[JPL] Jazzing Up Civil Society
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Sat Sep 2 07:21:33 EDT 2006
Mackinac Center for Public Policy
Posted: Friday, September 01, 2006
Jazzing Up Civil Society
By Bruce E. Walker,
and Michael D. LaFaive
The 27th annual Detroit International Jazz Festival, taking place this
weekend, is the marriage of two distinctly American art forms: jazz and
charitable giving. The first is a synonym for American individualism; the
second, for civil society. If not for the generous $10 million endowment
from philanthropist and jazz enthusiast Gretchen Valade, this year¹s
festival and the promise of festivals for the foreseeable future might
never have occurred. Valade¹s endowment attracted Ford Motor Company back
into the sponsorship fold, as well as new sponsor Absopure Water Company.
Jazz evolved in the 19th century out of a form of music closely associated
to blues or "ragtime," which itself was heavily influenced by
African-American traditions. The term "jazz" was many believe born in
New Orleans where the rich mix of ethnicities (African, Latin and European)
seemed to facilitate experimentation with different music and performance
The history of jazz music also is inextricably linked with the city of
Detroit. The Jazz Age of the 1920s saw the burgeoning musical form take root
with the nascent Victor recordings of such city luminaries as Bix
Biederbecke, who made some of his first recordings as a member of the Jean
Goldkette Orchestra at the Detroit Athletic Club in November 1924. In the
latter part of the decade, Goldkette¹s Graystone Ballroom helped launch the
careers of such legends as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Frankie Trumbauer,
McKinney¹s Cotton Pickers, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. By the 1940s, jazz
musicians were as much of the city¹s landscape as automobile and advertising
executives. Earl Klugh and Donald Byrd are only a few of the Detroiters to
gain international prominence.
Another reason jazz may have become America¹s first original art form was
the nearly anarchistic setting of American life in the 1800s. For most of
the nation, government intrusion was minimal. As government gets bigger,
people necessarily get smaller. That is why jazz is important to American
cultural history. It is symbolic of American ideals. It not only permits,
but encourages individualism; and it does so in a way that allows a
collection of improvising musicians to produce admirable works without
central direction. It is, in a phrase, "spontaneous order."
Duke Ellington, perhaps America¹s greatest jazz composer, said, "Jazz is a
good barometer of freedom. In its beginnings, the United States of America
spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which,
eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say
it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet
produced in this country."
This is precisely why the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has long opposed
government interference in the arts. Reliance on government booty can betray
art and artists by limiting support to the best grant writers or to
politician¹s subjectively favored artists. Government grants also come with
government restrictions. The Ann Arbor Film Festival, for example,
effectively lost state funding due to the violation of one such parameter.
In fiscal year 2007, the state of Michigan is expected to redistribute $10
million in grants through its Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs
program. That represents involuntary tax contributions from arts patrons and
others alike. To the everlasting credit of the Detroit International Jazz
Festival, it has never taken a government arts grant. We encourage them to
retain this independence.
The best mechanism for preserving such independence is through what the
Mackinac Center calls "civil society." A civil society represents
from-the-heart transactions that provide societal benefits through private
action. Gretchen Valade improved Detroit¹s cultural scene with her gift,
just as tens of thousands of Americans have done with their own
contributions to countless organizations and enterprises.
According to the nonprofit Giving USA, Americans donated a staggering $260
billion to charity in 2005. And that¹s just financial donations. The total
value donated in volunteer hours also ranks in the many billions of dollars.
One of Detroit¹s most endearing qualities is the way it honors its musical
past while staying very much in the current musical vanguard. Garage, rock,
techno, rhythm-and-blues and punk all experienced birthing pangs in Motown,
and are celebrated in festivals throughout the year. Thanks to Valade, jazz
will continue to be part of Detroit¹s wonderful mélange of music.
Bruce Edward Walker is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public
Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.
Michael D. LaFaive is fiscal policy director for the Center. Permission to
reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and
the Center are properly cited.
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