[VIDEO] Preservation, or Innovation? John McLaughlin: State of the Musical Arts

Unfortunate to hear a great artist lay out a thoughtful, passionate, lucid description of the problem– the decline of jazz in the U.S.–then offer a predictable, depressingly misguided solution: “make the government subsidize it!”

Did the Mahavishnu Orchestra depend on taxpayer subsidies? Did Miles Davis need a government check in order to flourish? Unthinkable. If music is dynamic and alive, people will beat down the doors to go see it. If it’s boring, people will ignore it.

What Is the Future of Jazz in New York? (punditfromanotherplanet.com)

Who Should Pay for the Arts? (city-journal.org)

If it’s waning, drained of its creative force, or is replaced by other artistic innovations, people will look elsewhere. Should it be put on life support? Kept alive artificially? Turned into a social program for talented but neglected musicians? There are technical revolutions, new media disruptions, that are still unfolding, that influences these outcomes, more than lectures about taste, or lowering standards just to get a gig.

The End of Jazz (punditfromanotherplanet.com)

Islam and American Jazz (punditfromanotherplanet.com)

He’s right, jazz one of America’s great original art forms. And he’s right that should be supported, not neglected. It’s part of our history. (though what kind of future it has, organically, is questionable) Foundations, philanthropy, and so on, absolutely, if that’s required to preserve it as a museum piece, or classical artifact. Or, if cities and states have the popular will to support it with government arts funding, then let public policy respond to that. But it won’t make audiences love it, it won’t lure them come see it. Only the music itself can do that. 

McLaughlin is European, it’s understandable that he would have this pro-state bias, arts funding by the government to preserve, nurture, and celebrate musicians and artists. So it’s natural that he’d draw this conclusion. Europe and Asia have a love and respect for jazz that is lacking in its native land. It’s treated as a form of American classical music. Though it’s not clear that those regions are producing great popular art, and dynamic, original jazz music. Most are producing derivative, admiring copies of the original.

As a native European and legendary artist, John’s attitude has an unfortunate quality of elitism.

I hope jazz doesn’t become purely a museum piece. He blames the audiences, American commercialism, and uneducated consumer tastes that he disapproves of. The exact things that gave him great success. Record deals, commerce, audience demand, and music that the older generation thought was in bad taste!

The decline of jazz in the U.S. isn’t new, it began as far back as the 1950s and 1960s, when it was overturned by rock & roll. Can we next imagine rock & roll depending on government subsidies in order to survive?

McLaughlin counts himself as “lucky”, because of the unique time in 20th century history that he rose to success, when jazz was still potent, and relevant, and original. He also did it by setting aside jazz traditions and embracing rock & roll trends. Melding Big Stadium Rock with John Coltrane phrasing, Frank Zappa complexity, and fashionable eastern mysticism.  Not just rock, but phenomenally loud, blindingly fast rock. This wasn’t Duke Ellington. This was the British Jimi Hendrix. McLaughlin came to New York, because that’s where the action was. He didn’t go to Paris, or Hong Kong, or Rome. He went to New York.

Much of the music that made John McLaughlin famous is so advanced, so technically difficult to play, few contemporary musicians can reproduce it. And his career–half a century–has outlasted most of his peers. McLaughlin has earned the right to be a spokesman for jazz musicians, and their concerns. In spite of my objections to his politics, and elitism, I admire his sincerity. What comes through is McLaughlin’s love of music, gratitude for his success, and heartfelt sympathy for the plight of fellow artists and musicians. John’s talent is monumental, and his insights are worth paying attention to.

Robert Levine’s book “Free Ride” keenly illustrates how none of the great artists of the past would have made it without large record labels with a functioning business model. Without healthy revenue streams downsizing and non-sustainability become the norm. This is the era of smartphone entertainment addiction. Live entertainment was more a part of peoples lives in the 40s, 50s, 60s, etc. John mentions subsidizing the arts here by contrasting how the EU invests in what it values culturally, adding a change of public consciousness is needed the most for reach change to happen.

Well said! Allow me to add a few observations.

Keith Jarrett wrote a NYT editorial decades ago about how the decline of live venues and premature recording contracts had a negative impact on artists’ development. The offspring of Miles Davis were fortunate to have logged endless hours of performing live, and developing their chops, before being expected to make money for their contractual partners with their unique brand.

Long before smartphones and micro-entertainment distractions, live jazz was facing audience disinterest. For a good reason, I would argue. By the end of the Miles era, the music itself became increasingly less relevant, increasingly boring.

Prescribing a top-down government solution to a public’s disinterest in attending jazz clubs and live concerts is questionable, at best. If the EU supports certain cultural values, including jazz artists, one would hope that its reflecting public demand, not dictating it. Otherwise, it’s paternalistic, and elitist. Understandably John supports this idea.

Do cultural bureaucrats in each nation in Europe dictate these things individually? Or does the entire EU tax Europe’s inhabitants in order to dictate tastes for the whole continent? I hope it’s the former!

To say “The U.S. should be more like Europe” is like preaching to an empty auditorium, it’s a familiar refrain, particularly from John. State preservation and control of media is less well-suited to regions that value innovation and originality over elitism and well-intended government paternalism.

Supporting what elite arts bureacrats deem “culturally important’ perhaps makes more sense in a region whose artistic dynamism is is mostly in its collective past. Not on the horizon, but in the rear-view mirror. In short, cultural tastemakers are better suited to protection and preservation than risk and innovation. At best, they preserve monuments that are otherwise neglected. At worst, it’s a breeding ground for mediocrity.

Properly understood, government is an instrument of force. It’s critical to use that instrument as little as possible, in order to allow innovation to flourish. Or to use it locally, where it’s more accountable, and responsive, rather than on a large scale, where it’s less accountable, and less responsive, to the citizens, the audiences, it’s obligated to serve.

We agree that a ‘change of public consciousness is needed’. Society has other means to influence, preferably by persuasion. Government is ideally the last resort, not the first. Desire, demand, and value priorities come from the people. When the public wishes for this value to be upheld, then the state’s obligation is to respond to–rather than dictate to–that expression of genuine public interest.

If John is calling upon music lovers to express their collective desire, and voice their support, and get their local governments and arts organizations to follow, then I agree.

That jazz has become a museum piece, rather than an engine of innovation, is a disheartening reality. That said, jazz is a National treasure, an authentic American contribution to the music world, one very much worth preserving.

John McLaughlin: State of the Musical Arts – YouTube

One Comment on “[VIDEO] Preservation, or Innovation? John McLaughlin: State of the Musical Arts”

  1. […] By Pundit from another Planet Unfortunate to hear a great artist lay out a thoughtful, passionate, lucid description of the problem– the decline of jazz in the U.S.–then offer a predictable, depressingly misguided solution: “make the government subsidize it!” Did the Mahavishnu Orchestra depend on taxpayer subsidies? Did Miles Davis need a government check in order to flourish? Unthinkable. If […] Like this? Read more and get your own subscription at […]

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