MacArthur ignores jazz musicians and improvisers

The new list of MacArthur fellows, just released, features not one musician from the world of jazz among the 23 distinguished Americans who will receive $100,000 a year for five years.

Two musicians are named among the fellows: Claire Chase, flutist and founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)

Claire Chase, photo by Stephanie Berger

and Chris Thile, mandolinist of Nickle Creek and the Punch Brothers. I congratulate them both, as well as the other honored

Chris Thile

writers, artists, scientists, and a historian, economist, social services innovator. But considering the MacArthur program, established  since  in 1981 has included jazz-related musicians frequently since 1988 (starting with Ran Blake and Max Roach, continuing with George Russell, Ali Akbar Khan, Gunther Schuller, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Ken Vandermark, George E. Lewis, Edgar Meyer — with whom Chris Thile has collaborated — Reginald Robinson, Regina Carter, John Zorn, Corey Harris, Miguel Zenon, Jason Moran and Dafnis Prieto), and that the fellowships are not for past works but rather investments in the artists and hence their art forms’ futures, the absence this year is disappointing.

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  1. Paul Lindemeyer says

    What if jazz has undergone a process of re-ghettoization, away from the social and intellectual engagement it once enjoyed and implied? Artistic merit aside, what if it no longer connects meaningfully outside of the tribe of educated player-listeners?

    I always find comparisons with the classical music scene – in which I’ve been helped greatly by Greg Sandow’s blog about bringing new contexts to concert music. The classical scene got by on prestige so long that it couldn’t react meaningfully to changes in society, demographics, or how people use music. Sandow and his commenters illustrate how caring and creative programmers, musicians, ensembles, are making small cracks in the wall that has grown up between the music and the community.

    Jazz’s prestige was never so broad or so deep socially, but I have suspected for quite awhile that we’ve come to the end of a similar rope. But what’s lacking is a discussion on the “Sandovian” level – taking it to the streets, the parks, the museums, the halls, the clubs, the space inside people’s ears.

    There’s no question that jazz people have the talent, intellect, and commitment. Is the missing link awareness? engagement with the world outside the music and its capital cities? a permanent sense of being on the Outside of the culture???

    • says

      I hear your question, Paul, but I think jazz is far from being in the position you describe. Although the diy recording industry (which has made a huge contribution to documentation and dissemination of what’s going on now) might suggest otherwise, I can attest by personal witness that there is a lot of deeply involved, non-intellectual, localized (if yes, urban) jazz happening, much of which does not get recorded or broadcast by radio or reviewed in papers or in blogs, either. In Chicago and Boston I’ve seen and heard the music in clubs, parks, community centers, restaurants, and people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds getting into (ok, are those capital cities? I know of similar activities in Tucson, Tallahassee, Nashville, Detroit, Philadelphia, Raleigh. . .) The music is not only being propagated by conservatories and educational institutions, though there has been an extraordinary increase in that. There’s a lot of soul-influenced jazz being played in African American neighborhoods and favored venues that retain the social engagement. And I think the contemporary composition world Greg Sandow addresses is not in a better position than jazz right now. You may not know that I used to be rather deeply connected to that sphere in NYC (less so currently), but the gains Greg has helped instigate (along with, edited wonderfully by Frank J. Oteri) still do not go very far beyond the immediate circle of the composers’ colleagues, friends and family.

      I continue to think that the problem is simply not much $ for marketing has been put into jazz for 40 to 50 years. During that time, pop music has as an industry completely dominated musical airwaves, though the music has developed from rock ‘n’ roll and Atlantic/Stax/Motown soul through psychedelia into prog rock, stadium rock, pure pop including disco, punk, roots Americana, rap, hip-hop, neo-soul, various derivations of techno, soft “rock,” Euro pop . . . most of those genres based on strong dance beats, words and attitudes rather than instrumental exploration and expressivity. I believe only an enormous and well-funded marketing and distribution campaign reaching an open-minded and musically curious audience will produce a sea-change in jazz’s profile and popularity. I don’t think the economic and educative conditions for this currently exist, yet jazz is tenacious and not about to lose its direct connections to the heart of communities where it resides.