J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

IAJE: Jazz, Politics and the American Identity

On Thur. at IAJE, Jazziz sponsored a panel entitled Jazz, Politics and the American Identity. I went so you wouldn’t have to, so here is the report promised in the Day 2 post. It was largely what you would expect. The diversity of opinion expressed ranged from: “the Iraq War is Bad” to “Bush is Evil.” Larry Blumenfeld was a particularly talky and opinionated “moderator.” He opened with the joke that panelists would be collaborating on the composition “Prelude to a Troop Surge” to set the tone.

Panelists included musicians Dave Douglas, Craig Harris, Charlie Haden of the Liberation Music Orchestra whose compositions include “Chairman Mao” and “Song for Che,” and Loren Schoenberg musician and curator of the Jazz Museum of Harlem.

To start, Blumenfeld asked Haden to recount his 1971 arrest in Portugal, a familiar story to those who regularly suffer through Democracy Now. Afterward, Douglas cautioned us: “that could happen here to any of us.” Obviously, Douglas has never walked by Union Square, or he would have seen the extent to which protest is catered to in this country.

Schoenberg was the voice of reason, largely keeping his remarks nonpartisan. He essentially challenged panel attendees, if they were unhappy, don’t just moan and gripe at a jazz conference. Get involved locally. That’s my paraphrase. He was a little more diplomatic. Interestingly, he also gave credit to the Nixon Administration for expanding the NEA and NEH.

Harris was clearly on the left side of the spectrum, but did seem connected to reality. At one point he produced murmurs of disbelief when he said: “I’m sure a lot of people at this conference voted for George Bush . . . maybe not in this room, but at this conference.” Surely that was true if you included the small businessmen and military band members setting up their booths in the exhibit hall.

In addition to making off-hand jabs at the President, Douglas argued there is some nefarious attempt to rewrite history, musically to exclude the avant-garde, and politically to portray the 1960’s as a period of dangerous excess. As far as the 1960’s are concerned, Douglas seems to be the revisionist, trying to wish away the dangerous excesses of the Weathermen Underground and the Black Panthers, among others.

On the music front, I shared his disappoint in Ken Burns’ handling of the avant-garde, for instance, but as a filmmaker Burns is entitled to his own editorial choices. The Schoenberg principle seems to apply here. NEA Jazz Masters are nominated by the public and then voted on by a panel of experts. I would suggest Douglas and his followers nominate worthy artists like Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, and Pharoah Sanders.

New Orleans did come up. Predictably it was used as a handy tool to bash the Bush administration. Douglas at least made a welcome pitch for the Jazz Foundation, and in the midst of his “moderating” Blumenfeld actually made a legitimate point when he took Pelosi to task for not including NOLA in her much hyped 100 days agenda.

It would be interesting to know if any effort was made to invite more right-leaning panelists. I don’t mean cranky bloggers either. Cuban defectors Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval would have brought a much different perspective with regards to foreign policy. I have no idea where they stand on the capitol gains tax, but they are staunch critics of the Castro regime, unlike Haden and Harris. (It is entirely possible they were invited, but as busy musicians, were unable to attend.)

Oddly, the panel was not as bad as I expected. However, it would have benefited enormously if it had presented a legitimate cross-section of opinion with a moderator content to moderate.