The Price of Genius…

As this issue went to press, news of this year’s MacArthur Fellowships were announced to the usual fanfare. In an annual rite that recalls Willy Wonka as much as the Nobel, over 20 visionaries from a variety of fields each received a grant of $500,000, given in quarterly installments over five years. The premise of the MacArthur “genius” grant is pretty simple. Scientists, activists, artists and other visionaries who have doggedly persevered in their chosen field are given a large sum of money with no strings attached. It’s like a lab project of sorts. This year’s winners included two prominent creative musicians—Regina Carter and John Zorn—each having little in common aside from a lifelong association with jazz.

The MacArthur Foundation is proud of its selection process, which they contend is insulated from lobbying or cronyism. In addition, the Foundation makes it clear that the “genius” tag is not one they endorse. “We avoid using the term ‘genius’ to describe MacArthur Fellows because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess,” their Web site states. “The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.”

Given that description, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that, since the Fellowship program was established in 1981, nearly half of the 28 music-oriented recipients have been jazz musicians, including our cover artist Ornette Coleman. Looking again at the MacArthur’s official criteria clarifies why jazz artists like Coleman rate so well with the Foundation. “Creativity, like humor, can get lost in definition—not because it cannot be described, but because it can be expressed in limitless variations,” the MacArthur Web site states. “In this program, we have found it useful to regard creativity as the expression of human endeavor as individuals actively make or find something new, or connect the seemingly unconnected in significant ways.” Substitute jazz for creativity and you see how closely this music hews to the MacArthur vision for innovation.

But there’s more at stake than individual expression. The MacArthur Foundation believes that investing in these visionaries and activists enables them to pay it forward: “The Foundation places its emphasis on individual creativity because the discoveries, actions and ideas that shape our society often result from the path-breaking efforts of individuals,” the site proclaims. In the case of John Zorn, they’ve invested in a musician who even before this windfall actively supported his fellow artists through a recording label and concert venue.

It’s clear to me that jazz is indebted to the Foundation for investing in these gifted artists over the last 25 years. I know it’s not realistic, but I wish that every jazz artist could apply the same standards of achievement and exploration to his or her own career. Transcend boundaries. Find something new. Connect the unconnected. Take risks. Persist in the face of obstacles. Apply creative energies to the common benefit. Now that takes genius.

Originally published in November 2006

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