NEA Jazz Masters No More?

Nat Hentoff riffs on the NEA's recent budget sent to Congress, eliminating the Jazz Masters program

I recently received from the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters 1982-2011, a large, handsomely produced history of the award that former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia worked hard to make the Pulitzer Prize of jazz. In his introduction, present NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman writes, “It’s hard to think of an aspect of our country’s history and culture that jazz hasn’t touched since its origin.”

Somehow, omitted from this “Message From the Chairman” was a Feb. 15 news story from NPR’s A Blog Supreme: “NEA Jazz Masters Award to Disappear Under New Federal Budget Plan.” The story’s explanation is misleading: “President Obama’s 2012 budget proposal, delivered to Congress on [Feb. 14], proposes to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters Award. The change is one part of a significant budget reduction for the NEA at large.”

I do not believe President Obama, in his budget message to Congress, specifically obliterated this award, whose impact has been enormous—for the recipients and throughout the world, where jazz is a global language. Having heard from a shocked, angry Dana Gioia, it’s clear to me that if he were still the NEA chairman (and how I wish he were), the budget reductions would have been arranged so that this recognition of jazz—the U.S. government’s most important ever—would have survived. The present decision did not come from the White House.

What will take its place at the NEA? There will be a smorgasbord of awards: NEA American Artists of theYear, with designations including jazz, opera, folk, et al. Deeply submerged will be the music that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as the “Humanity and the Importance of Jazz” in the program for the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival: “Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and, if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”

But not that triumphant for Rocco Landesman. What, if anything, can be done before the very final Jazz Masters Awards are given out next January on their 30th anniversary?

The only hope I can see for their survival is enlisting the swinging First Amendment—choruses of protest urging the NEA to rearrange its budget! Increasing protestors’ effectiveness would be the participation of those members of Congress, and there are some, for whom jazz is as essential as it is to readers of JazzTimes.

Congressman John Conyers comes immediately to mind. When I interviewed the influential former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee for the Wall Street Journal in 2004, he told me that when work pressures mount, he communicates with his “spiritual musical ancestors” by playing, in his Congressional office, recordings by John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. President Obama, sir, I’m told you have John Coltrane on your iPod. Words from you about keeping the Jazz Masters program alive would be quite helpful.

When I spoke to Conyers in 2004, he was excited because he and fellow members of Congress had secured a line in the appropriation bill for a Billy Strayhorn Chair at D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. “There’s a lot more Congress can do for jazz,” he told me, “once we’re over Iraq.” We’re leaving soon.

How about JazzTimes readers writing to Conyers and their own members of Congress? Conyers knows about the Landesman sentence of capital punishment for the Jazz Masters Awards. When I told George Wein about that decision, he was on his way to see Conyers about another matter and said he would clue him in.

In 1987, when Conyers introduced his jazz recognition resolution to the 100th Congress, which later unanimously passed both chambers, it concluded: “It is the sense of the Congress that jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgated.” Amen!

The NEA made a point of telling me that it is continuing some jazz programs: NEA Jazz in the Schools and interviews with recent Jazz Masters (youtube.com/neaarts). There could be no more Jazz Masters to interview in the future, however.

The Jazz Masters Awards globally personified jazz speaking for life, as Dr. King said. That vibrant life is cited in the Winter 2011 newsletter of the Alzheimer’s Association’s New York City chapter. Lou-Ellen Barkan writes: “My 90-year-old mother, suffering at the end of life with cancer and dementia, was upset and agitated and could not be calmed. ... [A]rmed with a portable CD player and a stack of ’40s big-band music, I popped in the first disc. Within a few minutes, mom was smiling, snapping her fingers to Benny Goodman—transported to a happier time.”

The Alzheimer’s Association New York chapter, she continues, “is collaborating with the best museums in New York to create programs that provide cognitively impaired adults and their caregivers with a safe, friendly and welcoming environment where they can express themselves without fear of judgment.”

Hopefully those museums, as many do already, will feature concerts by jazz musicians, some of whom could one day become Jazz Masters—if, that is, Rocco Landesman rearranges his budget.

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181

Originally published in May 2011

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