[JPL] Chuck Owen
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
By CHUCK OWEN
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.
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