NEA Arts Magazine

A. B. Spellman: 30 Years of Dedication


A.B. Spellman

A. B. Spellman speaks at the 2005 NEA Jazz Masters luncheon. Photo: Vance Jacobs

A. B. Spellman, noted jazz writer, accomplished poet, venerated arts authority, and innovative arts administrator is often quoted as saying, "Jazz lives at the very center of the American vernacular." To paraphrase him, A. B. Spellman lives at the very center of jazz.

Since 1975, the NEA has claimed A. B. Spellman as one of its most outstanding employees. But calling him an employee is like calling Miles Davis a trumpeter. In thirty years, A. B. Spellman has elevated and expanded the role of arts administrator - and the face of arts funding - in the United States to one of unprecedented reach and influence. He also has been a guiding force in the continuation and expansion of the NEA Jazz Masters program.

In April of 2005, he will retire from the Arts Endowment, having risen to the position of Deputy Chairman for the Office of Guidelines and Panel Operations, a member of the government’s Senior Executive Service.

But it is his love, his contributions, and his celebration of jazz that remain among his greatest gifts to the country. Another jazz-loving poet, NEA Chairman Gioia, has this to say: "A. B. Spellman has been an invaluable presence in jazz for nearly half a century. His vision and leadership played the key role in making the Arts Endowment a major presence in jazz."

From his biography of Art Tatum to his early recognition of the brilliance of eventual NEA Jazz Masters Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Jackie McLean along with Herbie Nichols in Four Lives in the Bebop Business, A. B. Spellman has created much of the definitive reading of jazz.

While his discipline strengths lie in poetry and jazz, his deep knowledge of all arts media makes his observations and assessments of jazz that much more authoritative. He once wrote, "you could empty a room of American cultural policy makers by requiring them to distinguish a solo by Coleman Hawkins from one of Lester Young’s, and you would certainly get higher scores on a jazz quiz from among members of the Academie Francaise or the Arts Council of Great Britain."

Because of that truth, he has dedicated much of his life to bringing the joy and artistry of jazz to as many Americans as possible. He lives at the very center of jazz. And jazz - and the NEA - is all the richer for it.