Glass Half-Full, Mug Half-Empty
Are our venues and arts institutions (whether for profit or non-profit) free to do as they please, or do they bear some level of obligation/duty to the communities in which they reside? If art venues and institutions abandon their vital role within the arts scene/ecosystem, leaving the next wave of creative young nest-less, what will that mean for the arts overall in the next twenty years?
“The best investment for one year is to grow grains; the best investment for ten years is to grow trees; the best investment for a lifetime is to educate people. What you gain from one year’s growth will be grains; what you gain from ten years’ growth will be trees; what you gain from a hundred years’ growth will be people.”—Guan Zhong
To me all problems, and not just those found within the music biz, are best solved through education.
To every civilization education is paramount. The noblest job is that of the teacher. One could look at many problems today, and rightly place them at the feet of this nation’s failure to adequately invest in the truth and real education.
Question: Are our venues and arts institutions (whether for profit or non-profit) free to do as they please, or do they bear some level of obligation/duty to the communities in which they reside?
If art venues and institutions abandon their vital role within the arts scene/ecosystem, leaving the next wave of creative young nest-less, what will that mean for the arts overall in the next twenty years?
My friends and acquaintances sometimes call me “Pie-in-the-Sky-Guy”. What this means is that I’m the kind of guy who is always coming up with some new hare-brained scheme, usually in an effort to bring forth “improvement”, based on my core belief: We should all endeavor to leave things equal to, or preferably, better than we found them. I’m not sure where I first heard this ethos expressed, but it still makes a lot of sense to me.
Thinking this way requires an abundance of optimism because more often than not, most of the ideas that I propose are either ignored, or met with a series of no’s. However, occasionally, while the powers that be weren’t really paying attention, I got to do some cool stuff.
Knowing this, it’s hard to write about the Philly scene in a positive light. Though I would really love to, there’s that nagging thing, the truth. The Philly Jade that so many of my peers suffer from is real. Just like real jade, this Philly Jade took years under intense pressure to form, and in most cases it formed because such peers actually cared about their city and everything that it could and should be. Many of them, some of Philly’s brightest, have already left for greener pastures. I feel it nipping at my heels right now.
The simple truth is that we Philadelphians live in a city which is over 40% black, and over 60% of color, but where over 90% of resources are allocated to neighborhoods which are either primarily white or on their way to becoming so via gentrification. Long before the recent headlong rush towards gentrification of its inner city neighborhoods, Philadelphia had a long history of underserving its communities of color, and an even longer history of undervaluing their contributions to the city. This all may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but it is also the truth. While some of us are fortunate enough to avoid this truth most of the time, people of color live in a racially tainted reality which touches every aspect of their lives, whether acknowledged or not. Such statistics should put a pretty big dent in anybody’s optimism. Mine is dented, but not gone, yet.
If I were to think glass half full, I would say that Philly has a seemingly endless supply of talent. Philly is the kind of city where one might be living next to the inventor of the light bulb for 20 years and never know it. Everywhere I look there’s some amazing talent, poised to take things to the next level. Some of these amazing people are my colleagues, and others have been my students over the years. I am certain that there are many more that I am yet to meet.
I often find myself bumping into Philly’s music royalty, sometimes Jamaaladeen in Paris, or Orrin Evans at the North Sea Jazz Fest., or back in December at the Village Vanguard, Johnathan Blake, drummer and son of the great jazz musician John Blake. Pentad, Johnathan’s band, played the Vanguard for the first time. This amazing band featured Dezron Douglas on bass, David Virelles on piano, Joel Ross on vibes, and Immanuel Wilkins, one of my first students in the Creative Music Program, on alto saxophone.
They sounded fantastic, and thus, to those lucky enough to experience Philly musicians on stages around the world, there’s never any doubt regarding the outstanding level of musicianship that this city has and still continues to produce. Through mentorship and education (both formal and informal) many of these great musicians have managed to sustain a hundred year old enduring and ongoing tradition, which some call jazz, but which I more often call creative music.
The Philly area has also been home to a number of excellent jazz based music programs for young people, including Camden Creative Arts High School (Camden is Philly to me), run by Jamal Dickerson, the Clef Club of Jazz, run by Lovett Hines, and the Creative Music Program, run by myself at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
In the case of CMP, this program has provided opportunities for outstanding musicians such as Marcus Belgrave, Doug Hammond, John Patitucci, Danilo Perez, Linda Oh, Gary Thomas, Melvis Santa, Wayne Krantz, Miles Okazaki, Wycliffe Gordon, Sumi Tonooka, Tyshawn Sorey, Jen Shyu, Eric Revis, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Matthew Garrison, Yosvany Terry, Jon Batiste, Jonathan Finlayson, Greg Osby, Kokayi, Lee Smith, Kris Davis, Odean Pope, Cyro Baptista, Steve Lehman, Marcus Gilmore, Rajna Swaminathan, Nicholas Payton, Orrin Evans, Dafnis Prieto, Greg Hutchinson, Anwar Marshall, Laurin Talese, Eric Wortham, Joanna Pascal, Steve Tirpak, John Smith, John Swana, Erica Lindsay, Josh Lawrence, Venissa Santi, Khary Shaheed, Ursula Rucker, J.A Dean, Brent White, Tom Lawton, Tim Motzer, and so many others to pass on their unique approaches, experience, expertise and even life lessons to thousands of students for over 9 years. This list is long because I have to pay homage to those who helped to make this program great, however the clef club has an even longer list of amazing musicians, which goes back much further to the club’s founding in 1935.
Both have had an immeasurable impact on the Philly scene and for students, such as alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, who recently graduated from the Juilliard School of Music and is now one of the most exciting young players in NYC. Or, pianist Joseph Block, who won the 2016 Essentially Ellington Competition while still in the program at 17, and who today at 19 still studies at Juilliard, whilst being one of Wynton Marsalis’s go-to arrangers for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. There are many more, like Maya Keren, Nazir Ebo, and Yesseh Farrah-Ali, who you’ll surely hear about very soon.
One might reasonably expect based on such a stellar track record, high level endorsements from MacArthur fellows, Grammy recipients, Doris Duke recipients, and directors of some of the most prestigious jazz programs in the nation, that the future of such programs would be somewhat guaranteed.
If I were to think mug half empty, then I would say that in Philadelphia what is reasonably expected often does not come to pass. Musicians and music programs are often held hostage by the ill-advised decisions of people who neither possess the history, knowledge, or empathy to understand why such programs are important. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Philadelphia’s brightest young artists will either: a) decide to exit the arts; b) decide to exit Philly; or c) stay in the arts and in Philly, probably to the detriment of their careers and overall happiness. This of course is not considering the millions of highly creative children in Philly and around the world, who will never even get an opportunity to explore the arts in the first place. Some of the most successful and vital music programs in the city (including the aforementioned) have the hardest time finding either institutional support, or funding, or both. The fact that all of these programs are primarily focused on a historic black art form (jazz) is not insignificant.
Some people may believe that all artists are destined to suffer. I do not agree. While we can’t all be Wynton or Beyoncé, this doesn’t mean that all other artists don’t deserve a living wage, or the same path to a fruitful career that lawyers, doctors, and accountants expect, upon leaving school. After all, arts degrees are just as expensive and school loans sleep for no one.
The fact that we as artists do not enjoy the same prospects as our STEM counterparts has less to do with the true importance of the arts within any advanced civilization (art is one important metric by which all past civilizations have been judged), and more to do with the aforementioned dubious decisions taken by “the powers that be”, both inside and outside of the arts world. Besides this, we should also acknowledge that within the arts, as in all other fields, opportunity (and thus compensation) is more often sharply divided along strict racial and gender lines. In this respect Philadelphia is one prime example.
When the new owners of Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus decided to redefine their business model (once again), more or less completely abandoning the establishment’s jazz legacy, turning the space into a multipurpose black-box, focusing on DJs, local funk and rock bands, and entertainment that they considered more befitting of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that is Northern Liberties, it sent shockwaves throughout the arts community. Like so many venues they went from being a home for creative music to becoming yet another establishment that sells alcohol (with music accompaniment). (Exhibit A) Their description on Google reads, “Local funk, jazz & rock performers provide the soundtrack for burgers, burritos & beer drinking.”
Many of the elders on the Philly jazz scene at the time recalled earlier days, when they themselves were teens and were eager to learn all about the music that Miles, Ella, and ’Trane had played barely a generation earlier, and Ortlieb’s, like any other jazz club, was a good place to start. Jazz enthusiasts could listen to any number of the greats who would regularly perform or stop though.
After twenty-three years of attending and performing at the same venue, I imagine that those once teens began to feel like Ortlieb’s was their home, in much the same way that children, who were raised in the same house for years, might. Needless to say, these musicians, and the jazz community they built around such institutions, felt betrayed when said institution decided to abandon its role, its community, and them.
What happened to Ortlieb’s is indicative of a change in the culture which is sweeping our cities, partly brought on by gentrification (a favorite tool of White Supremacy), but also equally due to important changes in the overall goals of society as a whole. Just as the children of White-Flight are precipitating a rapid return to the inner cities, the resources, real-estate, neighborhoods, and culture within these big cities is being repurposed.
We see this clearly in what is presently happening to landmark Philly venues such as the Painted Bride. Though the Bride has been home to a number of creative movements within the city over the decades, even whilst surrounding properties changed hands and demographics shifted towards the entitled and wealthy, how does a grass roots community organization keep the lights on? How does any venue survive gentrification while staying on mission and retaining its authenticity? The Bride’s solution is to become a venue-less arts organization by selling its building and using the proceeds to fund an endowment. It would go from being an able bodied participant within the Philly arts scene to a bodiless “arts ghost.” What Philly and the arts community most needs is space and stages, the very thing that the Fringe sought to acquire and that the Bride stands poised to lose.
It is true that, due to years of being underserved by their host cities, many historically black neighborhoods are in a drastic state of disrepair, and so in some cases any new investment is welcomed and much needed. But, everywhere one looks, from North Philly to South Chicago, this investment has come at a price, and that price has invariably been the ongoing excise of black people, black influence, and black culture.
An Uber driver I rode with a few weeks ago commented on this. My home is in Brewerytown, which I feel is the present epicenter of the aggressive gentrification that is happening along Girard Avenue in North Philly. This Uber driver said, “It feels like all of this is part of some master plan!” He was an older black gentleman who had grown up in the neighborhood, and I could hear the pain in his voice, as he looked around and spoke those words to the soundtrack of John Coltrane’s “Impressions” playing on WRTI. It was like a scene from Do The Right Thing, except this was his life, in the third millennium.
If I had a dollar for every time an older black musician has expressed their belief that they are being pushed out of jazz, a music which they developed and which primarily came out of their struggle and community, I wouldn’t be so upset about spending $180 at Whole Foods Market for a week of basic groceries. No reasonable person can dismiss such fears, because we live in a country where since its founding, black people have been constantly pushed out of, well, everything. Why should jazz now be any different?
We all know that nationwide, American culture has changed. The numerous studies concur that people now read less. A new generation, raised on social media and reality TV, are now accustomed to everything being served up in bite-size chunks, which require the least amount of effort or attention span possible. We are suffering from a national form of attention deficit disorder, brought on by fifty years of flashing images on TVs, which rarely last over 3 seconds each. And the latest onslaught; a smartphone powered social media frenzy, is breeding a generation of introverts who live virtual extrovert lifestyles via Facebook or Instagram. Inevitably this trend has carried over into much of the “new” music available, which has primarily been created for people who in general “listen” less, and find the mere idea of any sort of learning curve antithetical to their primary goal of being thoroughly entertained.
Within black music the once groove has been stripped down to a pulse. The lyric is always easily discerned upon the first listen. The melodies and harmonies are reminiscent of the sorts of I-IV-V nursery rhymes that were once reserved for toddlers. Even the exciting cadence of hip-hop, the most recent and last frontier of true mass-appeal-black-creativity, has been slowed to a syrup-infused crawl, where rhyming schemes which end in the same word are now considered clever. Emcees don’t even attempt to free-style anymore, and stellar improvisers, such as Rakim, Black Thought or Kokayi, are seen as anomalies. Astonishingly, each year music moves further and further in the same downward direction (or at least it has over my entire lifetime), and each year I wonder, “Have we reached the bottom yet?”
I said I wanted to stay upbeat, and not tip the balance of this piece too towards the negative. So, thinking glass half full again, I would say that there’s still some incredible creative music being made right now elsewhere on the planet. American popular music may no longer be what it once was, but deeper underground, artists are forging ahead, pushing the envelope and reinventing art at the highest level, even if most of us may never get to hear it, or become aware of its existence. Thus, we could, in theory, change things for the better overnight by simply finding and supporting more creative music, made by more creative artists.
Ars Nova, an organization created by long time Philadelphian curator Mark Christman has worked hard to provide new and non-traditional spaces for creative musicians, many of whom are already well established outside of Philadelphia. Through his organization, Mark has managed to tap into audiences, who otherwise would have been ignored by the big venues and promoters. Ars Nova has presented some of creative music’s most prominent artists, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Mary Halvorson, Steve Lehman, Kris Davis, and many others.
Over the last five years Ernest Stuart’s Center City Jazz Festival has managed to bridge the gap between live music enthusiasts and avid jazz listeners by programming shows, which straddle the “boundaries” between “jazz” and other genres such as rock, pop, and hip-hop. Based on its broad definition of jazz, his festival has managed to bring out audiences, who hail from varied walks of life, but who all come together to support both local and touring artists. Ernest has managed to do this year after year while literally “flying by the seat of his pants”, often not knowing whether he will have adequate funding to make the festival happen again and pay his staff until three weeks before the first show.
Sittin’ In, the concert series which I created and curate at the Kimmel Center, also focuses on providing creative music with a regular space. Audience development, and giving creative artists a place where their works can be exposed to new audiences, are both vital components of any healthy arts community. Over the last eight years, Sittin’ In has provided this and more to the community. My hope is that this model might one day be expanded, becoming something which happens more than once a month at a single venue, as this only just scratches the surface of the very great need in Philadelphia, and beyond. Like Ernest, as a black creative musician and curator, I’m often left feeling like I’m trying to plug a huge breach in the Hoover Dam with a toothpick. Like Mark, I spend my days saying no to people who I know deserve a yes (at least some of the time).
So, what’s the problem?
Back to mug half empty. The problem is jobs and money. Who holds those jobs with the power and capability to affect real change, and in whose pockets the majority of the money available for the arts ends up. There is certainly a shortage of arts funding in the U.S., but what little money there is out there rarely ever seems to find its way into the pockets of artists of color.
Cities which may have once had 30–40 buildings dedicated to the arts 20 years ago, now have five (at the most), and of those five, most (regardless of their 501c3 status) behave more like corporate entities than arts institutions or venues, making almost every decision about their bottom line, whilst all trying to sell the exact same thing over and over ad nauseam. This results in new artists and new creative music being deprived of a pipeline to audiences and revenue. It is the definition of a catch 22 situation.
In the music world small venues, such as John Zorn’s The Stone or Rio Sakairi’s The Jazz Gallery, are a vital part of any viable music ecosystem which deals with progressive music. Creative music is not “a numbers game”, and nor should it be expected to be. Living music, a.k.a. new music, requires testing grounds/labs, where musicians can get together and try new things in front of audiences without having to satisfy the sea of criterion (specified by non-creative administrators, who themselves are mostly detached from the art) necessary in order to get the grant. Artists need spaces free from as much red tape as possible in order to create, and these spaces need to come without the expectation that said artist must consistently pack the house.
Audiences need places where they can go, and occasionally be one of the six lucky people who get to experience the next new thing. That new thing could be Charlie Parker on the precipice of establishing be-bop, or Steve Coleman on that same precipice 50 years later establishing m-base. These artist may go on to consistently sell 400–2000 tickets per show in the future, but they need to be able to start with 6.
The idea that Billie Holiday regularly sang “Strange Fruit,” one of her greatest artistic statements, to American audiences of 1800 plus, packed into halls that were originally designed for orchestras, is both ridiculous and antithetical to the very idea of creative music. The same goes for Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Abbey Lincoln, John Coltrane, and a host of other great innovators.
The difference in the mission of an arts institution and that of a straight forward venue, such as those run by Live Nation should be obvious to anybody who is lucky enough to secure any job of note in the arts or music industry. Venues operate based on supply and demand. Their primary motivation is money, and so they chiefly operate based on conditions dictated by the market and bottom line. To such venues it makes no difference whether the artist is Beyoncé or The Rolling Stones, so long as they believe that they have a better than good chance of selling enough tickets to make the maximum amount of profit. There’s nothing wrong with such venues. They have their place.
Arts institutions exist to preserve, promote, and continue high level art. Their survival is intrinsically linked to the survival of true artists and the viability of the various communities which create said artists. Education is probably the most vital role for such an institution; To educate audiences about the art they present, to educate future generations so that there will be future artists who can create said art, to educate society over all to the true importance and the vital role of art, so that art will continue to hold a position of reverence within society, ensuring that it will be supported in the future. We can call education by many different names; Free concerts, Marketing, Audience Development, Workshops, Meet and Greets, Youth School Year Programs and Summer Camps, etc., but it’s still education. Like education facilities, their mission is primarily social in nature, and like schools, colleges and museums, arts institutions bear a solemn responsibility to the communities, cities and nations in which they reside. Ticket sales are of course linked to the survival of these institutions, but they are secondary to the important social role they play. Unfortunately some of our arts institutions are fleeing from this social role towards greater profitability.
Without true arts institutions and small venues which are committed to this ethos, all venues will just end up repeatedly booking “sure bets,” acts who themselves will likely end up afraid to stray from whatever successful formula got them the gig in the first place, innovation will grind to a halt, and this will be a terrible place for the arts and civilization to be.
To me all problems, and not just those found within the music biz, are best solved through education.
American cities like Philadelphia may still be rich in talent, but today they are unfortunately poor in arts infrastructure; organizations populated by those who are committed to the mission of furthering art. The same is also somewhat true of our schools, colleges, and entire education system, which we must trust to stock tomorrow’s institutions with the next generation of well-informed influential thinkers. Without education there can be no meaningful change in culture. Education is about the future. Who do we want to be in ten, twenty, or thirty years? What do we want to achieve in twenty five, fifty, or one-hundred years? Some may still see the arts as unimportant or trivial, but we will be defined tomorrow by what we choose to support and celebrate today. Of all the investments that any nation can make in its future, education is by far the most effective. And, any education curriculum which is concerned with truth, progress, the realizing of potential, and the overall uplift of its students should feature creativity and critical thinking as central tenants. Without the ability to think critically, discern what is true, and create new solutions we are doomed to repeat the same old history over and over again.
Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.