Supporting the Jazz Ecosystem

By Ann Meier Baker


A man holding an upright base is surrounded by children.

Christian McBride visits Jazz House Kids’ Jazz House Music Club at Link Charter School, Newark. Photo by Richard Conde for Jazz House Kids

April is Jazz Appreciation Month and these past weeks have been full of events to help shine a light on this important music, including a special concert earlier this month in tribute to the 2017 recipients of the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships, our nation’s highest honor in jazz. But the NEA’s wide-ranging investments in jazz extend far beyond the confines of a month and the impressive roster of NEA Jazz Masters. A review of the hundreds of recent NEA grants for jazz-focused projects illustrates an impressive array of initiatives that support an important “ecosystem” for jazz.

One of the ways the NEA supports jazz is by introducing young people to the art form. Among the projects funded by the NEA that help accomplish this goal is the Montclair Jazz Festival, a free event curated by Jazz House Kids in Montclair, New Jersey. This organization brings top-flight artists and time-tested programs into schools to collaborate with teachers and administrators to create robust, exciting, and authentic instruction for students. Their efforts give students of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities access to a first-class music education.

Another outstanding program for children comes from the Diaz Music Institute in Houston, Texas. Their Summer Latin Jazz Workshop and Concert Series includes week-long workshops and concerts for at-risk students of varied cultural backgrounds in elementary, middle, and high school who, in addition to instruction on their various instruments and music theory training, also learn goal setting, team-building, and leadership skills.

While projects like these aim to produce future audiences and artists for jazz, the NEA also provides support for those who have devoted their careers to the art form. For example, the Jazz Foundation of America is a national service organization providing care for older and infirmed jazz musicians in need of assistance with emergency living expenses, medical care, housing, or instrument replacement. The NEA supports the Foundation’s Gig Fund, which creates opportunities for older jazz artists to perform for underserved and new audiences in non-traditional venues in a growing number of cities across the nation, which creates an alchemy of engagement and support for all involved.

Other projects underwritten by the NEA feature performances by NEA Jazz Masters. For example, Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi—the nation’s first public historically black land-grant institution—recently featured NEA Jazz Master Ramsey Lewis and his Electric Band. This spring, the Savannah Music Festival features NEA Jazz Master Dr. Lonnie Smith; and a grant to the Monterey Jazz Festival will support performances from emerging and established musicians including NEA Jazz Masters Kenny Barron, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Heath, and Branford Marsalis among others.

To make historic jazz performances available to more people, the NEA supports a project by an organization named DUBLAB to create a digital archive of concerts that took place at the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1979 to 1992 including more than 200 hours of recordings by performers from Geri Allen and Kenny Garrett, to NEA Jazz Masters Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and Sun Ra. Visitors to the online archive will be able to stream or download the performances as well as peruse ancillary materials such as articles, interviews, photographs, and concert flyers.

The NEA’s investments in these and other high-quality jazz projects help support an ecosystem for jazz that is dynamic and diverse to ensure that the American-born field of jazz will continue to thrive.

Ann Meier Baker is the director of music and opera at the National Endowment for the Arts, where she oversees the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship program.