Your head says one way; your whole life says another….your head always loses.
– Frank McCloud (Bogart in Key Largo)
If the patient doesn’t care; why should the doctor?
– Makanda McIntyre (over and over again)
Here we are: 5 years since my last blog post; 12 years since we published the 400+ page Straight Ahead: A Comprehensive Guide to the Business of Jazz (Without Sacrificing Dignity or Artistic Integrity) as a failed farewell to the business and as a thank you to my mentors; 20 years since I began writing to call attention to the mess we are in; 27 years since my closest colleagues and I began developing systemic solutions to the mess we were all getting into; and 41 years since founding our organization – by which we were actually able to begin to establish a solid foundation for a new and productive business environment of empowerment.
We are faced with unprecedented challenges in these disturbing days – politically, socially, educationally, environmentally……. and culturally. The arts are under siege from without and within. Jazz, always being of fragile infrastructure, is under the most severe assault. As the most recent member into the accepted World of the Arts (which has been deeply “Republican-ized” over the past 30 years), the inherent flaws in the current system are most glaring. Despite the infusion of well over a billion dollars into the art over the past 25 years, conditions are worse than ever – except for a very lucky few… much akin to the U.S. economy. Understanding what’s at play and more importantly, how the artist and dedicated professional can address it in pursuit of artistic goals and financial needs is what is at the core of this blog’s intent.
So what is making me revive my blog and continue to transmit my message now? The wonderful Butoh artist Eiko (of Eiko & Koma) once said to me that when things have gone astray, one must go back to the point where they began to go wrong and start anew. That’s one reason. But there’s more than that – partly it’s the Bogart quote above (despite the Makanda quote below it).
Beginning with my first night in a club at 15, when Jaki Byard sat at my table and spent a half hour generously dropping essential knowledge upon me, great spirits have taken their time to enlighten me to the profound pursuit of transcendence and what I could and should do on that quest. First as an aspiring musician, and after failing at that, as an advocate and facilitator for those better qualified to tread that path, I am blessed by these folks’ generosity, honesty and the trust that I would use their mentorship properly – with commitment and devotion.
In my teens, these included Marion Brown, Arnie Lawrence, Robin Kenyatta, Chris White, Tony Scott, Bill Barron (my first sax teacher); and later as a business professional, Sam Rivers (also my second sax teacher), Makanda McIntyre, Lester Bowie, George Russell, Betty Carter, Alwin Nikolais and so many others – all gave me hardcore, no-nonsense and invaluable knowledge that they seemed to know would be put to the best use not just for themselves, but for all on that sacred path. I’ve done my damnedest to stay true, and while I have no regrets spiritually…. at 66, the sacrifice entailed is more than a bit discomfiting.
But we are who we are and so be it (again, see Bogie’s quote above).
The current state of this business – and in many ways the music itself – is a painful reality. The dream of big record deals and extensive touring has been replaced by an economic landscape of download fantasies; door gigs with hopes of performing in front of “crowds” of 50; and occasional paying engagements of squeak-by money.
In essence, this is very much the economic state that the American business of the cutting-edge of jazz (improperly referred to as the avant-garde) was in when we started Rasa Artists/Outward Visions in 1976. Within three years we had built an alternative U.S. scene where 3 to 5 groups at a time (Rivers, Braxton, Art Ensemble, WSQ, etc.) were touring 6 to 10 cities for fees ranging from $1500-4000. Every weekend the series we were instrumental in launching, New Jazz at the Public at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater was drawing at least 200 people per show, four shows a week – all cutting-edge jazz performed for a significantly new audience. In 1980, the Art Ensemble’s Full Force tour played 57 U.S. cities. That album sold over 40,000; the WSQ’s 1986 Ellington album sold over 60,000. Fees and audiences grew together well into the ‘80s.
But then again, that was a different time. Yes it was – it was before the Performing Arts world got involved to “make things better” and the Jazz at Lincoln Center juggernaut was birthed. Folks were so happy about it, but my take was “We are screwed! It’s going to scarf up the lion’s share of funding and some mediocre musician is going to be rammed down our throats as The Man!” (No, no crystal ball, just some deductive reasoning and applied arithmetic, mixed with the cynicism liberally bestowed by my mentors.)
So… after more than 25 years of this, with over one billion dollars squandered on improvements, we now have access to a funding mechanism whose top level return is a $30K grant that allows you to create a work, premiere it in front of a small audience and record it on an album that will sell hundreds of copies. And maybe eventually the NEA, Doris Duke or MacArthur will recognize your value to culture and give a miniscule fraction of you an award of somewhere between 30 and 500K. Can you understand how we – after laying a foundation in the 70s & 80s and experiencing that growth and promise – find it hard to swallow this as an acceptable environment?
Over those same 25 years, we and some similarly committed colleagues have developed plan after plan that would create the systemic change needed to address this situation that has robbed the artists not only of their own empowerment and opportunity, but in many ways of their music itself. And always, they’ve fallen on the deaf ears of the funding world – most recently this year by …. Well, I’ll leave that for later, when they announce their tremendous plan that will make things great again.
But… for those who see this art as a “priesthood” of spiritual pursuit, financial considerations are meaningless – unless of course you need to eat, support a family or in any way indulge in neck-down concerns. In truth, this is an insane economic reality, especially considering that those who have created this environment are thriving on its 1% vs. 99% imbalance. It’s kept in place by dangling in front of you the carrot of certain “lottery-winners” who are the placebo “proof” that the system works.
And of course, that can be any one of you – now that the old structure of organic hierarchy that brought the immortals into the Pantheon is extinct. It has been replaced by juried selections and ramrod business tactics; and a top tier that includes a $40,000 a week artistic director lording over a domain somehow justified by 12-year-olds playing Ellington charts with all the mastery, power, profundity and wisdom that can be expected from …. a 12-year-old.
There must be an alternative reality to this. And there is. I intend to put it there for you in this blog, like I did in my book. If you want it, great…. if not, fine. If you’re looking for a magic template, a silver bullet, or some kind of potion for success… don’t look here. But if you’ve “condemned” yourself to that profound pursuit of transcendence as embodied by the great spirits to whom we supposedly aspire, you are the ones I can help – and for whom I am taking my time and energy to provide this information in the spirit of those special souls who took their time to enlighten me.
Peace & A Love Supreme, Marty Khan
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