Within the arts community, longtime U.S. Congressman John Conyers, who passed away on October 27 at the age of 90, was regarded as one of the most persistent and influential advocates of the uniquely American music called jazz. I knew him for more than 30 years, working with him on a number of initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution, where I was the curator of American music. We bonded because of jazz, which he championed as a proud product of African-American and American culture. Sometimes he would invite me to his office to talk about the music, and he spoke frequently at the Smithsonian, including (to my everlasting gratitude) at my 2017 retirement party.
Though his hometown of Detroit became well-known to the public as the headquarters of Motown, Conyers’ ears were drawn to jazzier sounds. A one-time student cornetist, Conyers revered Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Once he entered Congress, visitors to his office would see an unusual sight: walls filled with jazz posters and a big acoustic bass dominating one corner.
In 1985, he established an annual Jazz Issue Forum and Concert for the Congressional Black Caucus, which he had co-founded. Over the years, he brought a who’s-who of jazz royalty to speak and perform in Washington, D.C., including Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Lionel Hampton, Shirley Horn, Nancy Wilson, Randy Weston, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Before the black political class and press, the panelists spotlighted such topics as healthcare for musicians, music economics, and education, providing inspiration and hope to activists across the country.
In 1987, Conyers introduced H. Con. Res. 57, which declared 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.” Its passage thrilled the jazz community. Some grumbled that the resolution didn’t do anything to fund the music, but I believe that it indirectly helped many gatekeepers of culture and philanthropy recognize the art form as an important part of American culture. Only after the resolution was passed did leading philanthropies such as the Wallace Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation become major funders of jazz; only after it was passed did Jazz at Lincoln Center raise enough financial support to fully commence operations in 1991.
“After the passage of the resolution,” recalls Cedric Hendricks, Conyers’ longtime jazz adviser and producer of the Jazz Issue Forum, “Conyers and his staff were looking for the next thing that Congress could do to build a stronger institutional foundation for the music, and seized upon the Smithsonian Institution, which at that point had a 20-year record of accomplishment in jazz, to further advance the music.”
Thanks in large part to Conyers, the U.S. Congress passed legislation in 1990 authorizing the establishment of a national jazz band—the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra—to make the National Museum of American History’s music archives (100,000 pages of Duke Ellington’s unpublished music and other manuscripts) sing. When the band debuted in May 1991, it was hailed by critics. The museum’s “big-band-in-residence” has since performed hundreds of historically curated concerts in Washington and across Canada, Europe, and Africa. It is a national asset and a factor in U.S. cultural diplomacy.
Throughout the ’90s, Conyers continued to seek and sometimes secured federal funding for the Smithsonian’s efforts to preserve the nation’s jazz heritage and share it with the American public through educational outreach—by collecting oral histories, for example.
His former chief of staff Greg Moore remembers, “One event that I know he was especially proud of was coordinating a performance by Lionel Hampton and his band at the White House during President Bill Clinton’s term. He was also very supportive of Wynton Marsalis and his emerging work at Lincoln Center and helped push for the inclusion of jazz artists like Nancy Wilson at the Democratic Convention in L.A. or for artists like Chick Corea, James Moody, or Donald Byrd to perform at venues in D.C. or Detroit, where their work could be shared with new generations of jazz artists.”
Moore continues, “It was amazing to watch him keep his focus on [jazz], even while taking on some of the most consequential issues of our day: criminal justice reform, voting rights, universal health care, reparations, anti-apartheid work, etc. He always found time to keep jazz elevated as part of our national priority and was a great friend to many jazz and non-jazz artists alike.”
In the early ’90s, Conyers sought a Congressional Medal of Honor for Dizzy Gillespie, unquestionably one of the great American cultural figures. Anupy Singla, a former Conyers aide, says, “They could never get it passed because of opposition from the other side.”
Sometimes known on Capitol Hill as “Mr. Music,” Conyers learned that the art form could bridge all sorts of divides. Cedric Hendricks recalls: “One day, Conyers got into the elevator with Henry Hyde,” a fierce political opponent. “Hyde said to him, ‘Hey, John, I’ve been listening to a lot of Coltrane lately.’ ‘What’s up with that?’ Hyde said, ‘My son is in college and is doing a paper on John Coltrane. And he’s playing a lot of music around the house. And I’ve been checking it out.’ Conyers smiled broadly.
“And on a Congressional trip to the Soviet Union,” Hendricks remembers, “during a thorny meeting with a government official, Conyers presented the apparatchik with a Motown LP, and turned the conversation in a whole new, productive direction.”
Such encounters helped reaffirm that there is more to an officeholder than party or ideology, and that music can serve as compelling common ground. For the United States, Conyers called jazz “a unifying force, bridging cultural, religious, ethnic and age differences in our diverse society.”
In 2015, Conyers introduced a Congressional bill titled the National Jazz Preservation, Education, and Promulgation Act, “to preserve knowledge and promote education about jazz in the United States and abroad.” It was reintroduced in 2017 by Rep. Shirley Jackson-Lee of Texas, but with the Democrats in the minority, it did not pass. Jackson-Lee, a Democrat, and Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican of Georgia, now jointly head up the Congressional Jazz Caucus. With Conyers gone, the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, headed by musicians Herb Scott and Aaron Myers, is working to continue his legacy of legislation supporting jazz.
Conyers led me to believe that one of his most satisfying musical accomplishments was helping to establish the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. Now in its 29th season of concerts, it recently completed a world tour. The Congressman may be gone, but the band plays on. I think he’d be proud of that.