by Steve Dollar
Born with the century - the 20th century, that is - the most uniquely American of music forms is finally getting its own month, a full hundred years into a history as lively and complex as the nation that spawned it.
April marks the first annual national Jazz Appreciation Month, a project launched by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, backed by a hefty group of partners, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Department of Education, MENC: The National Association for Music Education, the International Association of Jazz Educators, the Grammy Foundation and the U.S. Department of State. BMI is a sponsor of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM for short), as is the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation.
"Every April, I'd love to see the country riff, swing, boogie and bop to the syncopated strains of jazz,"says John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the museum. As Hasse explains, the month of April was chosen to honor the birthdays of such jazz legends as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Tito Puente, Charles Mingus and Gerry Mulligan, among others. "Jazz is a great national treasure - arguably our greatest cultural export to the rest of the world and one of the things that future centuries will judge best about America in the 20th century."
That's a key reason Hasse sought to create Jazz Appreciation Month, which arrives a year after the Louis Armstrong centenary and the marathon broadcast of Ken Burns's epic documentary Jazz. Throughout April, the museum will spotlight jazz through concerts, programs and museum collections. Schools, colleges, museums, concert halls, libraries and public broadcasters will be encouraged to observe the month with programs of their own. SmithsonianJazz.org has been launched, bringing attention to a diverse range of jazz programs and archives at the museum, as well as complete events scheduled for Jazz Appreciation Month.
The Smithsonian's role in archiving and promoting various elements of jazz history has been crucial to the music's legacy. The National Museum of American History is home to the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, more than 100 oral histories of musicians, composers and others, and 100,000 pages of Ellington's unpublished music. The archives host such totems of jazz lore as Ella Fitzgerald's signature red dress, Dizzy Gillespie's oddly tilted trumpet and Benny Goodman's clarinet. "Thirty years ago, [critic and curator] Martin Williams put together the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, which became a cornerstone,"Hasse says. "The Smithsonian runs the world's most comprehensive set of jazz programs."
Stressing the non-commercial, grassroots nature of the event, Hasse hopes to encourage local initiatives that will make Jazz Appreciation Month not merely a focus for the museum, but a true nationwide celebration. "We hope that jazz societies, libraries, museums and performing arts centers will add related programming to their lineups in April,"he says. "Symphonies could get involved that are looking for more diversity in their programs. What music is more culturally diverse than jazz?"Hasse adds that one reason for April was to give high school ensembles time to develop and rehearse concerts that can be tied into the event. "We really wanted this to be during the school year,"he says. "Our goal for the first year is to build awareness of the event, and our core for doing that is jazz educators and music educators."
The concept of jazz appreciation is at a ripe moment, but Hasse knows it will take time for the event to develop. "I was deeply admiring of Black History Month (which is February), and all the good it has done for its subject. It became a model. But when Carter G. Woodson initiated it 75 years ago, it was known as Negro History Week. It's really grown."
Observes Ron Carter, the esteemed bassist who was part of Miles Davis's great 1960s quintet, "It's a necessary event. All the different musics get a chance to show what they do in a much larger format than jazz. We take what we can get. When I was young, Black History Month seemed like it was only one or two days. And that was 40 years ago when there was no e-mail. Given the proportion of new media going around, hopefully there will be enough [coverage] of Jazz Appreciation Month events to heighten people's awareness."
Adds soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, "Anything - anything that brings attention to the performance of jazz is a good thing. We're struggling. If this is what it takes to do it, yeah, let's make a month out of it. Make it semi-annual! It's just the beginning. All these organizations can put their heads together to create momentum. You can't just expect people to automatically become interested in jazz, you have to lobby them."
Hasse lauds BMI's involvement in the event, which he views a wholly appropriate. "We're delighted that BMI, which has such a large and important involvement in jazz, is a sponsor - and was an early and enthusiastic sponsor."
As a musical director for BMI's Jazz Composer Workshop, pianist Jim McNeely is often at the center of debates about the music's history and its future. And while he's wary of efforts to make the music somehow sanitized or official - the problem a lot of viewers had with Burns's 19-hour Jazz - he sees the effort as a another positive step toward giving jazz its due. "To get a whole month at the Smithsonian, it's a great boost for the music,"he says. "Ironically, it's a great boost for the musicians who are no longer with us, the people who invented this stuff."
Tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, who presides as artistic director for San Francisco's SF Jazz spring concert series, finds the concept of Jazz Appreciation Month to be a timely one. "The public has been primed a little bit, especially over the past year. The idea of jazz, while it's not on the tip of people's minds, is no longer in the deep recesses," he says. "More and more, you're seeing established, major arts institutions embracing jazz and starting to program jazz in their communities. The more that happens, the better it's going to be, and the more we can get the music to the people."