Tag Archive for NEA

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 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.


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.”

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.”