Politics — specifically, political correctness — has its way of impinging on the programs of the Smithson-ian. If it isn’t re-writing history to spin the exhibition of the atom-bomber Enola Gay, the institution is revamping its tableaux of Native American villages to appease disgruntled activists. Nor should this be unexpected: who would think that politics could (or even should) be removed from subjects that are potent with war, conquest and death? The shocker, though, is that politics recently found its way into one of the Smithsonian’s newest programs, the Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, an area that might, naively, have been thought immune.
Started several years ago with a grant from Congress and a subsequent endowment from the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Foundation, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra was designed to keep the repertoire of the big band era alive by giving faithful performances of the original music of the original swing bands. The idea was that the orchestra would celebrate that singular American artistic achievement, jazz. That very description, however, explains why the orchestra soon became a political football. If jazz is America’s only original art form, then those who created it can claim credit for a tremendous cultural achievement. Thus begins a scuffle for bragging rights — a scuffle that inevitably ends up marring the art.
Detroit lawmaker John Conyers had been the orchestra’s strongest advocate in Congress, pushing for the money that launched the program. From the start, cultural bragging rights were foremost in the Democratic representative’s mind. After a frustrating struggle to get a raft of minority musicians into the predictably white environs of the Detroit Symphony, Mr. Conyers turned his efforts toward creating a new sort of symphony dedicated to African-American music: the Smithsonian jazz band.
Imagine his surprise, then, when he attended a Washington concert of the orchestra in 1995 only to discover that more than half the musicians playing in the band were white. Appalled, Mr. Conyers wrote to the director of the Smithsonian’s jazz program and demanded that the white musicians be fired from the band and replaced with black musicians. The congressman’s argument for what would have been a palpably illegal set of race-based terminations was that jazz is African-American music; thus, to have white musicians performing it is to misrepresent history. The orchestra was told to obey or face losing its funding from Congress. The predictably timid officials at the Smithsonian attempted to follow orders, but were stimied in part when a number of the white musicians threatened to sue. Mr. Conyers’s efforts, however, were not entirely unsuccessful: The band has never held blind auditions (as are standard in the symphony world) and now, sadly, race is a primary consideration when hiring new musicians.
Nor is the Smithsonian band the only jazz repertory orchestra to get itself mired in racial politics. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, never had the Smithsonian band’s problem with too many white players — which was just the problem, according to critics who have argued that Mr. Marsalis lets race govern his selection of musicians and repertoire. When confronted with the fact that the Lincoln Center band, over a four year period, has featured almost no music by white jazz musicians, Mr. Marsalis’s response has been that he can’t help it if the lion’s share of jazz achievements have been by black musicians. He even spent an hour of his NPR radio series attempting to demonstrate that there is a “black” sound in jazz and a separate, distinct (and presumably inferior) “white” sound.
The saddest part of the racial sniping involving the Smithsonian and the Lincoln Center bands, is that it throws away the great triumph of jazz as a phenomenon producing integration, not segregation. At a time of widespread racial segregation, popular dance music provided one of the only realms in which black and white people and cultures came together. The salient fact about race and jazz is not that differences can be found in the way the Benny Goodman and Count Basie bands swung, but that such differences are negligible. When jazz was popular music, black and white bands played in the same idiom. Even if there were slight variations in musical dialect, the language was unmistakably the same.
Compare that fact with the current situation in popular music. Whites and blacks listen to musical idioms that have almost nothing in common. There are almost no white practitioners of rap or soul; there are almost no black musicians in alternative rock or country. One can go for hours without seeing a black face on an MTV video; the same goes, in reverse, for the music videos on Black Entertainment Television.
At its best, jazz brought blacks and whites together, a musical miscegenation that helped to break down racial barriers. Now jazz is being turned into just one more source of racial division and distrust.
The official elevation of jazz to the status of “Art” is to blame for its politicization. Art is supposed to have value entirely unrelated to politics; but it is the very fact of this “intrinsic worth” that makes art useful in politics. Just as having religion on one’s side can be a powerful asset to a political movement, so too having art — which to many is a sort of secular religion — on one’s side can help to propel a political agenda. If the goal of the jazz repertory movement were simply to perform great music, the color of the composers or performers wouldn’t matter one whit. But if the goal of the repertory jazz bands is to establish cultural parity between black and white “art music” then race becomes the acid test.
This is a textbook example of how the left employs and subsumes art. Sometimes liberal political goals and ideologies are explicitly hyped by artists wishing to propagandize. For evidence, attend any exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City, where the art is invariably designed to shock bourgeois sensibilities and “challenge” our assumptions about society, i.e. an explicitly political purpose. Or consider the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. His goal was to make homosexuality more acceptable by presenting gay sex as art. Here, as so often, the political agenda is built into the very notion of what counts as art. And who can blame Mapplethorpe for trying? In a modern age of rampant cynicism, capital-A Art remains the only widely accepted store of value, the only thing that is universally accepted as a Good by definition. And the political value of being affiliated with such an unambiguous “moral good” cannot be overstated.
Yet strangely, conservatives have largely ceded the field, allowing the left to gain a valuable monopoly over the production of art. To be sure, there are many conservative critics who write about culture and the politics of art. But what is missing are the competing cultural institutions that attempt to further conservative goals by fostering art that contributes to a conservative vision of society. When conservative critics denounce the work of a Mapplethorpe or of some febrile performance artist, they are merely dismissed as philistines. The subtext is that cultural conservatives have nothing to offer in the way of art other than their stodgy disapprobation of those who are creative. Game over.
The reality, of course, is that there are any number of artists whose work is unselfconsciously conservative, at least in the sense that it strives for beauty, elevation and a subtle understanding of the human condition. At its best, such art is no less challenging than the wackiest avant-garde; if anything, it is more challenging because it demands the creation and appreciation of beauty in a world that tends all too easily towards the grotesque. But the artists who strive to create such work are often unwelcome in the artistic establishments maintained by the left. The choice for conservatives is whether to merely gripe and complain about the product of left-leaning artists, or to compete by creating cultural institutions friendly to conservative ideals. To date, conservatives have concentrated on the former.
What is needed are cultural institutions that attempt to celebrate and advance classic American music in a way that heals racial wounds rather than exacerbating them. Jazz should stand for what American society can be at its best, a source of creativity potent enough to obliterate prejudice. Complaining about the Smithsonian and Lincoln Center bands, however, doesn’t do the trick. Instead, new bands and new organizations are needed that can put together concerts and programs that emphasize the racial give-and-take that produced America’s only original musical art form. George Gershwin, for instance, didn’t just take from the “jazz” world: The chord progression to his song “I Got Rhythm” serves as the harmonic underpinning of countless important jazz compositions, such as Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” or Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning.” A concert, or even a series of concerts, could be built on an exploration of how jazz influenced Gershwin and vice versa.
That concert is unlikely to happen unless a new set of musical institutions is created to counterbalance the cultural spin being put forward by the Smithsonian and the Lincoln Center. And those institutions aren’t likely to come into existence unless donors recognize that half the battle in the culture wars is figuring out how to build a better mousetrap.
Eric Felten is a writer and jazz musician living in Washington, D.C., whose two critically aclaimed CD’s are on the Soul Note label. He also leads the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra.