It seems the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has made another honest mistake. I say "honest," because I assume the folks down in Washington, D.C., who head up the Kennedy Center are well educated and cultured. How else can one explain the decision by an organization of this national standing to repeatedly ignore jazz and jazz musicians when handing out its most prestigious annual award?
Upon opening the newspaper over the weekend, I was dismayed to read that once again, not one jazz artist was among the six individuals who were awarded the Kennedy Center's Honors for lifetime achievement in the performing arts. Instead, ribbons and medals adorned the necks of Barbra Streisand, Morgan Freeman, George Jones, Twyla Tharp, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey.
Even more appalling than the absence of, say, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Hank Jones or Dave Brubeck, were the names of some of those actually being celebrated. Two of the six honorees were British hard rockers whose greatest contribution to performance art included destroying instruments on stage, a rock opera trashing the disabled, and songs honoring acid trips. What's more, one of the two British honorees was arrested in 2003 on child pornography charges, which were later dropped though his name was added to a list of sex offenders.
Here's part of the Associated Press story from 2003:
"Rock guitarist Pete Townshend, co-founder of The Who, was cleared Wednesday of possessing pornographic images of children but still was placed on a national register of sex offenders.
"That registration was part of a formal police caution Townshend received for accessing a Web site containing images of child abuse.
"Townshend was arrested in January on suspicion of making and possessing indecent images of children. The arrest was part of Operation Ore, an FBI-led crackdown on Internet child pornography.
"After a four-month investigation, London's Metropolitan Police said Wednesday the rocker 'was not in possession of any downloaded child abuse images' but had accessed a site containing such images in 1999.
"The musician acknowledged using his credit card to enter a Web site advertising child pornography but said he was doing research for his autobiography."
Whatever. Look, like every 1970s teen, I grew up with The Who's Baba O'Riley blasting away on FM car radios. I even own the group's CDs, and there's certainly something to be said for their synth-driven influence on rock as well as their energy and craft. All that notwithstanding, it's a cultural outrage to award Daltrey and Townshend this country's most esteemed cultural award over jazz artists who truly deserve it.
The last pure jazz artist to win a Kennedy Center Honors award was Benny Carter in 1996. (Quincy Jones in 2001 doesn't really count, since he straddles so many forms of music). Hence, it has been 12 years since jazz was truly honored, complete with a taped stage tribute that's aired on national television over the holidays.
So how are honorees selected? Each year the Kennedy Center's national artists committee and past honorees present recommendations for proposed honorees to the center's board of trustees.
No matter how you cut it, the oversight is appalling. Does the Kennedy Center fear that jazz artists will somehow embarrass the institution? Do jazz musicians not qualify because their record sales aren't high enough? Or is it simply that jazz musicians haven't been clever enough to muster beltway muscle to lobby committee members on their behalf? It's very nice that the Kennedy Center holds tributes to jazz artists from time to time and invites jazz legends to play on its modern stage. The bigger question is why jazz artists aren't taken seriously and honored with the same pomp as the six who appeared in newspapers over the weekend.
The mistaken belief that jazz somehow is an angry art form played by cynical, mercurial outcasts is a stereotype that continues to linger—even though the two British musicians honored days ago made careers out of that very behavior. Jazz is a humble, improvisational art that best represents freedom and remains this country's greatest music export and asset. Throughout the 1950s, jazz and jazz musicians were repeatedly asked by the State Department to represent American art, values and democracy abroad. Jazz musicians gladly filled this role and succeeded beyond expectations. To this day, you can't go to Europe, Asia or Latin America without hearing stories from older fans about the day Louis Armstrong or Dave Brubeck came to town to perform.
Daltrey and Townshend may merit being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (The Who was inducted in 1990), but they are hardly more significant to the performing arts than a long list of living jazz greats. Didn't Sonny Rollins record enough great music? Didn't Benny Golson [pictured] write enough jazz standards? And didn't Hank Jones play on enough critical record dates? Hasn't jazz done enough to make America proud at home and abroad, and hasn't it contributed mightily to the country's image?
Clearly performing brilliant music decade after decade right off the top of your head isn't genius enough. After a presidential campaign in which "pork," "influence peddling" and "business as usual" were excoriated, handing out awards the old fashioned way seems out of touch. I suppose it's jazz's own fault. What jazz artists need to do is collectively hire a firm of Washington lobbyists to wine and dine the Kennedy Center powers.
Ultimately, the Kennedy Center should be ashamed of itself. The good news is that President-elect Barack Obama over the weekend said that he would make the First Family's home the "people's house" and open it up for science seminars, kids groups and music—specifically classical and jazz. It also was encouraging a few weeks ago to hear Quincy Jones on the radio saying that he had spoken to President-elect Obama about giving jazz a bigger voice, and that the soon-to-be Commander in Chief had agreed with him. [Pictured: Willie "the Lion" Smith and Duke Ellington at the White House in 1969]
So why are the likes of Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson and Hank Jones and so many others worthy of this prize passed over annually for much dimmer artistic lights? Perhaps the answer rests in text on the Kennedy Center's own site:
"The Honors gala is the Kennedy Center's most important annual fund-raising event, supporting its performing arts, education, and outreach programs."
I suppose destroying instruments and celebrating negativity for more than 40 years is conveniently dismissed when the recipients have sold 100 million records. Especially if there's a good shot they may be future donors.