A (Legitimate?) Complaint About Free Money

Yesterday, Chamber Music America announced the 12 recipients of grants through their New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program. Because CMA didn't think to put this up on its Web site yet, I'll link you to Nate Chinen's musings about the subject at The Gig, where there's a full listing of the award winners. Basically, Chinen expresses concerns that as jazz transitions to a more grant and commission-based economy, it will favor intellectualized, conceptual works more likely to sound good on a grant application, to the detriment of folks who have no overwrought cross-disciplinary ideas in their desires to make good music. He wonders more at length in this JazzTimes column from last year:

Where does this leave a musician like guitarist Russell Malone, or tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, or even pianist Mulgrew Miller, who put into circulation the wry term "interview music" a few years ago? (Where, for that matter, would it have left someone like Dexter Gordon?) ... jazz musicians are now expected to be heady conceptualists, ambitious composers and shrewd grant writers, in addition to mastering the quantum physics of improvisation, which isn't any easier now than it was a generation ago.

Several reactions:

1. I have sympathy for those jazz musicians who don't get grants because their works aren't conceptual enough — if this is in fact the case. Making jazz is hard enough; to be expected to be inspired by something that sounds good on paper, though not necessarily on stage, can be an unnecessary hurdle. In essence, I agree with Chinen on this point.

2. However, I do think that in a larger sense, the medium (and the market) has always defined the message.

The imposition of radio and recording changed the nature of jazz musicians' careers forever; World War II's resource drain, the recording ban, the lack of funding to support big dance bands and the emergence of smaller clubs all affected the creation of bebop. And now it's the musicians who have embraced the Web who are enjoying any visibility these days. This reliance on grant money is another example of that process: as the world around jazz changes, so does jazz. Musicians will adjust, as they always have, and the net gain from an influx of more money into the jazz ecosystem — will do more good than harm.

3. Someone must have something to say about the fact that none of the recipients this year are black. And that only a small handful in the past have been either. I by no means intend to suggest that the CMA is racist; if anything, I suspect it's a question of demographics in who's applying for these grants. (As a side note, many of the artists selected this year — Rez Abbasi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jason Kao Hwang and Amir ElSaffar among them — are from ethnic groups underrepresented in jazz.) This, of course, taps into a larger question about the paths that African Americans are taking in jazz and improvised music these days, and how those career trajectories may differ from the majority of artists who find themselves inspired by abstract expressionism or studying the hand drums of Central Asia or whatever. I am not qualified to elaborate on this; I hope someone else is.

4. I also think that packed within this is a larger lament about what Mulgrew Miller (more accurately, an unidentified friend of his) once astutely identified as "interview music" — namely, that musicians who present projects with hooky talking points has a much better chance of getting any support, whether from grants, press or concert presenters. It's certainly true for music journalism presented to a wide audience. Case in point: NPR.

Say, if NPR were around in 1959, it might have covered Dave Brubeck's Time Out for its time signature experiments and Ornette Coleman's The Shape Of Jazz To Come for its hype and general game-changing. But would the network have done anything about Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue, a fine record but not one with a pre-packaged story behind it? Now, I would like to think that A Blog Supreme would have covered all that and much more in some way, but the NPR network at large is another animal. There's only so much time for music stories on the radio, and jazz is already overrepresented on-air compared to its general market share. So overworked producers, who have no time as it is, have to be judicious about what's going to make a good music story, and often they value artists who have proven themselves articulate, unusual or just plain well-known to begin with. These are the things that make for good storytelling.

I don't know what to do about that other than try to feature more artists who simply make good music. We at NPR Music are also lucky to be in a position to record them in concert or recommend them to people. In the meanwhile, it might behoove the wise artist to begin thinking about why someone should listen to your record other than the fact that it's good; that seems to be part of the new economy in multiple ways.

5. Also like Chinen, I would point out that some of the commissions have resulted in artists I like making really good music. Taking that a step further, even if the resultant new music doesn't hold water, good jazz musicians are at least able to pay rent. I mean, just in the last five years, some of my favorite musicians have been buoyed in some way: James Carney, Steve Lehman, Miles Okazaki, Chris Byars, Michele Rosewoman, Nicole Mitchell, Don Byron, Donny McCaslin, Vijay Iyer, Drew Gress ...

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Who has a further thought? Please share it. And what the hell. Here's the list:

Rez Abbasi Group (New York, NY) In Motherland, Abassi will draw from indigenous Pakistani music and his experiences as a Pakistani-American to create a work for his quartet—guitar, piano, bass, and drum set—and a guest vocalist.

Amir ElSaffar and Two Rivers (Yonkers, NY) ElSaffar's piece for sextet will integrate a harmonic language based on the intervals of the Maqam, a system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music; alternative tunings; a melodic and rhythmic template, and improvisation. The piece will feature voice, trumpet, alto saxophone, santour, oud, buzuq, violin, bass, dumbek, frame drum, and drum set.

John Escreet Project (New York, NY) Escreet explores his interest in the relation between speech and music with a new work that looks into the compositional possibilities of multiple, simultaneous speech tracks. His ensemble includes alto saxophone, trumpet, electronics, piano, bass, and drum set.

Ellery Eskelin and Different But the Same (New York, NY) Eskelelin plans a work in which the instrumentalists will improvise as composers, rather than simply playing solos in a pre-composed piece. Instrumentation includes tenor saxophones, bass, and drum set.

Joel Harrison Group (Brooklyn, NY) Harrison draws from the formal concepts of Charles Ives, John Adams, Oliver Messiaen, Gy??rgy Ligeti, and Aarvo P??rt to construct densely textured suite for alto saxophone, violin, cello, guitar, bass, hajini, dejmbe, frame drum, and drum set.

John Hollenbeck and The Claudia Quintet (New York, NY) Suite Lorraine—based loosely on structures, melodies, and harmonies of select jazz standards—will feature polyrhythms, sonic "tapestries," and rhythmic counterpoint. The piece will be scored for clarinet, tenor saxophone, accordion, vibraphone, bass, piano, percussion, and drum set.

Jason Kao Hwang and Edge (Jersey City, NJ) Jason Kao Hwang will sequence written notation and improvisations, creating "a musical landscape through which each instrument, as a character, will journey." Instrumentation: cornet/flugelhorn, trombone, tuba, violin/viola, erhu, pipa, bass, and drum set.

Rudresh Mahanthappa Quartet (Brooklyn, NY) Gamak is planned as a multi-movement work for alto saxophone, guitar, bass, and drum set. Mahanthappa will explore melodic ornamentation, alternative tunings, and rhythm beat cycles derived from Indian, African, and Indonesian music in a jazz context.

Ole Mathisen and F.F.E.A.R. (New York, NY) Mathisen conceives Mirage as a multi-movement work built on unusual meter, tempo, and micro-tonal relationships. As the title suggests, the piece is meant to project the illusion that the quartet (saxophones, clarinet, trombone, bass, and drum set) is part of a much larger group of instruments.

Josh Moshier and Moshier/Lebrun Collective (Evanston, IL) For a work inspired by Studs Terkel's memoir Touch and Go, the composer will utilize both sequenced song and through-composition in five self-contained songs. The work will be scored for tenor saxophone, piano, guitar, bass, and drum set.

Mario Pavone and Orange Double Tenor Ensemble (Prospect, CT) In anticipation of his 70th birthday, Pavone will compose a polyrhythmic work for sextet that alternates composed sections with structured and open improvised sections. The five-part suite will feature tenor and soprano saxophones, trumpet, piano, bass, and drum set.

Adam Rudolph's Moving Pictures (Maplewood, NJ) Yeyi: A Wordless Psalm of Protypical Vibrations is envisioned as a 12-part suite for six multi-instrumental improvisers. The work will investigate rhythm themes, thematic melodies based on intervallic materials and develop Rudolph's "Cyclic Verticalism" and prototypical signal rhythm patterns. Instrumentation includes winds (B-flat and bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, bansuri, hichiriki, shakuhachi, bass, C and alto flute, cornet, flugelhorn, and kuduhorn), strings (guitars, oud, banjo, dotar, and sintir), and percussion (djembe, dumbek, tarija, cajon, bata, conga, thumb piano, bender, qarqaba, gongs, slit drum, marimbula, udu drum, caxixi, achimevu, and drum set).

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