NEA and Jazz, Part 4

The final recipient honored at the NEA Jazz Masters Awards gala ceremony held January 10, in New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center venue at Columbus Circle, was trumpeter, composer, arranger, educator, and advocate Jimmy Owens. He received the A. B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy.

A. B. Spellman is an author, poet, music critic, and scholar who wrote Four Lives in the Bebop Business (also published under the titles Black Music: Four Lives and Four Jazz Lives) in 1966, which offered an up-close examination of how pianist/composers Cecil Taylor and Herbie Nichols and saxophonist/composers Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean negotiated their careers in a racially divisive socioeconomic milieu. Indirectly, Spellman suggests to his reader that “the only true history of America is recorded in its music,” and that since “America doesn’t have any other culture of its own, except what the Negro gave it and what it borrowed from Europe,” “it’s the Negro musician who keeps the culture of America alive” (p. 4). Whether or not one agrees with this hypothesis, jazz is generally accepted as America’s premier indigenous—as well as a principally African American—art form, which lends credence to the opinion expressed in Four Lives (especially if the idea of “American” includes input from the ancient indigenous cultures of the Western Hemisphere).

Virtually every college and university in the United States (as well as many overseas) has a jazz studies program of some kind. But jazz musicians who want to teach in these institutions, who once only had to show a few recordings they played on, are now expected to produce post-graduate degrees as part of their credentials. Still, in terms of status, jazz programs take a back seat to just about every other discipline, especially sports and homeland security courses, while the socioeconomic milieu that many artists find themselves negotiating is, in a word, bleak. I mentioned something about this in my September 16 entry when I had the good fortune to stumble into a benefit concert at Le Poisson Rouge for the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund, a donor-only supported organization based at New Jersey’s Englewood Hospital that partners with the Jazz Foundation of America to provide medical services to jazz musicians who lack the resources to pay for them. While organizations like Lincoln Center Jazz and its affiliates do make it possible for their artists to have decent wages and benefits, the majority of jazz musicians would consider annual income grossing five figures a windfall. Few nightclubs, even in New York, offer salaries to their artists of much more than $100.00 per night and far too many “successful” establishments offer no money at all, even going as far as to charge their artists for the honor of packing in customers who have to buy a minimum amount of food and beverage. This “no risk” approach to including American culture in an establishment’s dining experience is relatively new, but old enough to become a weird kind of tradition. I remember my first job as a jazz musician was playing five nights per week in a room that served good food and booze and had no cover charge. I was paid relatively well for an 18-year old in 1974 ($225 per week), and all of my benefits were covered; when I stopped working there, I received unemployment compensation. And I was lucky because most of my peers were working part-time jobs.

It wasn’t uncommon, then, for a jazz club to hire a group for weeks at a time. When I moved to New York in 1977, most of the bona fide jazz clubs were doing that. Some would bring in a group for one day a week as part of a regular rotation. While the pay was somewhat low, the work was somewhat steady. And the club and artist had a relationship where the risk was taken on mostly by the clubs, not the artists. Still, the jazz community was much larger than the clubs could support. The cost of living index was rising and $45 a night was becoming too little to survive on. Jazz musicians today are still often offered $50 a night for their services, which often comes out of the band leader’s unsubsidized pocket. And I can’t think of a club that is hiring for a week at a time anymore; four days seems to be the most anyone can get.

In 1974, the National Endowment for the Arts was awarding less than half a million dollars through their “Jazz/Folk/Ethnic Program” towards the development of individual artists and organizations. Ninety-one individuals received grants ranging between $250 and $2,000. The rest went to university programs and other presenting organizations. One such organization, Collective Black Artists, received a fairly healthy grant that year ($10,000; $3,000 less than the median income for a family of four). The organization was founded in 1969 by pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Reggie Workman, drummer/percussionist Warren Smith, and trumpeter Jimmy Owens. They mounted “six concerts a year at Town Hall” featuring guest artists (many are now NEA Jazz Masters) backed by the CBA big band. That’s about $588 per musician per year (assuming an even split). Not great, even by 1969 standards. Owens, a fine trumpeter who came up through the ranks of big-band trumpet sections that include Lionel Hampton, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Count Basie, Gerald Wilson, and Duke Ellington, as well as small groups led by Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Archie Shepp, and Billy Taylor, knew that music is a tough business to get by in, that saving money for retirement was an idea most professional musicians found laughably ironic. He began to devise strategies that he could share with his peers to overcome this obstacle. A short list of his career as an advocate includes stints on the directing boards of Local #802 (American Federation of Musicians), the NEA, the International Association of Jazz Educators, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, The American Arts Alliance, Jazzmobile, and the Jazz Foundation of America. He is a highly active educator who is currently on the faculty of the New School for Social Research’s Jazz Program and tours regularly as a guest artist and composer/arranger.

Fortunately, New York is a jazz-enlightened metropolis where one can find great performances going on almost any time of the day, every day. It’s played in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, libraries, community centers, parks, street corners, and in private homes. People do actually pay money to go out and hear jazz music performed live. But, as was mentioned before, the artists are oftentimes not paid well, if at all. Owens mentioned in his acceptance speech that “in 1959, the American Federation of Musicians started a pension fund […] that exists today with more than two billion dollars in it.” He pointed out that, while it’s not a huge amount, it does offer some relief to the widows and families of musicians whose work qualified towards their being vetted in the fund. (I think I’ll get $186 per month when I retire and if I get my dues back in order!) But most jazz musicians don’t qualify for that because of “the kind of work they do and where they do that work.” Owens explained that jazz club owners in New York agreed to pay into the fund as part of the repeal of an 8.25% entertainment tax, but “reneged” on the agreement. So, in Owens’s words, “none of the jazz clubs you go to, and spend your money at, pay into the musician’s pension fund for the musicians who are working there. And I say none of them because that’s the truth!”

To me, it was refreshing to see Owens not take a break from his work as a jazz advocate (or activist) just because he was receiving an award in one of New York’s premier jazz venues. His solo rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” a tribute to the late Dr. Billy Taylor and the other Jazz Masters “who are no longer physically with us,” was beautiful, soulful, and masterful; a classic example of what jazz performance is about. And the final performance of Jazz Master Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave,” with an impromptu greeting to Coleman by Sheila Jordan, was perfect, but too short. The entire event is still available for viewing online. Owens’s section starts around 1:42:45.

There are three upcoming benefit concerts/events to help the Jazz Foundation continue its work and two of them will happen this month. The first, labeled “Tammany Societies: A Jazz Review,” will occur Wednesday, February 8 from 7-11 p.m. at 152 Orchard Street in New York City’s Lower East Side with groups led by Greg Bandy and Micah Gaugh plus Harriet Tubman featuring Brandon Ross. The second will be held at the renowned Apollo Theater in Harlem on Friday, February 24, and is called “Howlin’ for Hubert: A Celebration of the Musical Legacy of Hubert Samlin and His Influence on Every Guitar Hero of Today.” It will feature performances by Eric Clapton, James Cotton, Keith Richards, Susan Tedeschi, Dr. John, and others. The third event, the 11th Annual “A Great Night In Harlem” concert will be held Thursday, May 17, also at the Apollo. I hope you’ll let your jazz and blues loving friends know about them.

This is the last entry about the NEA Jazz Masters Award Ceremony. I didn’t think it would go on this long, but the over-arching themes in each of the five recipients’ presentations demanded a little more than the few paragraphs recommended, especially considering how funding for arts programs are being cut left and right. While the idea of “free-market” support for the arts may have been part of the history of jazz, it is definitely not part of its recent legacy. Maybe there is some way that the arts can survive without being directly on the “public dole,” but unregulated practices have proven to not work towards this end. Organizations like the American Federation of Musicians have done quite a bit to make that a reality, but it’s only one very small union that has been under attack for decades by an industry that would prefer to own the public domain rather than to enhance the cultural legacy that the arts represent. And if Ms. Jeanne Phillips, the person quoted by A. B. Spellman earlier, is correct, that legacy and all it represents depends on our keeping the arts foremost in our collective attention. When I began writing this series, I thought it would be a good thing to save NEA funds by not presenting an annual “gala” event for NEA Jazz Masters. But now I’ve changed my mind. I believe, now, that the message(s) of the 2012 awards ceremony should be reviewed every year to as wide an audience as possible.

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