Backlash against grants for jazz?

Nate Chinen, estimable New York Times music journalist, questions the effect of grants like the $253,000 announced by Chamber Music America for jazz composers: Are applicants pressed to create overly grand and pc projects? Ottawa Citizen blogger Peter Hum asks why Canada’s government supports jazz at all.

But Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra leader Arturo O’Farrill has been commissioned to write a Latin jazz orchestra piece in honor of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Are grants and government support bad for jazz?

Chinen’s blog entry centers on his interest in whether “the current system creates more or less freedoms, more or less pressure(s)” and refers to a column he wrote for Jazz Times in which he raised “unsettling questions” about artists creating “self-consciously intellectual or pointedly interdisciplinary works” on the basis of patronage or under sway of other “vested interests.” He does recognize that jazz needs support, however it can be gotten, but he cites musical projects that are funded because they read good on paper to funders, rather than grab the inherent passions of audiences or the artists themselves.
I can see his point — there are indeed some works that seem to get funded because of high concepts (and often, also, connections in high places) and don’t deliver the best music possible for the money. I’ve always felt jazz is in a uniquely honest position among American arts because musicians have had to create a relationships with a general public for financial support, rather than expect their esthetic imaginations be indulged by deep-pocket individuals, elite arts panelists or corporations with agendas.
However, the current crop of Chamber Music America fellows — including Rudresh Mahanthappa, Adam Rudolph, Mario Pavone, Rez Abassi, Jason Kao Hwang, all of whom I’ve heard, enjoyed and written about, and Amir ElSaffar, Ellery Eskelin, John Hollenbeck and Joel Harrison, who I’ve heard with respect and interest at the very least, live and/or on records — are tried and true artists, known for quality productions over many years leading up to significant recent (pre-grant) successes (there are only three CMA fellows I haven no prior knowledge of: Josh Moshier of Evanston, IL and NY NY’s Ole Mathiesen and John Escreet). With record co’s for the most part unable to fund work in development if they’ve survived at all, concert opportunities limited and commercial clubs typically not the best places to try something new, how’s a musician supposed to find the do-re-mi to fiddle around, er, create, if not by applying to foundations? And if you apply, why not go for the dream project, which you couldn’t even think of when scrappling in the Apple is the daily grind? 
Up in Canada, the conservative Harper administration’s funds to jazz among other cultural events as a lure to attract tourist caught Hum’s attention, raised the hackles of Tabatha Southey, who wrote an almost funny op-ed for The Globe and Mail about it — 

I don’t mind other people liking jazz. What people listen to behind closed doors is their own business. I accept it: Jazz happens. I just don’t see why we need to use tax dollars to promote it. . . 

and a more straightforward putdown by Ottawa Citizen‘s Randall Denley headlined “Throwing Parties With Your Money” that starts with

The government of Canada is now so desperate to spend the billions of dollars it is borrowing that it is shoveling money out the door to New Orleans jazz musicians.

Oh, so that’s how they’re getting rich. At issue in both of these articles is the treatment of Canadian jazz artists, who seem to be getting passed over, But if the government’s point is to raise tourist dollars with jazz, don’t they have to encourage jazz attractions? And though Canada’s jazz funding has been the envy of U.S. presenters and musicians for a while now, not many of its musicians-in-residence have yet been widely-heralded as must-listening. In time, that may change. Meanwhile, Canada’s jazz fests in Victoriaville, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Guelph and elsewhere are acknowledged internationally as stellar, and deserve being underwritten to stay that way, even if they import headliners from the U.S., Europe, Africa, wherever.
Back here at home, pianist-composer O’Farrill, winner of a 2009 Grammy and Jazz Journalists Association’s Jazz Award for the album Song for Chico, has been chosen by Symphony Space and the Bronx Museum to compose a song celebrating the elevation of the first Latina woman to the Supreme Court.. The music is being financed by private donors and is expected to be performed at Symphony Space in November. Says O’Farrill, 

To pay tribute a woman who has shown incredible progressive judicial prowess, someone who has distinguished herself on so many levels, ,et alone come out of the Bronx, out of a housing project, and done such incredible and amazing things, it’s an opportunity of a lifetime.

Opportunities — to perform, to find audiences, to make statements, to take chances, to make livings — that’s what musicians (among other artists) need. Considering today’s economic realities, few of us are being too scrupulous about where the bucks for sustaining opportunities come from, but in truth no jazzer worth his or her name is conning anyone out of their dollars or loonies with sub-par music, which isn’t signficantly easier to realize or monetize if it’s a suite or multi-media experiment than if it’s a jam session. Let’s keep applauding governments that give jazz its propers, and clap in clavé for Judge Sotomayor upon her upcoming confirmation, without Republicans if need be.
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  1. says

    Your conclusion doesn’t speak to the concerns that Chinen and others have raised about this issue. Nobody is complaining that jazz musicians are getting money. But if jazz has to pretend to be classical music or exotic “world music” in order to get it, it’s worth examining the stipulations being put on the artists (implicitly or explicitly.)
    “Scrappling in the Apple” may be a daily grind for many, but it’s not being heard or recognized by very many people. We’d be better off if these foundations gave money directly to the Scrappling going on rather than force artists to develop high-minded art pieces in order to get funded. You assume that these are “dream pieces” allowing them to get “away from the daily grind,” but what Chinen and others are seeing is these commissions BECOMING the grind (at the expense, perhaps, of some really great under-the-radar jazz.) Obviously if this is a “dream project” for some of these musicians, more power to them. I’m not convinced that is the case.
    I wrote at The Gig that smaller grants would be better — sending ten young virtuosos to Banff or the Port Townsend Jazz Workshop would do a much greater service to the music than to spend ten times that on a fancy commission like the Sotomayor Suite.
    HM: Thanks for a perceptive and well reasoned comment — but this needn’t be an either/or situation. You’ve got a good and doable idea that would not be expensive by present funding standards — sure, let’s sponsor scrapplers (apply this also to artists of other disciplines, and even arts journalists!) in attendance of worthwhile workshops, professional-development programs and conferences. In fact, that has been part of what Chamber Music America has done with its Doris Duke Charitable Foundation grants for jazz since first administrating them what, 10 years ago?
    There are some misconceptions about current jazz funders and significant distinctions among them.
    First — No one is stipulating works to be funded must be anything in particular — jazz is not asked to be anything particular, though neither is it limited to what “jazz” is “supposed to be.” I’ve both sat on granting-panels (Meet the Composer, NYState Council on the Arts, North Carolina Arts Council, Arts International) and have applied for grants (in the past on my own and currently for the Jazz Journalists Association). Applications have never in my experience expressly leveled esthetic demands, though they typically ask for project descriptions.
    It is true one must have something to say about the project you’re asking for money for, and if the commission is looking for new works for ensembles to be realized in production — that sort of pre-determines the most likely successful application (not “I’m going to write some tunes for us to play” but rather “I’m going to write music with an over-arching theme and statement for us to play”). Admittedly, the beauty of music submitted as supporting samples should play a role. Often, the prejudices of the funding panel (usually drawn from a pool of peer artists) defines the results of the process, but seldom does it determine the applications.
    Further: Chamber Music America recipients are receiving a relative pittance, much below what commercial shows (pop concerts, B’way and Hollywood, etc.) take for viable budgets. They aren’t merely individuals getting big grants, they are ensemble leaders developing and producing new work with their band members, who will be paid! What an idea! Yes, the funds flow out, or maybe just trickle down, but reach many more than one musician, each grant.
    And there are “ten young virtuosos” being passed by in the fellowship programs because — why? They can’t or won’t fill out grant aps? Their peer-artists, in sway of ego, agenda, esthetics many other interpersonal complications, hold grudges against them? The artists have no evidence of having been able to bring off ambitious plans before, but they should be given funds anyway? Some artists who are surely marginalized by the processes or their own limitations, but the granting agencies often stage outreach programs and usually give more than lip-service to their pledges of officers’ counseling.
    Note, too: The music Nate used as an example in his JT column is difficult, ambitious, and I agree not wholly successful Xenogenisis Suite by funded composer-flutist Nicole Mitchell. I heard this piece performed live and have listened to the recording, and I’ve found it rough going for significant stretches. So what? The piece has its highlights, too — and it is not inconsistent with the career-so-far work of Ms. Mitchell (or her inspiration, the great but sometimes difficult writing — especially in her Xenogensis trilogy — of Octavia Butler; that’s another post I’ve always meant to write. . ..) The suite is not my favorite of Ms. Mitchell’s works — she is a wonderful flutist, improviser and keeps working on composing for differently sized-and-shaped ensembles out of her personal musical drive — but I know it’s a mistake to dismiss it entirely. I might listen again and get more out of it, it may grow on me, or be better than I first though. It may offer pleasures to people with interests distant from my own. Flawed works can also serve as stepping stones to more successful ones. Ms. Mitchell’s is an honest work which engaged the talents of many collaborators — everyone involved gained from it, so the funding was seed money and education more than beneficient financial reward. And it doesn’t keep Nicole Mitchell from playing sets with her outstanding band at the Velvet Lounge.
    I’m grateful someone’s taking chances making music that dares to make me as uncomfortable as did Butler’s tale of interspecies apotheosis — and that an institution, any institution, is willing to put a downpayment on wanting to think about Butler and/or Mitchell’s music.
    O’Farrill’s piece is NOT being funded by a public grant — it is “commissioned” by its two presenters, Symphony Space and the Bronx Museum, paid for by private donors. This seems like pure patronage, but also organically market-oriented programming. It is part of the role of music to celebrate significant community events, and Sotomayor’s ascension is meaningful in the Bronx and other liberal bastions of New York City — by commissioning O’Farrill, the supporting institutions have bought themselves a musical event, delivered by a musician who has righteous empathy with the honoree of the occasion and has demonstrated an ability to create good jazz using stellar musicians. What’s wrong with that? The 10 young virtuosos aren’t in the band?

  2. Ben Cameron says

    I’m cheered by all of the discussion that the announcement of the jazz grants has generated. Just a couple of observations for the record, given my role as Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the funder of these awards.
    Nate Chinen’s editorial in Jazz Times last year caused us to reflect a bit on this idea of “concept” as central to the awards. As a result, this year’s application broadened the question and asked instead, “Describe the new work. Topics can include, but are not limited to structure, improvisational elements, extra-musical influences, concept, and themes.” Some artists do work driven by a central concept: others don’t. We’re trying to be responsive to the full range and to let each artist speak from her/his optimal vantage point in helping a panel understand what she/he wants to do, with whom, and why–because of a concept to pursue? Because of the opportunity to stretch one’s artistic range? Because it can go deeper in a direction already undertaken? etc.
    Finally, I can’t help but wonder whether the ultimate work created is the true validation of the award. The objective of a grant is to support an artist’s journey–to help with the development of the larger “voice”–and that may occasionally produce work that seems less powerful than other work, that is marked by some uncertainty, or whose value may not be seen until years down the road when the discoveries made flower in other work. It’s one of the difficulties of funding work that has yet to be created. That said, we have tried to make the investment in the artist more substantial, as Mr. Mandel suggests: these grants now come with additional support to help promote the future life of the work (whether that means tour support, residency support, studio time, or some other means) and professional development assistance, designed to help strengthen non-musical professional skills (e.g. marketing, financial planning, etc.)
    We are always anxious to know how we might serve the jazz field and jazz artists better. As one of our three core fields (the others being modern dance and theatre), jazz is central to our work at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. We welcome all responses, not only to our other grants programs at CMA, but to our other jazz programs: Jazz NEXT grants program at MidAtlantic Arts Foundation, our French/American program with FACE, and the various projects we support that can support jazz artists, including efforts around health care for artists through LINC and a jazz composers orchestra institute at the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University.
    HM: And readers, remember: the DDCF distributes funds that came from a private person — it is *not* a government agency. So even if the jazz grants came with all sorts of stipulations, they would be pouring money into the jazz economy that wouldn’t be there otherwise, isn’t mandated by any legislation to be there — and it never precludes other organizations from funding in the ways that may be different that they see fit.

  3. says

    A brief response to each of your points:
    1) There may not be explicit aesthetic expectations, but I’m sure a look into what has been funded in the past suggests a pattern of implicit aesthetic expectations. I trust that this is changing slowly, as Mr. Cameron suggests.
    2) There are lots of reasons why access to grants is uneven and lots of great young people do not access them. Cultural capital and understanding of the arts culture bureaucracy are required to navigate the process. My musical career would have turned out VERY differently if I had been encouraged to seek out these sorts of opportunities instead of just playing the high school jazz band festival circuit in my hometown. For someone like me, whose parents weren’t musicians, how was I supposed to know that these kinds of resources were out there? It’s disingenuous to suggest that the access to these sorts of resources is universal and simple to understand.
    3) I think your beef is more with Nate Chinen than me on his citation of the Butler piece. I haven’t heard it and don’t have anything to say about its merits. What concerns me more is the broader institutional patterns that grant funding is shaping in the jazz marketplace, especially as the music comes to rely more and more on academia and patronage models for its financial viability.
    4) I’ve got no problem with the O’Farrill commission. I’m just saying that if the funders of the grant were interested in maximizing the impact on the future of jazz in their community, their money would go further by investing in making sure that members of their community have access and awareness to the music. Obviously that’s not how things work; given the circumstances I think it’s great that jazz is being used to celebrate Sotomayor’s achievement.
    HM: 1 — Look at the NEA’s Jazz Masters — these are not honorees celebrated for their grant-oriented music; most of them (Ornette and Cecil are exceptions) have played idiomatic jazz, stretching the boundaries to the extent (mostly) commercial jazz outlets allow and reward. They are arguably the most visible of any grants-receiving jazz artists in the U.S., and several of them have sat on major jazz-grants awarding panels. There are certainly complexities about who opts to put in grants applications, but there are plenty of solid mainstream jazz musicians who have been funded.
    2 – If you played in jazz bands in high school, your teachers might have mentioned that these kinds of grants were given to musicians of merit and ambition. Sorry you didn’t get the word from them. Or if you were gigging, you might have looked into other ways to get funds, you might have heard about the grants from colleagues, you might have read about MacArthur awards or Guggenheim grants in some newspaper or jazz magazine. There may not be universal knowledge of these grants, but the internet search engine Google has proved to be a wonderful thing. If the grants aren’t understandable, most of them do urge interested applicants to call the offices or email for further information. It’s disingenous to assume that talented musicians can’t find out what the potential resources are.
    3 – I have no beef with Nate, about Nicole Mitchell’s piece or the questions he raised. I’m supplying my own point of view about the potential value of pieces we may agree seem to be heavily conceptual and not completely successful. There’s no guarantee of success when any grant is given, however straight or far out the project. As Ben Cameron wrote, the point of giving grants is less to obtain new masterpieces than to keep the artist on their journey.
    4 – I’m glad we agree the O’Farrill commission re Sotomayor is not outside the proprieties of jazz. I think the Bronx Museum probably believes it IS investing in making sure members of its community have access and awareness of the music. That’s also what Flushing Town Hall does, and JazzMobile, and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in NYC — bring jazz often for free to urban communities, generally through performances, but sometimes with educational components, too.
    Bottom line — if you are a young virtuoso jazz musician looking to make a living, and you’re not able to make it by recording or playing clubs or festivals, you might think to ask someone if there is another way of making money. Ask enough musicians and they may tell you about grant possibilities — at least that they exist. Then you can decide whether you want to make music in the way the grants seem to ask for it, and if you want to jump through the hoops of making an application. And if you are refused the first time, you can try again and again. If you are successful you may also try again, move on to other grants. You can attend classes in grant-writing and talk to funding officers for tips — you can also decide you’ll skip the whole thing, you’re more comfortable making commercial music, which perhaps pays better anyway. There is no requirement set upon the grants-givers that they support music made in the same way it has been, no matter how well it’s done. But among people I know have received grants (not all from CMA — I’ll * those) in recent years are ragtime composer and pianist Reginald Robinson (who grew up on the West Side of Chicago, in a home without parents who were musicians, and with little immediate access to info on grants et al), traditional jazz trumpeter Warren Vaché, pianist *Xavier Davis with the New Jazz Composers Octet (modernists in the ’60s Blue Note vein), veteran bassist and former Rutgers jazz prof *Rufus Reid, trumpeter *Tom Harrell, veteran SF-based drummer *Eddie Marshall, *saxophonist Don Braden, winds ‘n’ reeds *Bennie Maupin, saxophonist *Billy Harper . . . need I go on? These are not cats who change their styles or orientations in order to get grants. They don’t have to — the grants-givers recognize the value of what they do.

  4. CraigP says

    I like the fact that DDCF grants now support extending the life of a work through touring or more effective marketing. Getting this music out to audiences is key to ensuring that creative musicians can thrive.

  5. John Yeh says

    I certainly respect Mr. Chinen’s criticism that the scope of grants can be limiting towards the artist. Certainly within the context of jazz as a freeing and improvisational form, taking a tighter compositional and thematic approach as defined by the giver, IS limiting to the artist.
    But this creative struggle for the artist is nothing new. I prefer to see it as the artist is working and that’s the most important thing. Regardless of the whether the work stands the test of time or is merely competent, within his/her lifetime the artist is given the chance to enrich us in our day and age, and quite frankly put some food on the table. Only history can really say whether the work is truly great or just worthwhile for now.
    Historically, as with all work that is commissioned, there has been that imposed tension for the artist to create great works, in any art form, tempered by the expectations of the patron or funder. Whether in today’s private sector by say movie companies commissioning soundtracks, to the Renaissance when the Catholic church asked Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, this tension has been ongoing for all time. The fact that Michelangelo altered the work slightly to placate his patrons doesn’t change the fact that history has validated the artist and the piece stands for all time as one of the greatest masterpieces of any time.
    All we can hope for when we give to artists is that their creativity is sparked and what they create fulfills the expectations of the funder and gives audiences something to think about and appreciate. Their work adds color and spice to the world and therefore makes our lives more interesting and meaningful. That’s the beauty of art and whether we like it or not, whether it stands the test of time or not, the creative act alone is worth the price.