Secretary of the Arts? Yes, please.

17 Dec
quincy-jones-picture-2

Quincy wants YOU.

This morning, I found a message in my inbox from a fellow UMiami music alum (and friend) asking me to sign an online petition. The origin of the petition was a bit convoluted – in an interview on WNYC’s SoundCheck, Quincy Jones said that he’d like to beg Barack Obama to create a post for Secretary of the Arts.  The petition, while not directly affiliated with Quincy, was started by New York-based musician Jaime Austria and asks Obama to do the same thing.

This petition was a bit different from all the other ones I usually ignore – first of all, it came from someone I know and respect, so it had that going for it.  Secondly, since I actually had the time to look into it further (rather than being caught in mid-stride outdoors), I did.  And what I found got my signature and my absolute support, and it should get yours too.

At first glance, a cabinet-level Art-Czar (hee) seemed like one of those things that, the more you look into it, the more you realize that really, there is no need for it.  Would this person’s job merely be to oversee the funding of national projects, to dole out grants?  Seems like the National Endowment for the Arts already does that.

Well, while reviewing further transcripts of the Soundcheck interview, as well as a separate interview at a book signing, it became clear to me that Quincy wasn’t just talking about the arts, he was talking about jazz, and jazz education in particular. And he’s pretty clearly got one candidate in mind for the gig: himself.

This is a good thing.

From World Music Central:

In a recent radio interview with John Schaefer on WNYC’s Soundcheck, renowned musician and producer Quincy Jones mentioned that he plans to request from president elect Barack Obama the creation of a Secretary of the Arts. Quincy Jones’ call for a U.S. secretary of the arts  inspired an online petition. “The next conversation I have with President elect Barack Obama is to beg for a secretary of the arts,” he said.

An online petition was started by classical and jazz bassist Jaime Austria, inspired by Quincy Jones’ interview. According to Quincy Jones’ official website, during his travels Quincy Jones has observed that people in other countries seem to have greater appreciation for American music than Americans. He hopes the creation of a secretary of the arts in the U.S. will help preserve American music and other U.S. arts and ensure that they remain a vital part of American schools’ curriculum.

Then there’s this clip, linked to on Quincy’s Website.  This was the clincher for me:

So, okay, yeah. Hell yeah.  I can get behind this.  It’s clear that, when Quincy calls for a Secretary of the Arts, he’s actually calling for himself to become Secretary of the Arts.  And in that case, SIGN ME UP. Dude produced Thriller.

What’s more, he talks about getting the directors from every great music school – jazz programs specifically – in the country (UNT!  IU! UMiami! Oh my!) together to form an advisory committee, and says that he’d get the amazing David Baker (whose improv class I was lucky enough to take while in high school) to help him run it.  Again – sign me up.

320px-david_baker_far_left_leading_the_smithsonian_jazz_masterworks_orchestra

"In-di-an-a Be-Bop."

We’re the rare country in the western world without a cabinet-level position for support of and promotion of our art in the world.  And when talking about our art, we’re really talking about one thing above everything else; we’re talking about jazz.

I found some disagreement online about this, with arguments against mostly positing that, since America is such an artistic and cultural powerhouse throughout the world, we don’t need a position like that. I feel that argument is missing the point entirely.

The French, for example, have a high-level position dedicated to maintaining and promoting impressionist French artists from the nineteenth century.  These guys did their thing a long time ago, and without someone actively maintaining and promoting their work, it could conceivably fade into the past, lost in the back rooms of museums and the picture indexes of  history texts around the world. (Of course, this scenario requires one to imagine that the French are anything but crazy motivated about the preservation of their culture; admittedly, it’s a stretch.)

America has not yet faced that problem. Our country is so young, and its artistic contributions to the world so recent, that jazz has only now, over the past twenty years or so, coalesced into a teachable artistic movement.  I’d actually say it’s our first one, complete with a definable era (1900 – 1970, give or take), as well as a comprehensive collection of works.

At the same time, jazz education has become increasingly mainstream. Indeed, what was seen as extra-curricular, “non-legit” music only fifteen years ago is now taught during regular school hours, and high-brow academia has turned out more and more studies showing the positive cognitive benefits of learning musical improvisation.

However, as America finds itself with an actual, defined artistic history, it also must rise to meet the challenge of preserving it.  When art is current, it does not need the government to teach it, to maintain and promote it – by virtue of its currentness, it maintains and teaches itself, as it is still in a state of flux and evolution.  Jazz has, like it or not, ceased to be current – the musical engine underpinning it continues to evolve and grow, and modern American music is built hugely on the foundation that jazz supplied, but the art form “jazz,” the musical language, stopped changing by the 1980s.  What innovation there is now is not harmonic or rhythmic, but rather personal (the rise of a new voice in the medium, like Brad Mehldau or Joshua Redman in the 1990’s) or cross-genre; that is to say, most new jazz involves plugging jazz styles and musicians into other musical forms in order to create new sounds (i.e. Jazz/Hip-Hop, Jazz/Klezmer, Jazz/Baltic, etc.).

The farther we get away from the “official” end of the jazz era, the more important it becomes to preserve it, to document it, and to teach it to new generations of musicians.  It was, after all, America’s first great artistic contribution to the world, but sometimes, obsessed as we are with canonizing all things Rock ‘n Roll, it feels as though we’re ignoring jazz altogether. One wonders why that is – is jazz too complicated?  Too unapproachable or chaotic, perhaps?

Or maybe there’s more to it – I hesitate to open this particular can of worms, but make no mistake; there is also a racial element to this.  Jazz is, at its heart, black music, forged by black musicians, and I am concerned that parts of mainstream America are more comfortable celebrating the musical stylings of white Brits like Jimmy Paige and Eric Clapton than the black Americans whose innovations, decades prior, made their music possible.  Putting Quincy Jones, an African-American who has been at the forefront of every post-hardbop American musical movement over the past fifty years, in charge of the preservation of America’s art would be a solid step towards ensuring that that doesn’t happen on a national level.

Our nation’s artistic contributions are something that we need to show the world we take seriously.  What’s more, we need someone who will work with our President, as well as our Secretary of Education, to fight for national support of music and the arts in our public schools.

Anything that will help make that happen is worth getting behind, and this petition seems like it could do just that.  And if it gets Quincy into the White House?  So much the better.

So anyway, blah blah blah, jazz jazz jazz, sign it already.

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2 Responses to “Secretary of the Arts? Yes, please.”

  1. waffleflip January 19, 2009 at 5:19 am #

    We artists (musicians, dancers, actors, poets…etc.) are some of the biggest champions of individual expression and personal freedom. Yet somehow, we think it’s okay to create a cabinet position to impose our values on the rest of the country.

    This is no different from a nasty special interest group lobbying government to get some preferential treatment. It’s unfair to everyone else who has to support government growth with their wallets.

    Constitutionally, it doesn’t matter whether we “like” the idea or not, because this sort of thing has no place in a free society. You and I are as free to embrace art as we are to reject it. The fact that something like this can draw so much support so easily shows just how much our understanding of the role of government has deteriorated.

    Think critically before jumping on the bandwagon.

    • lurk January 19, 2009 at 7:45 am #

      Hi, Waffleflip. Thanks for the response. Some critical thinking –

      I take issue with several of your points. I’ll start with your second paragraph. You say that “This (the petition) is no different from a nasty special interest group lobbying government to get some preferential treatment.” I could not disagree more.

      A petition like this one, started by a single individual and signed by tens of thousands of other citizens, is a world away from a high-power, high-access lobbyist who finesses members of congress with campaign donations and fund-raisers in order to get special-interest litigation passed. The lobbyist’s actions are indeed a troubling abuse of influence; the citizen’s petition is practically the cornerstone of democracy. To conflate the two is to do the act of petitioning one’s government an extreme disservice. I would actually go so far as to say it’s a pretty cheap shot. Moving on –

      You also state that the goal of this petition is “unfair to everyone else who has to support government growth with their wallets.” This is not about “fair,” it’s a petition – it’s about being heard. I, too, support government growth with my wallet, as do the other people who signed. If you don’t want for there to be a Secretary of the Arts, by all means, start your own petition. To bring up “fairness” is to suggest some sort of systemic imbalance where there is none. It’s just people talking to (or, you know, at) their leaders.

      Lastly, I think that it is a gross and confusing oversimplification to say that a Secretary of the Arts would “impose our values on the rest of the country.” To be honest, I’m not even sure what you mean by that. Who is this “us?” What are “our values?”

      The truth of the matter is that no one really knows what, precisely, this theoretical Secretary of the Arts would do. The position does not yet exist, so how could we?

      The general idea, as Quincy describes it, is that he or she would facilitate the promotion of our art to the rest of the world, would act as the face of American art abroad, and, most importantly, would help to coordinate funding for the arts in America’s public schools.

      In my opinion, that would be a step in the right direction, so I signed the petition. So did a lot of other people. You disagree, therefore, you did not. That’s all there is to it; no one’s rights are getting trampled here.

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