on to the Yale University Library where the prize remains to this day.

 

 

 

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?

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.”

A History of Federal Jazz Policy

This book 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. An extensive epilogue was added to what was already an extensive text—this was a dissertation-sized thesis, you might say—in 2013.

FJP Cover 1AThe 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.