A Call To Arts

From the most recent guest post at NPR’s A Blog Supreme.

A Call To Arts
by Dave Douglas

It’s good to see arts and especially jazz philanthropy back in business, thinking about what to fund and how best to fund it and not so much about how to punishing artists who use government money to smear their bodies in chocolate or worrying about just how in particular they plan to use that crucifix. There’s a new director at the National Endowment for the Arts named Rocco Landesman who is more interested in putting on shows; The Doris Duke Foundation and Mary Flagler Cary are out with innovative initiatives; and the alphabets — MTC, CMA, AMC, NYFA, NYSCA — are all looking at ways of giving jazz and related music a place at the table. All I can say is, Thank You. Finally. At long last, we can sit down and have a decent fight over real pieces of the pie.

Helping artists and communities is more important than cracking down on profanity. I was reminded of this the other day when my drummer Nasheet Waits was sent to overweight/oversize baggage for the third time even though his cymbals are no bigger than most bags (smaller than many!) and weighs easily within the range of your average over-packed summer traveler. (I mean their bags.) The cymbals just look different. Nasheet displayed admirable poise, while I was about to explode with the kind of filth that would make Rahm Emanuel blush. It was probably just a better idea to get the cymbals on their way down through the baggage mill.

Arts are important to people’s lives. Vincent Chancey grew up in a foster home, and when his public school gave him a chance to play music he chose the weirdest looking instrument he could find. A French horn man was born, even though there’s nothing French about that horn, and even Congress wanted to change the name to Freedom Horn a few years back. But with just that smallest push, Vincent developed an idiosyncratic personal style on the horn that led to a career with Sun Ra, Lester Bowie and Diana Krall among many others. Now if we could just get him to put the thing down. Vincent’s son Bahij is headed to Yale in the fall, on a scholarship to study architecture.

In 1990 I wasn’t sure where I fit into a scene polarized by young lions, hardcore downtown avant-garde and a livelihood playing weddings, bar mitzvahs, jingles and brisses. That was the year I received an individual artist grant for composition from the National Endowment for the Arts (funding of individual artists was discontinued in 1996). It meant a lot, even if only that there was a societal value to the creative work that I really wanted to do. My musically inclined but somewhat conservative father was scandalized. (“My tax dollars are going to What?!?!”)

Are the arts controversy-free? Clearly my father didn’t think so. No, the arts aren’t all clean, but neither is life itself. Now there’s the Internet, keeping kids aware of all that’s going on around them in the world if you can get them to look away from the screen for more than a few seconds. If these initiatives have their way, when they do look away they will see arts in addition to schoolwork. It’s not safe looking at a computer screen all day, or perhaps being an artist, but there are other dangers out there, like swine flu, sexting, contaminated vegetables, Octomoms, municipal rackets marketing human kidneys, not to mention Town Hall meetings. A little controversial artwork is the least of our worries.

Just this summer Terence Blanchard was enlisted to open the Ottawa Jazz Festival on a moment’s notice when additional funding magically appeared. It was touching that a festival in Canada’s capital city turned to such an expressive American artist, whose current work very personally reflects the tragedy of post-Katrina New Orleans. For most of July I was in Europe, where support for the arts and culture is as natural as espresso after a meal. In Perugia, McCoy Tyner’s trio invited Bill Frisell and Gary Bartz to join. In Rotterdam John Zorn was in residence for five days, just across the hall from B. B. King. Han Bennink had his first gig there as a leader. In the sunny south of France, on the island of Porquerolles, we missed Dave Liebman by a day, Archie Shepp by two days, and Randy Weston by three. At the Jazz in Marciac festival we were on a triple bill with Daniel Humair and David Krakauer. Maybe it’s too much to ask that we could have this in the States. But maybe just a little bit?

One of my heroes, Lester Bowie, died in 1999. I never knew him but I listened to his music and watched him on stage and thought about the significance of his message. He was an entertaining guy who liked to dress up in a lab coat, smoke cigars and mess with people. He lived a lot: He drank, smoked, abused all sorts of substances and pushed his human body to the limits of what it could withstand in terms of travel, lack of sleep, and the high energy of performing. In George Lewis’ history of the AACM he is quoted as saying that, in order for a people to be oppressed, “They must be lead to believe that they have no music, art, cultural sense, or anything else.” When asked about his music, Lester is also quoted, saying: “I deal purely with ass-kicking. Period. Just good old country ass-kicking.”

In those days that kind of life was more common. I can remember my own days of being crazy about hanging out and running around. We used to go entire weeks without sleeping, playing long gigs and then going to jam sessions or listening parties, and then having morning lessons and playing in the street all day before starting all over again. It didn’t matter what kind of music or where it was as long as the hang was on. Times changed and many of us (OK, I did) started sleeping more normal hours and taking care of our families and ourselves. But the art still retains that sense of impropriety and danger, and even though we may call to see if we should pick up milk on the way home, there is still that possibility that we could pull over and go see what’s happening at the club.

So we’re conflicted as a country about the arts, much the way we’re conflicted about change in our not-so-effective health care system. We don’t like the system the way it is, but we’re also afraid our leaders won’t get it right. We’re caught between wanting to clean up the arts for communities, but still wanting to support vital, hot-blooded but potentially transgressive art. Shakespeare in the Park delights thousands of New York theatergoers, but there’s also a powerfully perverse delight in watching Richard Foreman’s plays at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra imaginatively approaches the repertoire, and Mostly Other People Do The Killing skewers it mercilessly. And Henry Threadgill pulls his own tradition out of thin air, nothing up his sleeve.

We oughtn’t to have overly strong opinions about this. We ought to respect those who disagree with us. We carry all the contradictions right within ourselves. The panelists and executive directors will make the best decisions they can, hopefully with our input, and then we’ll move on and swing to the rhythm of the programs they’ve put on the stand. No doubt the free market will also kick in and play whatever role it has to play.

In the New York Times, Mr. Landesman said: “I wouldn’t have come to the N.E.A. if it was just about padding around in the agency,” he said. He supports reinstating grants to individual artists “tomorrow,” and says the cause is bigger than worrying about which nonprofits deserve more funds. “We need to have a seat at the big table with the grown-ups. Art should be part of the plans to come out of this recession.”

To me, this kind of thinking is more productive than discussions of whether jazz is dead or arguments about how programs should decide who gets funded. We should wish Rocco luck and work to make sure he can do the work that he wants to do.