Saturday, August 16, 2008

Don't Let Jazz Fade Into The Background

Jazz remains one of the few American art forms almost universally viewed with admiration (at times bordering on awe) by those outside this country. Despite increasing foreign hostility toward everything American, my recent travels on behalf of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) to such far-flung locales as Europe, South Africa and Malaysia confirmed that jazz, while recognized universally as the cultural emblem of the United States, transcends divisive politics and continues to be received with great enthusiasm.
As synonymous with America as the bald eagle, baseball, or Mark Twain, jazz serves as the ultimate diplomat, proudly espousing and showcasing the freedom, individualism and democratic traditions we hold so dear in each riff and rhythm.
Yet, at home, within the country that can claim the birthright of this musical heritage, jazz is, ironically, in greater danger than ever of falling off the radar screen of the average American.
Jazz, from its earliest beginnings, has struggled to overcome obstacles ranging from the ignorance and artistic elitism of some of its critics to blatant racism. Amazingly, the music has survived, proving time and again to be remarkably resilient, confident and proud of its heritage, uncompromising in its standards, yet adaptable to its time and environment. Why, today, is jazz facing an even tougher fight?
The problem is, with each passing year, more and more Americans seem to have less and less contact with the music. At first, this would seem to be something of an enigma as technological advances, from digital music services to satellite radio and cable TV have resulted in a greater availability of jazz content than ever before. Yet the nature of this technology, which allows consumers to wrap themselves in a cocoon of their own choosing, actually serves to isolate individuals from anything they don't already know or like.
Conversely, when millions of Americans tuned into network television of decades past and Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, the Grammy Awards, or any number of other variety shows presented an artist such as Dizzy Gillespie, a huge population with no previous exposure to jazz instantly had an opportunity to glimpse and be touched by the effervescence of this musical genius. Sadly, these and so many other points of casual contact with the public are diminishing steadily as jazz clubs disappear and jazz radio programming has decreased or has been relegated to late-night hours.
The essential role and importance of jazz education, given these challenges, has never been more obvious or critical. Individual educators as well as music, educational, and arts associations must, therefore, renew efforts to make certain that all students receive grounding in the concepts, history, and artists that define jazz. In addition, they must be given multiple opportunities to actively experience and engage with the music throughout their formative years. To truly address these concerns, however, jazz education will need a number of partners to step up as well. Congress must substantially increase federal funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (today's budget remains $50 million less than in 1992!). Corporations and prominent patrons of the arts need to consider sponsorships of jazz organizations just as they underwrite local symphonies, art museums and dance companies. Newspapers need to place jazz coverage at least on par with other arts coverage. Record companies, artist agencies and others in the "business" need to recognize the value of collectively working together to reach out and develop the audience for jazz.
"Keep Jazz Alive!" This well-worn, well-intentioned but, ultimately, misguided phrase is frequently heard in relation to the importance of jazz education. Well, make no mistake - jazz is alive! It is vibrantly alive and relevant; not only in the recordings and compositions of its past masters - the ebullience of Louis Armstrong, the swinging elegance of Duke Ellington, the moody lyricism of Miles Davis and the passionate spiritualism of John Coltrane - but also in the hands of its current practitioners from Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson and Wayne Shorter to the Bad Plus, Bill Frisell, and so many, many others.
It's hard to envision, in fact, an art form that is more alive. Jazz artists have routinely sought to stretch stylistic boundaries with compositions steeped not only in the jazz tradition but also drawing freely from sources as diverse and eclectic as Indian ragas, hip-hop, flamenco, minimalism, and many, many other musical genres. It's an art form that embraces improvisation (by its very definition "in the moment") and is a constant source of adventure for musician and audience alike. Now, that's alive!
This is not a plea to save jazz. The passionate musicians and fans who find their way to it will ensure its survival in spite of meager funding, poor exposure and public apathy. But is survival all we really want for this vibrant music that so defines our country's values and heritage?
Chuck Owen, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of South Florida and artistic director of USF's Center for Jazz Composition, is president of the International Association for Jazz Education.

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