[JPL] Chuck Owen

philip booth philipbooth at tampabay.rr.com
Sat Mar 3 10:07:40 EST 2007

This editorial by IAJE president Chuck Owen (jazz prof at USF in Tampa) ran 
in the Feb. 17 edition of the Tampa Tribune. The Trib's version is an edited 
version of a longer editorial.
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 

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.

Philip Booth

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