Legislating Jazz: Why It's Not Helping

Don Cheadle. i i

hide captionDon Cheadle, who is playing Miles Davis in a forthcoming biopic, visits an exhibition on the trumpeter in Paris.

Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images
Don Cheadle.

Don Cheadle, who is playing Miles Davis in a forthcoming biopic, visits an exhibition on the trumpeter in Paris.

Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H. Res. 894, honoring the 50th anniversary of Kind Of Blue and "reaffirming jazz as a national treasure." It is pretty fantastic that our federal government did this. It is also pretty futile, which makes it slightly more acceptable that it is also poorly argued.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a long-time jazz advocate from the Detroit area, introduced the motion. As far as jazz goes, he's best known as the man behind 1987's H. Con. Res. 57, the joint congressional resolution stating "jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgated." With this latest resolution, the House has the "attention" part down — if you call a resolution nobody will notice "attention" — but the "support and resources" part ...

The last thing I want to do is demean Conyers and his efforts, whose constant championing of jazz is enormously important to it being on the federal radar in the first place. But it strikes me that the best way to help jazz — if it ought to be helped — is to support its living artists financially and to develop new audiences. Ideally, that would mean grants to individual artists to create works (which the NEA chairman supports), and to presenting organizations (or even clubs and recording labels) to offer education and performance programs at minimal cost and maximum visibility. That has all happened, to some degree, since HR-57. But this event is a reiteration of the obvious: Recognition of the work of mostly dead artists by old people wearing suits, in a way that offers no material benefit to almost anyone.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are making fun of jazz as part of an attempt to portray the Obama administration's spending as wasteful, even though the $400,000 allotted by the National Endowment for the Arts to jazz festivals this year comes out to a little less than three-tenths of a cent per taxpayer. (The $50 million allotted the NEA in the bailout stimulus comes out to a little more than 35 cents per taxpayer, and accounts for .006% of the total $787 billion February bailout.) In a press release, Conyers says that the vote on H. Res. 894 "shows the commitment the House has to preserving and celebrating American music and culture." The Senate seems somewhat less committed.

Let's examine this measure a little more closely. (A PDF, if you like.)

Honoring the 50th anniversary of the recording of the album 'Kind of Blue' and reaffirming jazz as a national treasure.

Whereas, on August 17, 1959, Miles Davis, Jimmy Cobb, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, and Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley collaborated to record the album 'Kind of Blue';

Whereas 'Kind of Blue' ranks 12th on the list of the '500 Greatest Albums of All Time' published by Rolling Stone magazine;

Whereas 'Kind of Blue' was recorded in 1959, the year Columbia Records declared 'jazz's greatest year';

We're citing the opinions of a magazine, and the press campaign of a record label (whose bottom line is clearly not music or musicians) for support here. We're off to a convincing start.

Whereas 'Kind of Blue' marked the beginning of the mass popularity of jazz in the United States;

Wait, 1959 marked the beginning of mass popularity of jazz in the U.S.? The More You Know [rainbow graphic].

Whereas in 2008, the Recording Industry Association of America awarded 'Kind of Blue' quadruple-platinum status, meaning 4,000,000 copies of the album had been sold;

Whereas in 2002, the Library of Congress added 'Kind of Blue' to the National Recording Registry;

Whereas 'Kind of Blue' was recognized as the bestselling record in the history of jazz;

Whereas 50 years after the release of 'Kind of Blue', MOJO magazine honored the Legacy Edition of the album by giving it the 'Best Catalogue Release of the Year' award;

Laurels from a British magazine! And sales figures cited in support of status! Let's also recognize Boston (17 times platinum) and Hootie and the Blowfish (16 times platinum) and Kenny G (12 times platinum) for their contributions to American music!

Whereas 'Kind of Blue' both redefined the concept of jazz for musicians and changed the perceptions of jazz held by many fans;

Whereas today, the sole surviving member of the Miles Davis Sextet, Jimmy Cobb, is performing and touring with his So What Band in tribute to the 50th anniversary of 'Kind of Blue'; and

At the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual jazz concert and gathering — an event which Rep. Conyers helps to put on every year — Cobb and company performed the first four tracks of Kind Of Blue straight through. ("Flamenco Sketches" was a little bit too outre for that band, it seems, and they went to another Miles tune whose name escapes me now as a closer.) The band was made up of real heavies: Wallace Roney, Javon Jackson, Vincent Herring, Larry Willis, Buster Williams, Cobb, and they all slayed their solos ... in the least imaginative way possible. It strikes me that playing Kind Of Blue in order, as unmodified source material for jam session throwdowns, runs counter to the "concept-redefining" and "perception-changing" spirit of Miles, and perhaps jazz at large. Yes?

Whereas 'Kind of Blue' continues to be the standard masterpiece of jazz for American musicians and audiences:

Don't get me wrong: Kind Of Blue is great. I love it. I could probably hum along to every note of every solo on "So What." But "the standard masterpiece" of jazz? Why must we continue to promulgate these particular 37 minutes as the backbone for all jazz awareness everywhere? There have already been the aforementioned honors, plus two books (and four NPR features in the last 10 years — have a look) about this album alone. Folks: THERE IS OTHER GREAT MUSIC OUT THERE. The many different foundations of jazz style is why the music is what it is. Harrumph.

Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the House of Representatives—

(1) honors the 50th anniversary of 'Kind of Blue' and recognizes the unique contribution the album has made to American jazz;
(2) directs the Clerk of the House of Representatives to transmit enrolled copies of this resolution to Columbia Records;
(3) encourages the United States Government to take all appropriate steps to preserve and advance the art form of jazz music;
(4) recommits itself to ensuring that musical artists such as Miles Davis and his Sextet receive fair protection under the copyright laws of the United States for their contributions to culture in the United States; and
(5) reaffirms the status of jazz as a national treasure.

To clarify: I would rather live in a world where jazz is officially considered an American national treasure, compared to the alternative. But constantly feeding the "national treasure" narrative is beginning to feel burdensome. We're in an age where the free market alone will not permanently support jazz at the level in which it currently operates, and where public and grant funding increasingly pick up the slack. As that transition creeps along, the value-adding myth we Americans tell ourselves about the music is slowly shifting too: We're going from "fun to listen to" to "officially important." That message may be integral to winning government support. But you don't turn a friend on to Kind Of Blue by touting its cultural value as if it were a sort of medicine — at least I don't. You say, "man, check it out: this is really f——-g good."

H. Res. 894 passed by a vote of 409-0, which sounds more impressive than it is. The matter, as it is framed, is completely uncontroversial: Who would argue that jazz isn't a national treasure, and that Kind Of Blue isn't great? But a lot of professional musicians — here's one of them — are still wondering why jazz isn't being funded accordingly. And as the goings-on in the Senate prove, when it's time to put money where mouths are, our treasure's monetary value isn't yet what we want it to be.

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