Commission This!

One night last summer in Lower Manhattan, the Chicago-based flutist Nicole Mitchell premiered a long-form composition inspired by the work of Octavia Butler, the pioneering science-fiction author. Created and conceived for Mitchell’s nine-piece Black Earth Ensemble, it was one of several new works presented during the 12th annual Vision Festival. And it pursued an ambitious agenda, exploring metaphysical concepts through the multifarious procedures of a still-evolving jazz avant-garde.

Mitchell’s work is now available as a studio recording, Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler (Firehouse 12), and if you scan the inside cover, you’ll find the usual notes and acknowledgments. You’ll also see a line about the origins of the piece: “It was created with support from Chamber Music America’s New Works: Creation and Presentation Program through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.”

If you’re the type of person who reads festival programs and concert playbills, those words will have a familiar ring. Jazz has increasingly become, like classical music, a principality of grants and commissions, from sources public and private. This is the natural state of affairs for a music that exists beyond popular support, but it also raises unsettling questions.

Patronage is by no means a new phenomenon, even in jazz. During the early years of the Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals—a time when jazz was much more of a mainstream concern—commissions were given to Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck, among others. (Monterey still does this, and now so does SFJAZZ and many other festivals worldwide.) That same midcentury span saw the heyday of the major labels, which effectively sponsored new work from their rosters. (Without the vested interest of a Columbia Records, could there really have been a Sketches of Spain?)

The current boom in grants and commissions has more of an impassive philanthropic feel. On some level it can be attributed to the rise in cultural stature jazz has experienced over the last two decades, since the height of our neoclassicist era and the concurrent rise of a canny downtown scene. Wynton Marsalis, from the former camp, programs Jazz at Lincoln Center with funds largely provided by corporations; John Zorn, from the latter, is the recent recipient of separate $50,000 grants from the MacArthur Foundation and Columbia University. On both sides, the money has been attached to some abstract notion of cultural value, with expectations of tangible results.

These days, financial support for jazz composers also comes from organizations like BMI and the ASCAP Foundation, along with the American Composers Forum, Meet the Composer and regional entities like the New York State Council on the Arts. Each year the International Association for Jazz Education presents a Gil Evans commission, with funds provided by the Herb Alpert Foundation. Incidentally, the first recipient of that particular honor, in 1992, was Maria Schneider, who would later democratize the process of patronage through ArtistShare.

Chamber Music America, the sponsor of Xenogenesis Suite, is probably the most active commissioning body in the field. According to Margaret Lioi, the organization’s CEO, it has commissioned 104 new works since 2000, about a dozen per year. CMA’s working definition of chamber music is flexible and jazz-conducive: “music for small ensembles in which players perform one to a part, generally without a conductor.”

Beneficiaries of the program have included jazz artists of varying degrees of prominence. Lioi reports that a total of $1.3 million has been awarded, in standard increments of $6,000 per composer and $1,000 per ensemble member. (By this calculus, Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble received $14,000.) The only postgrant requirement is a physical copy of the score and the realization of two performances. Occasionally, as in Mitchell’s case, results also yield an album; two more recent examples would be Codebook (Pi) and In Pursuit (Sunnyside), respectively by the saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Donny McCaslin.

So what’s the problem? Strictly speaking, nothing: Jazz desperately needs this sort of institutional support. But sometimes I wonder about the greater influence of such an arrangement. Peruse the comprehensive list of Chamber Music America grants, and you’ll find a preponderance of self-consciously intellectual or pointedly interdisciplinary works. In the program’s inaugural year, grants were awarded not only for “Abstract Expression,” by pianist Phil Markowitz, but also “Chasing Paint: The Jackson Pollock Suites,” by soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom. “People have associated their commissions with artwork, with literature, with contemporary social themes,” says Lioi. That’s fine, except for the fact that concept-driven work is fast becoming the norm.

Consider again Mitchell’s Xenogenesis Suite, this time as a textbook case. A cynic might suggest that “suite” has become a sort of magic word—in the first five years of CMA’s program, it appeared in the titles of 24 works, and probably in countless more proposals—and that the exploitation of extramusical ideas has become a recipe for grant-writing success. There have been success stories in this area, like the performance-art partnerships of Jason Moran, the multimedia social critiques of pianist Vijay Iyer, and the cultural investigations of Myra Melford. But there have also been duds, pieces weighed down by premise or expectation, with results that feel more dutiful than dynamic. For better or worse, jazz has steadily been adjusting to a system that rewards rationalization.

Where does this leave a musician like guitarist Russell Malone, or tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, or even pianist Mulgrew Miller, who put into circulation the wry term “interview music” a few years ago? (Where, for that matter, would it have left someone like Dexter Gordon?) Lioi points to CMA’s residency program, which sponsors ensemble performances in a range of community settings. That’s a good start, but it doesn’t change the fact that jazz musicians are now expected to be heady conceptualists, ambitious composers and shrewd grant writers, in addition to mastering the quantum physics of improvisation, which isn’t any easier now than it was a generation ago.

Thankfully most musicians seem to understand the balance. One month before the premiere of “Xenogenesis”, Mitchell and her Black Earth Ensemble recorded a separate album, Black Unstoppable (Delmark). Consisting of all original music but no larger concept, it might well be the less important work. But it’s also the more rewarding one.

Originally published in May 2008

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