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Will NEA Jazz Masters Be Rescued?

House Appropriations Committee Requests New Life for Awards Program

Jimmy Heath and Roberta Gambarini performing at NEA Jazz Masters ceremony
2011 NEA Jazz Masters, along with Rocco Landesman and Wayne Brown from NEA and Adrian Ellis from Jazz at Lincoln Center

This past February, when the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) posted its 2012 Appropriations Request, it appeared that the annual American Jazz Masters Fellowships would be coming to an end after 30 years of honoring the nation’s most celebrated jazz musicians. The NEA’s 2012 budget proposed to eliminate $21 million in funding for the program, with the NEA announcing that Jazz Masters-which has honored more than 120 artists since its 1982 inception-would be replaced by a new American Artists of the Year award that made no distinctions between specific genres. Many jazz fans and writers opposed loudly and publicly to the news. (In the May issue, our Nat Hentoff was one of them.)

Now, according to a report posted on jazz journalist Howard Mandel’s Jazz Beyond Jazz blog, the Jazz Masters program may be receiving a new lease on life. “The National Endowment for the Arts has been directed by the U.S. House Appropriations Committee in its report to Interior to continue the American Jazz Masters Fellowships and dump its proposed American Artists of the Year honors,” Mandel quotes the report as saying. Another quote cited by Mandel reads, “The Committee does not support the budget request proposal to eliminate the National Heritage Fellowship program and the American Jazz Masters Fellowship program.”

Despite the new hope suggested by the article, jazz journalist Larry Appelbaum wrote on a jazz blog that “You might want to hold off on any celebration just yet. This was something that came out of the House Committee on Appropriations for the Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, under which the NEA falls. The Senate Appropriations Committee hasn’t yet taken any action on FY 2012. This ‘recommendation’ and directive is a good sign, but if you know how the sausage is made, you know it’s not a done deal.”

Responding to a request from JazzTimes for confirmation or denial of the report, Liz Stark, Public Affairs Specialist for the Washington, D.C.-based NEA, would not offer any information beyond what was already circulating. Stark emailed us the following statement: “On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee released its FY2012 appropriations bill, and the report language requested that the NEA maintain the Jazz Masters Fellowships program. Next, the appropriations bill will move to the full House and to the Senate from there. While this process takes place, it would not be appropriate for the NEA to comment publicly on the proposed bill.”

[Wynton Marsalis, a 2011 Jazz Master recipient as part of the Marsalis Family, is pictured on the home page.]

Originally Published