Friday, October 13, 2006

Talk is Cheap in Jazziz

Herbie Hancock interviews a disbarred attorney in this month’s Jazziz. His name is Bill Clinton. The former lawyer talks a good game on jazz, dropping names like Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. However, his administration did no favors for jazz.

Clinton administration NEA Chair Jane Alexander continued a policy of favoring elite projects, with a bias towards the urban and politically correct. Under her stewardship the agency helped underwrite the publication of Fiction Collective 2, featuring violently explicit sexual situations; Women Make Movies, an umbrella group which funded explicit s&m films; a Phoenix Art Museum display of the American flag in a toilet; and the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco, an organization affiliated with the FMLN terrorist group of El Salvador, which is now out of business.

However, President Bush appointed Dana Gioia, after Michael Hammond, his first NEA Chair appointee passed away days after taking office. His appointment was a happy development for jazz, as Gioia greatly expanded the jazz programs in the agency. What had been a sleepy agency backwater under Alexander has arguably been the centerpiece of Gioia’s tenure. In the process, he has elevated the NEA Jazz Master Award to something jazz musicians think of as on par with the Academy Awards or even Nobel Prizes. Under Gioia, the NEA has produced touring programs featuring NEA Jazz Masters and Shakespeare productions, bringing the arts to the flyover states, largely ignored by the prior administration.

Aside from contributing to an opera based on the life of Robert Oppenheimer, I have not heard any controversial funding decisions on the part of the NEA, since Gioia's appointment. Unlike under Clinton, the current administration has demonstrated NEA funding decisions can be administered in a responsible and respectful way that stimulates interest in the arts. In doing so, they have rehabilitated the image of the formerly troubled NEA.

In his interview Clinton acknowledges his shortcomings as a musician, saying “there are lots of people like me who weren’t good enough to be professional musicians.” Of course, he can no longer practice law in Arkansas either. Good thing he found something he has a talent for: influence peddling. He should leave the music to Hancock, and the policy making to grown-ups like President Bush and Chairman Gioia.