Arts Education in America

Can we really run the risk of becoming a culturally bankrupt nation because we have not inserted a curriculum into our educational institutions that will teach and nurture creativity in our children?
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In 1943, the United States Armed Forces Institute published a second edition of War Department Education Manual EM 603 Discovering Music: A Course in Music Appreciation by Howard D. McKinney and W.R. Anderson. The material presented in the book was a reprint of educational material taken from existing standard textbook matter used in American schools and colleges at that time and is significant to this discussion because the text included the following when discussing jazz:

Some may start with an enthusiasm for music of the jazz type, but they cannot go far there, for jazz is peculiarly of an inbred, feeble-stock race, incapable of development. In any case, the people for whom it is meant could not understand it if it did develop. Jazz is sterile. It is all right for fun, or as a mild anodyne, like tobacco. But its lack of rhythmical variety (necessitated by its special purpose), its brevity, its repetitiveness and lack of sustained development, together with the fact that commercial reasons prevent its being, as a rule, very well written, all mark it as a side issue, having next to nothing to do with serious music; and consequently it has proved itself entirely useless as a basis for developing the taste of the amateur.

The ambitious listener might better start from the level of Chopin's melodious piano music, or Grieg's northern elegiacs or Tchaikovsky's gorgeous colorfulness.

Fast-forward 56 years to 1999 where I had the distinct pleasure of contributing to 250 Ways To Make America Better, a collection of suggestions for improving America published by JFK, Jr. and the editors of George magazine. Among my eight suggestions to better the country was:

Give utmost attention to at-risk youth, Pay teachers higher wages, and Appoint an American minister of culture (Don't worry - I am NOT rallying for the job. I have a job. I have several jobs!).

I cite the text from these two publications because I believe they provide the perfect bookends from which an honest and earnest discussion about the importance of the arts in America can begin. As a musician, and at my core a jazz musician, my natural inclination is to gravitate to my area of specialty where this subject is concerned. But make no mistake, every artistic vocation whether it is music, dance, painting, literature, the moving image or architecture is vitally important to the fabric of our country's history and deserves to be protected, promoted and nurtured. As my friend Frank Gehry says, if architecture is frozen music, then music is liquid architecture.

For far too long, dating back to the emergence of Jazz and the Blues, our country has treated its only indigenous music as something unworthy of value because it was born on plantations and reared in jook joints. But the power that it possessed was mighty. From the time that I first traveled abroad as a 19 year-old trumpeter with Lionel Hampton in 1951 to being the music director for Dizzy Gillespie's State Department Tour in 1956 -- the first United States sponsored goodwill tour -- to the unifying power of "We Are The World" in 1985, I witnessed firsthand the transformational effects of our Gospel, Blues and Jazz, and its ability to transcend geographic and cultural boundaries.

And without fail, it was and remains America's artistic contributions, especially its music, that is universally embraced by other cultures, pushing aside their own indigenous music and adopting ours as their Esperanto. But today, we sit as one of two Western nations in the world without a Minister of Culture. When Jaime Austria and Peter Weitzner, two New York musicians, took the initiative after hearing a radio interview that I did several months ago to create an on-line petition calling for the appointment of a Secretary of the Arts -- an idea which I had originally suggested more than 10 years ago -- my belief in the power of the arts to bring people together for a common cause was reaffirmed yet again as the petition gained steam across America with an enormous outpouring of support.

It is so disheartening to me that today our children have no idea of their country's cultural heritage. For example, last fall while I was in Seattle during the opening ceremony of the performance arts center at my alma mater Garfield High School, a group of students gathered around me and one young man said that he was a musician and wanted advice on how to further his career. I told him "that first he had to really learn and master his craft." Then I asked him, "Do you know who Louis Armstrong was?" He said, "I think I've heard of him." I asked, "Do you know who Duke Ellington was?" He said, "No." Again I asked, "Do you know who Dizzy Gillespie was?" Again he responded "No." "Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk?" I asked, and again he said "No." It tore my heart apart that on this day that my alma mater was naming a building after me, that this young man had no idea who the men were that put me on their shoulders and helped shaped who I was as a young musician. Men who will forever stand at the foundation of popular music, and who I believe in years to come will be regarded as America's Chopins, Griegs and Tchaikovskys.

We currently have prestigious institutions tasked with overseeing the promotion and caretaking of our cultural legacy but regrettably, they have been unable to open up the vast treasures of our culture to all segments of our society.

In the face of our record business collapsing around the world, I consider it a tragedy on the part of our educational institutions that our children are virtually devoid of their home-grown culture while that same culture is accepted and celebrated all over the world. With the belief that we must first clean our own house in regard to preserving our cultural legacy, I recently hosted a gathering of some of our nation's leaders in music education, the music industry, corporations, foundations and philanthropists to share resources, networks and ideas to make music education an ongoing part of the lives of children in the United States.

The objective of this initial consortium will be to identify a 12-month plan of very specific action steps that will serve as the foundation achieving the goals of

1. Creating a program that ensures our children are thoroughly grounded in the history of American music and its importance to the cultural identity of our nation.

2. Increase the percentage of children that are participating in at-school and after-school programs.

3. Increase the quality and number of the most qualified music educators in the United States.

4. Through partnership with the participants, develop shared advocacy and funding initiatives for youth music programs.

Our culture is as much a part of and just as important to our American history as Washington's crossing of the Delaware, the invasion of Normandy and the landing of a man on the moon and is just as important to our children's educational development.

It has been proven time and time again in countless studies that students who actively participate in arts education are twice as likely to read for pleasure, have strengthened problem-solving and critical thinking skills, are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair, three times more likely to win an award for school attendance, and four times more likely to win an award for writing an essay of poem. Can you imagine what that does for the self esteem of a child? The confidence it instills in them to overcome any obstacle that they are presented with?

Every great society from the Egyptians, to the Greek and Roman Empires, has been defined by its cultural contributions. The commercial benefits of the arts not withstanding -- our artistic endeavors are a consistent source of revenue in the United States and our nation's largest export -- can we really run the risk of becoming a culturally bankrupt nation because we have not inserted a curriculum into our educational institutions that will teach and nurture creativity in our children? That when future generations look back our cultural legacy is an age of disposable, vapid pabulum.

I am of the mindset that you have to know where you come from to get to where you're going. The time has come to make a concerted effort from both the public and private sectors to put in place a system whereby our children and future generations will be aware of our county's rich cultural legacy and contributions to the world. The arts, particularly our music, are the soul of our country. They are an expression of our spiritual ideals and a timeline of the emotional state of our nation... scars and all. It is a disservice to every American not to recognize them in their proper light.

Regarding jazz, the War Department Education Manual EM 603 Discovering Music: A Course in Music Appreciation would go on to conclude that:

Jazz is too fixed in its limitations and too narrow in the variety and quality of its content to be able to maintain itself long in a world of flux and change. Influential as it has been as a factor in the cultivation of present-day taste, it can hardly be looked upon as a real basis for the development of an American musical idiom.

As a jazz man, I'm thrilled that they were wrong. Our country has a long history of discarding and devaluing our cultural resources particularly where music is concerned. And although we have thankfully evolved in this pursuit, we still have much further to go before we can claim that we are diligent protectors of our cultural heritage.

In the global landscape that we live in today where ideas are exchanged with the stroke of a send key, what better way to influence nations than by exposing them to the basic belief in freedom of expression that is inherent in our nation and witnessed through our culture.

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