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With Friends Like These...

By Published: September 13, 2005
You see, attitudes like mine do not come about for no reason. Nor could the things we accomplished (as stated in the last piece I wrote) in the late '70s and early '80s have been done if I had been filled with the anger, frustration, pessimism and general sense of hopelessness about the Jazz scene that I have right now.

The real reason that I, and others with similar viewpoints were left out of the process is because the current trends would never have been put in motion if we'd been part of it. Instead, truly worthwhile elements such as a focus on artist empowerment through the development of distribution systems for artist-controlled product, the establishment and support of artist-driven 501(c)(3) non-profits (as are standard for all other fine arts forms), touring networks of cooperative-based presenters (like most of those we helped establish in the late '70s), and other similarly artist-oriented concepts would have been brought to the table. And most of all, there would have been an equitable division of the funding that was about to be provided.

But that would have stood in the way of the exploitative, arrogant and self-serving mechanisms that have resulted in the various fiefdoms and monoliths that provide good jobs and related benefits for a variety of (primarily) non-musicians, along with ego-gratification and lordly control by a small group of failed ones as to who gets to perform and when, where and for how much.

So was this the plan from Jump Street? Even I'm not cynical enough to really believe that. I also believe that a number of folks, such as Holly Sidford, who initiated the Lila Wallace Network when she was in charge there, truly wanted to do something meaningful for the art form. But people are extremely susceptible to the betterment of their own self-interests. Mix in a few phony hustlers, who for one reason or another are able to talk their way around their own incompetence and lack of vision, and a few others who will go along with anything to cover up their own lack of sustenance, and then top it off with a few musicians willing to rubber-stamp anything that might produce a leg up or even a few more gigs; and you have a recipe for potential disaster. When that cake pops out of the oven, ice it with that grand ol' Amurrikan, bigger is better/gimme more philosophy as is so perfectly represented by Lincoln Center - and that recipe becomes a reality that poisons everything else with which it comes into contact.

So the initiatives become facility-based concepts with no other specific goals other than hoping something good will happen out of all those millions tossed on the table. But with no specific goals, no overall purpose and not even any standards by which the various facilities were supposed to function on a mutual basis, any real potential of systemic progress was dead from the outset. And with Lincoln Center as the symbolic Castle in the Sky, only corruption could result.

The most damaging element is the synthetic economic environment that was created, maintaining no semblance of the true economics of the Jazz marketplace. Probably the most significant issue was that the cooperatively structured sponsors, where a number of dedicated individuals came together to present the music and develop related educational outreach, mutated into monolithic structures under the iron-handed direction of single, salaried executives who fancy themselves as visionaries. These folks - almost all white guys - must have all learned from the same book, as they are uniformly arrogant, self-centered and unwilling to cooperate with smaller presenters in their region or even each other. Unless of course it's advantageous to themselves. Now, through the Lila Wallace and the follow-up Doris Duke programs they have become powerful, monolithic overlords (with one notable exception, The Hartford Artists Collective, under the guidance of Dollie and Jackie McLean - duh), with their own endowments of anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000.

Every musician, agent, manager and committed professional to whom I've spoken display nothing but contempt for these guys, but none of them will say it publicly because they are afraid of offending them and depriving themselves of the gigs they bestow. Not exactly the healthiest of atmospheres for positive development is it? The sad irony is that without the musicians these guys have nothing, yet this handful of punks is allowed to control their ability to work.

So, is this what the Wallace and Duke programs were supposed to create - jobs for a dozen executives and their staffs with some trickle down money for the artists upon whom they deign to bestow the occasional gig? Does it benefit the scene that they can now throw high-paying gigs ($30-40K) to the anointed few, and occasionally pay the worthy masters $10-20K, but that the standard gigs to the rank and file are 30-50% lower than those some cities were paying them 25 years ago, (and considerably fewer besides)?

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