A few decades ago, when jazz started becoming known as “America’s classical music,” the theory ran that a shift in the public’s perception of the music would help put the idiom on the road to the kind of legitimization signified by institutional awareness and support. At the time it was a heady proposition, but there’s no denying that all these years later the idiom’s public face has changed both for better and worse, as a great many musicians have put jazz’s original populism behind them and moved successfully from clubs and recording studios into academia.
One of the signs that jazz’s image makeover has taken hold arrives each fall with the speculation surrounding the announcement of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s annual fellowships. Several members of the jazz community have been awarded the $500,000 “genius” grant since Max Roach was first tapped in 1988, an addition that introduced jazz-based creativity into an interdisciplinary field of innovative biologists, mathematicians, community organizers and scholars like Susan Sontag. At first, the jazz awardees were similarly unimpeachable: movers and shakers who, like Roach, had spent entire careers staring down controversy while irrevocably changing the face of the idiom (Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Stanley Crouch). As the new millennium approached, however, the seeming arbitrariness of some picks began to seem more like provocations themselves. For every George E. Lewis—the trombonist whose 2002 grant was a harbinger of the scholarship he now presides over as director of Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies—there were headscratchers like tenor saxophonist Ken Vandermark and pianist Reginald Robinson, awardees whose genius designations (in 1999 and 2004, respectively) sent a collective “Huh?” rippling through the jazz world.