Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Hentoff - "The Gioia of Jazz"

From the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal, Nat Henthoff praises current NEA chair Dana Gioia for his work in jazz.

The Gioia of Jazz

The National Endowment for the Arts' head champions "one of the great American inventions."

Wednesday, June 15, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

No one with government funds to dispense has done more to bring jazz to American audiences than Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He has long considered the music "one of the great American inventions," and has been listening to it since his childhood in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles where, at home in the kitchen, his mother would put on records by Count Basie and her husband's favorite--Bunny Berigan, the trumpet player best known for his exhilarating version of "I Can't Get Started With You."

As Mr. Gioia was born in 1950, he remembers "growing up to the music of jazz, which was still America's popular music. You could even hear it on the TV variety shows. And in high school, the coolest group was the jazz band. As for me, the music conjured up a world of excitement and seemingly unreachable sophistication."

Now, however, except for the BET Jazz channel, not available in all parts of the country, there is currently no regular jazz programming. Indeed, there is hardly any jazz on broadcast or cable television. And on radio, the music has been almost entirely limited to a number of local public-radio stations, and some programming on National Public Radio.

Mr. Gioia--a poet (whose "Interrogations at Noon" won the 2002 American Book Award), a literary anthologist and a teacher--became the ninth chairman of the NEA in February 2003. One of his first initiatives was to increase the NEA's jazz program.

Starting in 1982, the NEA had been presenting jazz originals with American Jazz Masters Fellowships, including what is now a $25,000 accompaniment to the award. The first three musicians honored were Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Sun Ra, followed the next year by Count Basie, Kenny Clarke and Sonny Rollins. Mr. Gioia has expanded the number of annual Jazz Masters--there are seven this year. And in 2004 he added a new category, Jazz Advocate, which began with a nonmusician, this writer, who plays only an electric typewriter after a brief and unpromising venture long ago as a clarinetist.

The chairman is involved in expanding audiences for all the arts, but he is especially driven to "expand the country's awareness of jazz, to use it to combat the cultural impoverishment that threatens us." In an era of "reality" television, and a music scene where even Merle Haggard is hardly heard on commercial country music radio stations, Mr. Gioia doesn't consider it necessary to define "cultural impoverishment."

Read the complete article at Opinion


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