From the most recent guest post at NPR’s A Blog Supreme.
A Call To Arts
by Dave Douglas
It’s good to see arts and especially jazz philanthropy back in business, thinking about what to fund and how best to fund it and not so much about how to punishing artists who use government money to smear their bodies in chocolate or worrying about just how in particular they plan to use that crucifix. There’s a new director at the National Endowment for the Arts named Rocco Landesman who is more interested in putting on shows; The Doris Duke Foundation and Mary Flagler Cary are out with innovative initiatives; and the alphabets — MTC, CMA, AMC, NYFA, NYSCA — are all looking at ways of giving jazz and related music a place at the table. All I can say is, Thank You. Finally. At long last, we can sit down and have a decent fight over real pieces of the pie.
Helping artists and communities is more important than cracking down on profanity. I was reminded of this the other day when my drummer Nasheet Waits was sent to overweight/oversize baggage for the third time even though his cymbals are no bigger than most bags (smaller than many!) and weighs easily within the range of your average over-packed summer traveler. (I mean their bags.) The cymbals just look different. Nasheet displayed admirable poise, while I was about to explode with the kind of filth that would make Rahm Emanuel blush. It was probably just a better idea to get the cymbals on their way down through the baggage mill.
Arts are important to people’s lives. Vincent Chancey grew up in a foster home, and when his public school gave him a chance to play music he chose the weirdest looking instrument he could find. A French horn man was born, even though there’s nothing French about that horn, and even Congress wanted to change the name to Freedom Horn a few years back. But with just that smallest push, Vincent developed an idiosyncratic personal style on the horn that led to a career with Sun Ra, Lester Bowie and Diana Krall among many others. Now if we could just get him to put the thing down. Vincent’s son Bahij is headed to Yale in the fall, on a scholarship to study architecture.
In 1990 I wasn’t sure where I fit into a scene polarized by young lions, hardcore downtown avant-garde and a livelihood playing weddings, bar mitzvahs, jingles and brisses. That was the year I received an individual artist grant for composition from the National Endowment for the Arts (funding of individual artists was discontinued in 1996). It meant a lot, even if only that there was a societal value to the creative work that I really wanted to do. My musically inclined but somewhat conservative father was scandalized. (“My tax dollars are going to What?!?!”)
Are the arts controversy-free? Clearly my father didn’t think so. No, the arts aren’t all clean, but neither is life itself. Now there’s the Internet, keeping kids aware of all that’s going on around them in the world if you can get them to look away from the screen for more than a few seconds. If these initiatives have their way, when they do look away they will see arts in addition to schoolwork. It’s not safe looking at a computer screen all day, or perhaps being an artist, but there are other dangers out there, like swine flu, sexting, contaminated vegetables, Octomoms, municipal rackets marketing human kidneys, not to mention Town Hall meetings. A little controversial artwork is the least of our worries.