No more NEA National Heritage fellowships, Jazz Masters or Opera Honors. Does it matter?
As I’ve detailed in two blog postings elsewhere, the National Endowment for the Arts has proposed in its 2012 budget the end of National Heritage Fellowships and Jazz Masters — both 30 year programs — and Opera Honors (begun only two years ago). It intends to institute American Artists of the Year awards in place of those three genre-specific programs, saying the AAYs will go to performing artists “across the spectrum” (thus including dance, theater, music theater, circus, performance art, comedy, all in one bag — similar to how it now confers the National Medal of Arts awards). Also, it will de-emphasize veteran artists by opening the field to people in “mid-career.” I always though an artist was in mid-career until he or she died.
From correspondence bouncing around the jazz world in the week since this plan was made public (it’s in detail on page 10 of the NEA’s budget appropriations request, not trumpeted in a press release) I’d say reactions have varied, with no single consensus developed about what this means or what to do about it if it does. Other correspondence suggests the folk arts world is much better organized, and a Save the National Heritage Fellowships facebook page has been created. Reportedly the forces-that-be in the opera world are still thinking things through.
I don’t know how it all works in the folk arts world, but the Jazz Masters program has supported tours of some of the honorees to remote locations besides giving each Master a nice honorarium — $25,000, last year totally $125k, a big sum for most jazz-related organizations but nothing on a Federal budget line. In jazz, what’s been more significant than the money to most of the Jazz Masters is the official recognition of an art form that Congress has proclaimed a “national treasure,” but which is largely unrepresented in mainstream commercial platforms and a hard thing to make a living at. Something like 180 people have been named Jazz Masters since 1982, and a lot of them are people who’ve had fame and commercial success — i.e., Quincy Jones, George Benson, Ramsey Lewis — but the majority have been less fortunate in wordly ways, however brilliant and enduring their music.
There are many more jazz masters working throughout the US than have ever been or will ever be named to an honor roll, and that may be one reason the jazz world isn’t unanimously up in arms about the Jazz Masters being closed down. And if jazz doesn’t tour to remote towns, the likelihood that most people in those towns are upset about losing this program, ore even know about it, can be assumed to be nil. So maybe it won’t make any difference to anyone but the handful of musicians who were hoping to join the roster if the roster is closed. Jazz musicians will keep playing, jazz masters program or not. It’s the same with folk and traditional artists, I’m sure. The reason they’re artists has nothing to do with a fellowship glimmering on a distant horizon.
But to my mind, such honors are valuable because they show the world that we the people, as represented by our very own government, care about those who’ve established and advanced our culture. I consider many of the Jazz Masters akin to our Founding Fathers: they’re musicians who’ve laid down paths that will lead to further music, thinking, feeling for decades if not centuries to come. They’re artists who inspire other artists, and not only Americans but people world wide. Their names should be known, their works should be praised. As a music journalist, I work under that assumption, as do my colleagues, and most devotees of American music surely agree. That’s why websites like No Depression even exist. We’re here telling each other who’s great, who ought to be heard, what their music’s all about. We can do that without the Feds giving out $, plaques or pats on the back, but make no mistake: the US government’s honors make an impression — internationally — and encourage other funders that jazz, folk arts, yes opera too are worth putting some dollars into.
Personally, I doubt any amount of brouhaha about saving the NEA’s awards will matter. If they’ve put plans to end the programs into their budgets for 2012, apparently without surveying the field to see if alternatives to ending the programs entirely were feasible, the people working at the NEA must believe that’s the way to go, and if they’re forced to reinstate the honors they’ll be unhappy to do so; we’ll see some staff turnover. I could be wrong about that. If Wynton Marsalis (named a Jazz Master just last January, along with his two brothers and father, plus saxophonist Dave Liebman, flutist Hubert Laws, composer-arranger Johnny Mandel (no kin to me) and memoirist-record producer Orrin Keepnews) stood up and protested, along with (say) Quincy Jones, Gunther Schuller, Phil Woods, Chick Corea, Dan Morgenstern, Tony Bennett, George Wein, Herbie Hancock, Nat Hentoff, Nancy Wilson, Dave Brubeck and Randy Weston — all Masters — maybe the NEA’s jazz department would come up with a way to extend honors that are specific to jazz musicians rather than putting them in competition with performers in other fields who have different challenges, rewards and support systems. I don’t know who the equivalent stars of folk arts are — Bernice Reagon, Pete Seeger, B.B. King, Ralph Stanley? Imagine all of them together, wouldn’t that be a hoot?
But let’s not leave the responsibility for speaking up about national recognition of artists to our artists. We as listeners ought to be talking about how best to raise the profile of significant, genuinely contributive, not necessarily rich and famous musicians of our culture. If it’s only a question of the US being out of $ for every and anything (a point of view I am supremely sceptical of, and think is being foisted upon the public as a ruse to cut government projects that truly do work for the people and the greater good), we can do without big financial prizes and costly concert productions at Jazz at Lincoln Center such as the NEA has produced for the past several years — though it was wonderful that the NEA streamed that concert live for all the world to see for free this year, that felt like a real breakthrough. It’s more important to me that the US fund Planned Parenthood, education, children, the elderly and ill than that it bestows as fat purse to a few artists, however deserving they may be. But it’s also important (to me) that the government agrees there is a culture in America that is not represented by the Oscars, the Grammys, Nielsen ratings and sales charts. That American culture comes from three hundred years of American history, which has nurtured traditions and prompted innovations other, sometimes more consciously commercial, art forms have made enormous profits from. That artistic merit is something distinct from fame and fortune as it alights on the most fortunate artists in the land. If the NEA does not recognize artists in those traditions — those specific traditions, jazz, blues, folk arts, none of which have enjoyed the more formally supported teamwork and structural elements upholding theater, classical dance and music — then who will? And if it doesn’t to that, then what does it do?
Can that discussion be had, please, somewhere? Maybe here at No Depression?