Tag Archive for jazzocracy

Swing and Communism

Young_Communist_League,_USA_(logo)During the FMP years of the latter 1930s, the CPUSA Popular Front was making an effort to dance with swing, the new sensation, which is a radical departure from the usual Soviet position on vernacular music, particularly in its American iterations. The Soviet aversion to jazz and particularly to the saxophone, for example, could be stunningly acute. There was an unsuccessful effort to ban the saxophone in the Soviet Union in 1929, followed in the late ’40s, when Stalin had concentrated his power, by a concerted effort to ban this horn of “capitalist music,” which resulted in the confiscation of instruments, the imprisonment or exile of musicians, and saxophone parts in works by Ravel and Prokofiev and others consigned to bassoons and the like.

As David Stowe tells it in Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America,

Before the redirection of policy under the Popular Front, jazz and most other popular music had been regarded as ideologically suspect by the party both in the Soviet Union and the United States; noncommercial rural folk music and protest songs were perceived as the “correct” radical music. . . . Given the party’s desire to recruit members of oppressed groups such as African-Americans, this dismissal of vernacular music resulted in a dissonance between the party leadership and its rank-and-file organizers. The more tolerant, inclusive atmosphere that prevailed in the party after 1935 led to a number of Communists, including writers for the Daily Worker, to express enthusiasm for both “traditional” jazz and swing. The popular music of the big bands came to be seen as an important vehicle, along with black theater, literature, and professional sports, for promoting the idea that African-American culture was integrally American, quintessentially democratic and progressive. (p. 65)

Stowe goes on to note an article in a 1939 Young Communists League publication that even managed to work the utterly specious “democracy” of jazzocracy into its analysis:

“There is a good deal of audience participation in swing, a kind of give and take and mutual inspiration for the musician and the crowd, a rough democratic air invading the sacred halls of music.” Another writer stated bluntly: “Jazz is the music of the American proletariat. If Negroes have been more prominent in its development, it is because more Negroes are proletarians.” (pp. 65-66)

Well, 1939 was also the year of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

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.

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.