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Dana Gioia & the National Endowment for the Arts: Can Jazz Matter?

Dana Gioia
Dana Gioia
Dana Gioia
Dana Gioia
Dana Gioia

At the 2004 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters awards ceremony in New York, Chairman Dana Gioia offered opening remarks that struck a chord with many in the audience, especially when he talked about his lifelong personal experience with jazz.

Chairman Gioia may, at first glance, be an unlikely advocate for jazz. He is best known as a poet, anthologist and critic, especially for his controversial 1992 book Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and Popular Culture (Graywolf). He received a B.A. and an M.B.A. from Stanford University and completed an M.A. in comparative literature at Harvard University where he studied with the poets Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop. In 1977, Gioia moved to New York, and for the next 15 years he worked as a business executive before leaving in 1992 to become a full-time writer.

Since his February 2003 appointment to head the NEA, Gioia has hit the ground running: working to expand the audience for jazz, doubling the number of artists receiving Jazz Masters fellowships and adding a touring program, television broadcasts and CD releases.

Let me start by asking about something you said: “I want to expand the country’s awareness of jazz, to use it to combat the cultural impoverishment that threatens us.” How does the awareness of jazz combat cultural impoverishment?

You’re asking a very big question so I’ll give you a very big answer. I worry that we live in a culture where the number of things that we pay attention to gets smaller and smaller each year. We’re surrounded by this nonstop intricate web of commercial, electronic entertainment, and it really focuses on about seven or eight things: politics, entertainment, weather, traffic, celebrities, sports and money. In the average week, local traffic gets more airtime than all the arts, education and ideas combined. I think one of the most important things that we can do is carve out some space in our society where other conversations can take place, other types of art can be presented.

I worry about the generation of Americans that are growing up now. My son Ted is 15, and I’ve tried really hard to make sure that he’s exposed to a lot of things, but I see a lot kids-really smart kids, well-educated kids-and they know nothing about so much of life. They can probably name 200 baseball or basketball players, a hundred hip-hop artists and 200 television personalities, but they probably could not name a single living jazz artist, poet, painter, sculptor, choreographer, architect, biologist or physicist. I’m really concerned about expanding the audience for all the arts in the United States, with jazz being foremost because jazz is not only one of the greatest American art forms, it’s one of the defining American art forms.

Hasn’t it always been the case that younger generations and the popular culture pushes the arts to the margins?

I don’t think it’s always been the case. For example, poetry’s great audience was traditionally among the young. That’s no longer true. In fact, if you look at American reading, in the last quarter century younger people have gone from the people who read the most to the people who read the least. What we’re seeing is a culture in which electronic entertainment, at its lowest common denominator, is squeezing out experience. Now that being said, I’m a firm believer that times are always tough, there are always problems, there’s always intergenerational strife and conflict-and those things are not necessarily bad. That’s just the nature of life. But I do think that as artists, intellectuals and citizens, we have a duty, a burden or a privilege of trying to preserve those things that really matter to us, and keeping them alive in our society. For example, I worry very much about a generation of young blacks who are growing to maturity knowing anything about jazz, which is one of the greatest artistic achievements in African-American culture.

Isn’t all of this made more difficult in that one very large company may own many of the radio stations in small and medium-size markets? Doesn’t that lead to a homogenization that maximizes profit and doesn’t leave as much room for creativity and the arts?

That may or may not be the case. I’m 53, and I’m old enough to remember back in the ’60s, before media consolidation, when radio went to playlist consolidation to avoid losing market share. So, I don’t think there’s only one reason for what’s happening now. There are many reasons that contribute to it, and for that reason I don’t think there’s only one solution. But the key thing is: What is it that we’re losing that we feel we can’t afford to lose? And what are the many ways in which we can preserve those things? The NEA’s Jazz Masters program might be the largest program of its kind, but it’s still small. We’re doing a 50-state tour; we’ll probably reach about 75 cities. Seventy-five cities in a country this big is tiny. But I consider every time we stage or broadcast a great jazz concert we reach a new audience, and we get some people interested who want to come back. And that’s all for the good. You have to do this a million times in a thousand places, but it’ll add up. I do believe that we have to take an attitude toward jazz, as toward reading itself or live theater, that we cannot take for granted that these things will survive and flourish.

Not if we leave it to the marketplace.

Absolutely. I believe in the marketplace. I’m not an anti-marketplace person by any stretch of the imagination. What the marketplace does is put a price on everything. It lets you know if it’s common or scarce, so let’s not denigrate the marketplace. But the purpose of a culture is to tell you what those things are on which we cannot put a price. Everybody believes that there are some things like that; that’s what historical preservation is about. I’m asking for a kind of cultural awareness, and that is really the role of the NEA. The NEA is an extension of the federal government. We are absolutely tiny, in terms of the total arts world in the United States. But with intelligent, strategic artistic investments in communities, I think we can have a catalytic effect and make the total sum of culture better.

In this last year, the Jazz Masters included Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Herbie Hancock, Luther Henderson, Nat Hentoff and Nancy Wilson. Take us behind the scenes and talk about the process and criteria for deciding who gets to be a Jazz Master.

I can’t talk about the specifics of the prize deliberations, but we put together a fairly small panel. About half are former Jazz Masters, and the other half consists of people who are practicing musicians, educators or critics who are deeply knowledgeable. And we take nominations from the general public, so anybody can nominate a jazz musician on our Web site []. We get a list of all the nominations, and then people discuss and deliberate. The panel goes back and forth, and it usually gets down to two or three finalists in each category-and that’s when the arguments get really heated.

Jazz is terribly underrecognized in our society. I cannot believe that in the year 2004 there is still not a Pulitzer Prize category for jazz. That is an indictment of the lack of the imagination of the Pulitzer committees. We wanted to take the NEA Jazz Masters, which is pretty much the greatest honorific in jazz, and to raise it to the level of prominence of the Pulitzer Prize or the Academy Award. Traditionally the NEA had given two or three awards each year, in a kind of unspecified way. Major awards tend to be by category-best actor, best director, best screenwriter, best novelist, best poet and best American music, which for the Pulitzer almost never means jazz. So we decided to expand the number of awards and do them by category: keyboard, solo instrumentalist, composer/arranger, vocalist and-because I believe the health of an art not only depends upon the practicing artists but also the critics, the producers, the champions who make that art available-we created a special award called Jazz Advocate, which went in the first year to Nat Hentoff. It’s important because arts exist in a kind of ecology, and we should honor the critics and the producers and people like that.

Everybody feels that going from two or three awards to six awards allows us to honor a lot of people while they are still around, because these have to go to living masters. If you look back on the history of the NEA Jazz Masters you see this incredible list of jazz greats, but you also note the people we didn’t get around to honoring. I want to make sure there are fewer regrets in the future.

How does one measure aesthetics? How do you make a value judgment about who is and who isn’t a master?

Well, that is a general problem for everything the NEA does. Because we really make our decisions in terms of artistic excellence, and there is no simple formula for what artistic excellence is. The way we do it-and I think it’s the best way-is you get a relatively diverse panel of people who have dedicated their lives to an art, who are immersed in the art. We usually put one lay person in there, too, just to have some outside sanity, and people essentially make those difficult qualitative judgments. But when you look at a list of the winners, you can see that the level at which we’re operating is really quite Olympian.

I like that you give the award while musicians are still alive to appreciate it.

I think the nicest single moment I’ve had as NEA Chairman was the luncheon [in January 2004] that we sponsored for all the living NEA Jazz Masters. These people were so full of joy to be together, to see that somebody they had played with 30 or 40 years ago was still alive, to meet each others’ spouses, their kids. It took me by surprise: I expected it to be a nice occasion, but I did not expect it to be a radiant occasion. I felt we had done something in human terms that was quite extraordinary.

That’s inspiring. So let’s get to you and what drew you to music and to jazz in particular. What kind of music was around your house when you were growing up?

I’m a working-class kid from Los Angeles. I was born and raised in a town called Hawthorne, a rough, industrial part of L.A. My dad was Italian, Sicilian. And my mom was Mexican. My father had been a jitter-bugger when he was younger. In fact, he had won many dance contests including the Mr. Jitterbug Contest of California. I grew up in a family where everybody danced at weddings, and my parents, when they were in high spirits, would put on 78s and would dance in the kitchen. My mom would put on Count Basie or Bunny Berigan, who was a big favorite of my father’s. My father loved a relatively forgotten singer named Russ Columbo, kind of a proto-Sinatra. Columbo died at a very young age, and my dad skipped school to go to his funeral. I grew up hearing the sounds of big bands, vocalists and Latin jazz all the time. It was just something I took for granted. And you have to remember as a kid-I was born Christmas Eve, 1950-when you turned on the TV in those days, every week you saw Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong. It was just part of America’s music then.

It was a popular music in many ways. What happened?

I think there were two things that happened simultaneously. During the ’50s and ’60s, jazz went from popular music to, for lack of better words, art music. I think jazz was filling a gap that classical music really wasn’t-this serious, experimental, exciting new music. But at the same time it gave up being the music that people danced to and people sang. I think the healthiest arts are these arts that have a really broad social range-that start as entertainment at one end and high art at the other and encompass everything in between. Movies are like that right now. That’s what classical music was like during the classical period. During jazz’s great periods-think of the ’40s and ’50s-it hit all areas of society. Then the new popular music came up, and it was rock. My brother Ted Gioia, who is a jazz historian, pointed out in his book West Coast Jazz that what killed West Coast jazz was when these great musicians could make more money playing a couple of back-up licks for rock bands than they could having serious jazz careers.

What instruments do you play?

I still play the piano, badly. I took piano lessons from the second grade on, and there was a time when I was actually a pretty good pianist. I also learned alto clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. I went to a high school that had the best concert band and jazz band in Los Angeles: Junipero Serra High School in Gardena. It was an all-boys Marianist Catholic high school, and we had these incredible musicians there. I played tenor sax for a couple years with the jazz band and then took over on keyboards. It was wonderful training because our teachers did not give us the second-rate band arrangements and mood pieces. They gave us tremendously good, serious music. We played Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Schuman-20th-century music. And for jazz we played lots of Ellington, Basie and the arrangements of Modern Jazz Quartet and Brubeck, because our band director loved to do things in nontraditional time. We did “Take Five” “Blue Rondo a la Turk”-even Don Ellis arrangements, believe it or not. But I didn’t appreciate that until years later.

While growing up there was a little place nearby they’d take the band to called the Lighthouse [in Hermosa Beach]. It’s now world-famous, but back then it was just our local place. And there were a lot of great musicians like Zoot Sims, who was from Hawthorne; Art Pepper was from San Pedro, the port city where my uncles were in the merchant marine. All these people were right in the neighborhood.

The first jazz concert I ever went to was in 1967. I heard Dave Brubeck with his great quartet at El Camino College, which was about a mile from my high school. Chet Baker would play in the area, and other musicians would come through. I thought that was the way it was everywhere, and I took all that for granted. But now that it’s lost, it seems like a vanished jazz paradise.

Is art a luxury or a necessity?

I can’t imagine living in a society that didn’t have art. I can’t imagine an education system that eliminated art could produce complete human beings. I think art is one of the necessities of civilization, and I think people understand this. The real question is how do you take that understanding and turn it into policy and action and results. I’m very optimistic about culture. I’m optimistic about the possibilities of change. If we lose the conviction that we can create the society in which we want to live and in which we want to raise children, then I think that we’ve essentially lost our whole raison d’etre for living, for working. I do think it’s a matter of choosing a few things that you think are important and working on them, and I’m glad to say that at the NEA one of the things we’re trying to make a difference in is jazz.

I’m really lucky to have a staff of people there who are very committed to it. A.B. Spellman has been at the Endowment for more than 30 years, and he has been a terrific force and advocate for jazz. The NEA’s music director, Wayne Brown, is another person who loves jazz, and both he and A.B. are deeply knowledgeable about it. In the arts world you can have what I would call “mindless advocacy,” but more art isn’t better art. Better art is better art. We won’t be helping jazz if we just fostered a kind of mediocrity as our standard.

One of the things we’re doing with the Jazz Masters is to say that jazz is one of the great American art forms, and some of the greatest practitioners in this art are alive and with us right now. Let’s celebrate them as living jazz artists. Not just to give them an award, which is what we’ve been doing in the past 20 years, but now we’re creating a tour, radio documentaries; we broadcast the awards ceremonies and concert on BET, and Verve has released a two-CD set celebrating the Jazz Masters.

We have seen an institutionalization of jazz, where musicians are performing at places like Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress or venues like that. But what is gained and what is lost when jazz is no longer presented in the community of its creators, in nightclubs and such?

There’s a danger in jazz right now, in the broadest sense, of it becoming academicized. You’re most likely to hear jazz now on a university campus. If you go into the music department you’ve got your opera person, your baroque music specialist, your contemporary music specialist and your jazz specialist-it’s become a department, and I think that’s reasonable. It’s important the universities, colleges and conservatories teach jazz to preserve the tradition. But if those are the only places where jazz is happening, it becomes a very different thing. There’s a very different relationship to the music and to the audience if you are in a situation where a musician is playing every night in a club-performing in this place for three months and that place for three months-versus a concert here, and then you travel for a week and have a concert there; then it becomes an event music versus a music that’s about the fabric of life.

An incident happened to me about 20 years ago. I was in Toronto on a business trip. We’re driving down this road with all these pizza places and I saw one that said it had jazz. So we went to this gigantic pizza parlor, nothing classy about it at all, and there was some jazz going on-a trio with two white musicians and a black pianist. If you’re an American performing in Canada, you have to have to have the majority of your band be Canadian-and these two sidemen did not represent Canadian music at its finest. But this pianist was really good, playing blues and boogie-woogie. You rarely hear boogie-woogie-or if you do it’s usually bad because the style is so transparent that you have to be perfect. It’s like playing Mozart. Anyway, I listened to this whole set, and then I listened to a second set-and this guy was fantastic. I kept moving to closer and closer tables.

Finally, during a break, I went up to him and said, “Sir, I just want to say you are just terrific. I try to play boogie-woogie, and I listen to a lot of people play it, and you are just incredible. And your blues piano is gorgeous. I want to tell you what a pleasure it is to hear you.” I introduced myself, asked him his name and he said, “I’m Jay McShann.” And I said, “You’re Jay McShann? The Last of the Blue Devils, the guy who played with Charlie Parker and Count Basie?” And he said, “Yes sir, I am.” I said, “What a pleasure to hear you. I’ve heard you on record, but I never thought you’d be playing here-your name’s not even on the billboard. Why do you play in this place?” That was a silly and rude question for me to ask, and he gave me an answer that chastened me, because Jay McShann was the spirit of politeness. He said, “It’s because I can play here every night.” And I said to myself, “God bless these Canadians.” America will not take a pianist as great as Jay McShann and even give him a pizza parlor to play in; he has to come up to Toronto just to have steady work. It is frightening that a musician of that caliber, of that fame, can’t find employment in his native country.

Is there an intelligentsia in jazz?

There is, but it’s not as big as it should be. I think if you took the jazz intelligentsia-the people who are not so much practicing musicians but intellectuals who are interested, like the Nat Hentoffs of the world-you’re really talking about a couple hundred people, one of whom is my brother Ted. I wish jazz was a larger part of American cultural and intellectual life. I wish magazines like The New Republic and The Weekly Standard had jazz reviews. The New Yorker has good jazz criticism; it had Whitney Balliett and now it has Gary Giddins. I wish jazz was as widely viewed as the movies. I wish we had jazz commentators in more of the media, because without that kind of conversation an art becomes marginalized.

How do we make that happen?

I think we make it happen by feeling it must happen. I really do believe you make the resolve before you get the results. That’s one of the reasons why we created this Jazz Advocate award, just to recognize the importance of this. The NEA has recently created three institutes of arts criticism: for classical music and opera, which we’re doing with the Columbia School of Journalism; we have one for dance criticism that we’re doing with Duke University as part of the North Carolina Dance Festival; and we have one for theater that we’re doing at the Annenberg School at USC. These institutes are trying to take arts critics, or working journalists who have to cover the arts but in some cases don’t have a lot of training at the nonmetropolitan newspapers, and give them a chance to come in and learn more about the arts so they can increase the quality and quantity of the coverage in their communities. We’re thinking if we wanted to do something similar for jazz, how would we do it? Because it’s not like we’re going to be able to take somebody from the Macon Telegraph in Georgia, bring them into an institute to learn and then expect to get much jazz criticism into the newspaper because the performances aren’t going on in that area. I think if we’re going to do an institute for jazz, we have to start on a national level, or in a metropolitan area and hope for the trickle-down effect. We need to find ways to increase jazz coverage in national magazines and on national broadcasts.

Don’t you have to go through the gatekeepers to do that? It’s not the reporter or critic, it’s the editor.

Absolutely, you have to go through the gatekeepers. But it seems to me that one of the ways you get through the gatekeepers is-if you can get jazz coverage in one place, then the others will want to do it just to keep up, to get the competitive urge going. I think we have a lot of very talented younger jazz critics, but they feel marginalized. They feel like they’re writing for very small audiences and they’re talking within the subculture. So, if you got those people together and you created an intergenerational conversation with the better-known older critics, you might be able to create an interesting cultural energy.

Part of it is just to increase the amount of jazz in the media and the amount of jazz touring, and that’s the primary focus of what we’re doing at the NEA. Next year, we’re hoping to create a whole educational unit about jazz to be made available for free in American high schools. So that as part of Black History Month, high school sophomores and juniors can spend a week studying jazz, learning something about the history of jazz and understanding how it’s this great expression of African-American culture, which had the wonderful effect of bringing the races closer together. Jazz was one of the great democratic, inclusive cultural forces in America that made us have a better country.

As the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, how do you measure success?

I think you measure success in a couple of ways. Are you really proud of the programs you’re doing? Do they represent, not compromises, but your highest ideals? Are you reaching a lot of people, and are you reaching people you’ve never reached before? Are you convincing people in Congress and people in the media that what you’re doing is good so that they’re supporting you, in terms of increasing your budget and increasing the kind of profile of these programs?

I think the most important thing I can do as National Endowment for the Arts Chairman is not to be satisfied with short-term success, but rather to try and think about the next thing that needs to be done, being conscious about the needs of this country. This is a huge country, with enormous unfilled needs and appetites for arts and arts education. If I am as successful as I can be with this enterprise, all I can do is raise the NEA up to the next level so that the next chairman can think even more ambitiously.

Originally Published