Hello... I Must Be Going

AAJ Staff BY

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You are all the victims of Big Lies, conceived by Big Liars and spread by small-time hustlers, self-seeking weasels, Kulchur pimps and self-loathing whores...
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

"Only a man of undaunted optimism would embark on such a venture."
~Charles Chaplin as Monsieur Verdoux

"A pessimist is sometimes just an optimist with more information."
~Sufi Proverb

This article was supposed to be the first in an ongoing column, but instead I'm just contributing a single multi-part piece and then I'm probably outta here. I don't see how a regular column would really accomplish anything other than to offer a minor speed bump in Jazz' full-throttle rush to oblivion. Unless there is a significant change in the current mindset that is shared by professionals, advocates, arts foundations, educators and most disturbingly even the musicians themselves, the destiny of this profoundly important art form is as dim as our political future.

I can already hear the various wheezing, harrumphing and whining of the ensemble cast of pimps, hustlers and cockeyed optimists who are ready to point to this musician or that one, this facility or that one, or some market study research that indicates something or other to dispel this notion and paint a rosy picture. So, if you want to buy it, you can keep it. But just remember this for when the real future hits you squarely between the eyes - what you're buying won't provide you with any nutrition because it is designed for an entirely different orifice. And neither remaining upright, watching your back or clenching your cheeks will prevent it. All I can offer you is some information derived from a combination of deductive reasoning and in-the-trenches experience that may provide a piece of wall against which you can back up for a bit of protection. But, just as knowing who these men and women currently ruling this country really are and really stand for will not prevent the emergence of the Fourth Reich, unless appropriate use is made of that knowledge; you will not be able to avoid your inevitable unpleasant destiny unless you make good use of the information I'm trying to give you here.

You are all the victims of Big Lies, conceived by Big Liars and spread by small-time hustlers, self-seeking weasels, Kulchur pimps and self-loathing whores - with a little too much help from some truly dedicated and optimistic individuals who are simply unable to see the forest for the trees. Combine this with those most willing victims - the musicians, who insist upon remaining slaves, shackled by their comfortable ignorance, short-sightedness and willingness to plant their silent lips upon the glutes of anybody who can offer them the luxury of allowing them to work for chump change - and you've got the ideal formula for destruction.

We are a culture of Lies and we thrive upon them. Probably the biggest one of all is that we believe we are seekers of Truth. But we have no more of a desire to look into the mirror of Truth than we have to hammer rusty nails into our own eyeballs. As a nation we've accepted Big Lies without even a whimper - that George Bush was elected in 2000; that George Bush was elected in 2004; that we are killing tens of thousands of innocent people on behalf of liberty, justice and self-protection rather than greed, power and racism. We either buy into it, try to put it out of our minds or maybe toss out a prayer, an epithet or a tsk-tsk.

The same ugliness has taken over in the previously sacrosanct world of Fine Arts and Culture. The hypocrisy, inside dealing, back-stabbing, self-serving manipulation, arrogance, racism and unfettered greed that we associate with the despicable realms of ultra-right-wing politics is in full bloom in the supposedly left-wing world of Arts and Culture.

The bottom line here is the bottom line. It all boils down to two things - money and power. Here we find the common link between the ultra right-wing industrialists and imperialistic neo-cons, with the self-deluded ultra-left of Arts, Culture and Education.

Now that you may be seeking some refuge in labeling my claims as the raving of a Sixties-bred Marxist/Utopian paranoid, let's look at some specifics.

Over the past 15 years, a staggering amount of money has been handed out - yes, given away - all to supposedly improve the Jazz environment for musicians, audiences and the American population in general. (BIG LIE # 1 - we'll look at that and the other Big Lies that lie behind this a little later).

  • In two somewhat consecutive 5-year initiatives, the Lila Wallace Foundation (The 20-city Lila Wallace Jazz Network) and the Doris Duke Foundation (the 14-city Jazz Net) have laid out nearly 25 million dollars purportedly toward the aforementioned goal. This money was distributed primarily to a single facility in each city, with a small regional touring component (Wallace) and a small commissioning component (Duke) in conjunction.

  • The 10-part PBS film, Ken Burns Jazz, with 14 million dollars co-funded by the corporate and foundation world, was purportedly going to bring Jazz into the cultural mainstream. Its various supporters in the Jazz and fine arts yapster community said that it would increase album sales and open up new opportunities for Jazz artists by making the music compelling to a previously uninformed audience.

  • The juggernaut institution Lincoln Center, with its Jazz division's annual budget in the 15 million dollar range, was able to raise over 150 million dollars for its aggressive building campaign, resulting in three new, "state-of-the-art (their words, not mine) facilities. All of the contributions they've solicited have been done so under the assumption that Lincoln Center Jazz is good for the health of Jazz.

  • All over the U.S., with Lincoln Center as its model, other wannabe monolith facilities have sprung up, raising funds from foundations, local municipalities and corporations, and private contributors.

Add up all this scratch and we're looking at more than half a billion dollars! Let's subtract the amounts that could be attributed to investment and earned income (General Motors and Time Warner's participation in the Burns film; the LCJO's performance fees, etc.) and we still have over a quarter of a billion dollars handed over with no strings attached - all to benefit this Great Indigenous American Art Form.

Now let's look at the empirical evidence of exactly where the U.S. Jazz scene is today:

  • The opportunities for Jazz artists to perform live is at its worst state in decades - maybe ever. Multi-city touring is virtually non-existent for all but a very small and selected few. The week-long club engagement is virtually extinct. Multi-night engagements are extremely rare. Highly respected and well-established artists are performing more often than ever before for portions of door receipts with no guaranteed fees.

  • Jazz record sales (including downloads, etc.) are at an all-time low. Any argument to the contrary would have to be based upon the inclusion of record sales by artists like Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum and various "smooth Jazz artists whose sales should not count any more toward the equation than artists like Van Morrison, Booker T & the MGs or Boots Randolph did decades ago.

  • Jazz radio, already confined to college stations and NPR affiliates has received extensive cutbacks in time even from those outlets.

  • Jazz education has become a huge business, but is really no more than a coat of whitener (pun intended) on a badly decayed tooth. Not only has it fallen under the spell of the Jazz industry through the merger of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) with the industry self-promotional tool and personal back-patter, The Jazz Alliance international (JAI), but also, it is spilling thousands of new musicians onto a scene where they will find very few opportunities for self-expression (as to the quality of these young men and women as artists, I'll leave that to others).

  • Jazz has become totally marginalized in mainstream American society. General music magazines have significantly cut back coverage of Jazz, if not eliminating it entirely. Mainstream magazines, from People to Playboy don't even regard Jazz as a genre market as they do such forms as blues, bluegrass, world, etc. Television coverage is almost exclusively limited to BET Jazz, whose payment to artists is that old hustle, Exposure. PBS, the only other outlet (and rare at that) seems to think that the only living Jazz musician is Wynton Marsalis. (There is, however, a new one hour 13-week show being prepared for PBS. It's the first regular Jazz show for television in some 40 years. We shall see what effect it may have. My gut tells me one thing, but I'll wait for more information to get my brain more involved.)

  • And most distressingly of all, Jazz has become generally irrelevant to the African American community, especially its youth. Nice job, y'all!

If any of the people who were the designers, architects and advisors on these various initiatives and programs were managers of big-league baseball teams, they would have been tossed out of the dugouts and sent out scouting high school players in Scahooteyville, North Dakota. That is, if their goal was to actually accomplish what the rhetoric claimed. But it wasn't. Essentially, the game here was much like the Bush plan for tax cuts for the rich, to put more money into the hands of the few at the expense of the many. Now, I am not saying that we have a bunch of Karl Roves and other starve-the-beast, Machiavellian neo-cons at work here. I don't think that the various parties involved in these initiatives said "Hey, let's take whatever money that Randy Weston, Sam Rivers, Sonny Fortune and Johnny Griffin were making and let's give it to Wynton.

But the result was just that. The folks who are responsible or complicit simply don't give a damn as long as they continue to get their share or their jobs, and can cover their uselessness with rhetoric and phony statistics. As for the Big Lie, it's identical to the "justification for the tax cuts. "Let's give these big chunks of money to a small handful in order to stimulate the economy. Trickle down theories that simply do not work, have not worked, and will never work. Because most of those who get money, power, control, esteem, whatever, only share what they must in order to create a cosmetic appearance, and keep the rest. The few who actually are sincerely committed and do the right thing end up being used by the others who don't, as proof of the concept's success.

Before I get to an examination of why the Wallace and Duke Initiatives, the Burns film and Lincoln Center have utterly failed to accomplish what they claim were their goals, and to substantiate the empirical evidence of those failures that I've listed, I'd like to finish this first part of the piece with the two Big Lies that are at the heart of the matter.

  1. That Jazz was in trouble during the late '70s and early '80s, before Lincoln Center and the Fine Arts Foundation world stepped forward to rescue it.

  2. That all of the "idealistic efforts put forward by Wallace, Duke, Burns, Lincoln Center, the IAJE, the JAI and all of the spinners, yappers, pimps and phonies who huckster them are about helping musicians and bettering the overall Jazz environment.

The Truth is that:

  1. In the late '70s and early '80s, Jazz was on the cusp of a significant increase in audience development for all forms of the music, especially the more progressive genres; and the artists were on the brink of true self-empowerment. This was before the fine arts world stepped into the picture in any significant way, other than through related and very moderate government funding at the local, state and Federal levels.

  2. The true interests of these funding initiatives and mechanisms have been corporate gains and real estate. The primary resources of Jazz greatness - the musicians themselves - have been left behind. The Truth is that the bigwigs of the Fine Arts World - the funders, the presenters, and the various personnel involved with them - either do not understand Jazz, like it, or respect it; sometimes all three. And the various Jazz advocates, pundits, experts, moguls, and George Wein wannabes (Weinees?) have sold out the music for their little pots of gold, fiefdoms, consulting gigs and/or strutting privileges.

In the next installment, I will back up the claims about where Jazz was headed in the late '70s and early '80s with specific evidence and I will also delve into the specifics of the various initiatives and wasteful expenditures of the past 15 years.

Let me leave you with one item to consider in this regard. Imagine what could have been accomplished with the 150+ million dollars that was contributed to Lincoln Center Jazz in order to build three new concert facilities in a city full of concert facilities. Imagine what could have been done for the artists in terms of product distribution and marketing, health and pension plans, Internet utilization, worthwhile education programs, meaningful public exposure, etc.

The bottom line is that contributing that kind of money to Lincoln Center is like contributing a hundred thousand dollars to the memorial service of a man who died because he couldn't afford a ten thousand dollar operation.

For those of you who are bristling with umbrage at the image you're seeing in the mirror I'm placing on the table, here, another Sufi proverb:

"The useful man performing useful work is not angered if he is called useless; but the useless, who convince themselves that they are performing significant work become enraged when the word is applied to them.

For the rest of you, until the next time,
Peace & A Love Supreme...

Continue: Prelude to a Kiss-Off

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