Save JazzBaltica!!!! Or, The Perils Of Relying On Europe

It appears that the German festival JazzBaltica is in danger of losing essential government support. Peter Hum points out that festival director Rainer Haarmann has issued a petition announcing that with no prior warning, the German Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein — where JazzBaltica takes place — intends to completely cut off funding for JazzBaltica in 2011. "This would certainly be the end" of the festival, Haarmann writes. The statement can be found at the Facebook group Save Jazz Baltica!!!!.

The potential loss of a prominent performance opportunity saddens me greatly, as it ought to for any jazz fan. Any place which would book Joe Lovano and the late Hank Jones, and televise the proceedings (above), is certainly worth fighting for.

But what are even more depressing are the specific circumstances behind this festival's potential demise. As opportunities have gradually diminished in the U.S., many American jazz/improv musicians now consider European festivals a financial lifeline. By extension, the impending struggle of JazzBaltica against its local government poses a classic illustration of how critically dependent the entire jazz ecosystem is on European state subsidies and the philosophy around them.

Jazz Baltica i i

The Schloss Salzau outside Kiel, Germany, is home to the JazzBaltica Festival. Christoph Risch hide caption

itoggle caption Christoph Risch
Jazz Baltica

The Schloss Salzau outside Kiel, Germany, is home to the JazzBaltica Festival.

Christoph Risch

In a way, it's a classic case of "you reap what you sow." As jazz and related musics became unable to fully support themselves in the open marketplace, the community turned in part to state funding. So jazz became an Art Music.

Well, jazz already was of great artistic merit of course, but in order to win funding, this part of the narrative had to be played up. Jazz was an Art, we might say, on the order of classical music and ballet and impressionism. Because it is Art, it is a public good, and thus worth preserving even if the market alone will not.

This applies to the U.S. too: witness the existence of the National Endowment for the Arts, and our struggle to rebrand "America's classical music." But for a long list of cultural and political reasons, European governments — especially those of relatively wealthy nations like Germany — have been much more willing to fund the arts than their U.S. counterparts. The fact that JazzBaltica would be effectively crippled without capital from Schleswig-Holstein is only the tip of the iceberg: festivals, musicians, music schools, concert halls, radio, clubs, foreign tours and even record labels are often fundamentally buoyed by governments. Top North American musicians often get these gigs.

Guitarist Marc Ribot has written a very intelligent essay about this topic:

I've spent close to two months a year on tour in Europe since 1984, playing over 1,000 gigs. For years, I've asked presenters how their funding was structured. I was often surprised at the answers: even some of what I thought were private clubs were in fact administered by jazz or new music societies or co-operatives. The European gigs were almost always subsidized: usually by the city or state government completely donating the performance space itself.

Here's Ribot playing with one of my favorite of his many ensembles, Los Cubanos Postizos. Naturally, this was taped at a French festival:

The downside of the "Jazz Is Art So Gimme A Subsidy" line of thought is that it's also fundamentally insecure. It's dependent on the whims of a state cultural arbiter who can decide what art goes and what stays. Those whims could be as simple of a dislike of jazz, or as complicated as an analysis that says that local economic growth surrounding JazzBaltica does not justify investing in it. It's as simple as the wrong politician being elected to power, or as complicated as a worldwide economic recession.

And what happens when jazz funding gets cut in Europe? Ask any jazz musician who was around then to tell you about professional life during the fiscally conservative Ronald Reagan administration. Then multiply by a lot.


None of this is news to those who follow jazz closely. But JazzBaltica's situation should at least be a wake-up call that we cannot take European government support for granted. And that leaves us with the choice: redouble our efforts in portraying jazz as an artistic cultural exception, or seek balance in remaking jazz business so that it's concurrently sustainable both as publicly-financed art, and also in the private marketplace. I think you can tell the former is not my preference.

UPDATE: Lest anyone think that this is a call to ever eliminate public arts funding, read a clarification of this last section here. We absolutely need subsidies!

The free market is equally unstable in its own way — some might say more so. But it seems one of the keys to a healthy future of jazz is that in its history, it's also been viewed as a folk music and a pop music — impressions that linger today. At very least it's an art music where its leading lights carry a certain marketability, and one where its creators still appear often in uninstitutionalized commercial settings: clubs and bars, namely. That sense of accessible, unregulated hip, where cool appears to bubble up through popular will and not an official stamp of approval, means a lot for audience building.

The impression of commercial viability is much of what convinces huge sponsors that it's possible to reach people in jazz markets. And it's what convinces certain governments that the arts are also an economic engine: that they can spur tourism and provide jobs. (Via Twitter, Peter Hum informs me that the Canadian government already sponsors jazz festivals on the basis of "'tourism' not 'arts' as tourists are quantifiable.") For politicians who remain unconvinced that art is a public good — or that we should subsidize any cultural production — the economic stimulus argument is a crucial rejoinder.

You see the delicacy here. At this point in time, the commercial and the nonprofit are in a curious balancing act. Currently, many of our favorite jazz artists would not be able to make a living as full-time performers without European state funding; there simply isn't enough capital floating about the private sector. But if we rely solely on European money and its attendant value system, and neglect to nourish commercial opportunities, we'd be ignoring an important motivation for anyone to fund jazz — not to mention the enthusiasts and proprietors who represent the grassroots. We need jazz to be art; we also need it to be a saleable art.

From my limited impression, JazzBaltica certainly deserves to be defended and preserved. Not only does it appear to be a great festival; it's atop a slippery slope for all improvised music. But in considering how we are to convince Schleswig-Holstein to rethink its decision, we ought to realize just how many eggs are in the European subsidy basket — and how to plan our future accordingly.

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