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Future of Jazz in America

On May 19, 2016, Jonathan Fanton welcomed members of the American Academy’s exploratory committee on the future of Jazz in America to the House of the Academy for an all-day workshop.

Good morning and welcome to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It is my pleasure to be with you all today as we begin an important discussion on the future of Jazz in America.

We are grateful to have such a distinguished group of jazz scholars, musicians, historians, educators, business experts, and commentators to discuss prospects of this vital art form.

I would like to thank Tony Earls and Bill Damon for their hard work and dedication in organizing our meeting. Bill and Tony have worked diligently over the last year to plan our conversation today as part of the Academy’s Exploratory Fund initiative.

As some of you may know, the American Academy was founded in 1780 by scholar-patriots such as John Adams, John Hancock, and the Academy’s first president, James Bowdoin, who said, “It is the part of a patriot philosopher to pursue every hint—to cultivate every enquiry which may eventually tend to the security and welfare of his fellow citizens, the extension of their commerce, and the improvement of those arts, which adorn and embellish life.” Today we will discuss an art form which we can all agree has greatly adorned and embellished American life: jazz.

Throughout its 236-year history, the Academy has chosen music as one of those vital arts and remained committed to the study and advancement of music in American life, and in particular, access to music for all people regardless of their background. At an Academy Stated Meeting in 1794, Benjamin Dearborn, an inventor and educator, discussed his system of music notations for the benefit of the blind, saying, “On presumption that an attempt which may in any measure alleviate the calamities of life, will be countenance by the Academy, I have constructed the music board which is presented herewith for the benefit of the blind; whereby all notes and other necessary characters . . . are readily ascertained with great precision by a touch of the fingers.” Dearborn’s music board is just one example of the Academy’s belief that music serves an indispensable part of American life—and that belief has held strong.

Nearly 140 years after Dearborn’s invention, Serge Koussevitzsky, known for his long tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, affirmed the importance of music in the 73rd volume of the Academy’s Proceedings when he said, “It is a mistake to think that musical life in America develops only because of America’s wealth. This is wrong. Musical life in this country grows because there is the need for music. That need for music today has an explanation: men seek an outlet for their best and deeper emotions, and they find it in music. For, music is the recovered word of true feeling, liberated from the banality, hypocrisy, and cruelty of life. Music is to help the souls of men. It is the pure language, regenerating, like the mountain air.”

As new genres of music developed during the 21st century, the Academy began to pay greater attention to jazz specifically. In 1992, the Academy hosted a Stated Meeting celebrating “The Many Sides of Duke Ellington, [Jazz’s] Greatest Composer.” And most recently, the Academy confirmed its commitment to jazz in a 2013 issue of our journal, Dædalus, titled “American Music.” Gerald Early, who is with us today, served as an editor of that excellent volume, which featured essays on the broad range of American music genres, showcasing jazz as one of the pillars of American music. The issue included Terry Teachout’s “Satchmo’s Shadow,” an excerpt from his one-man play titled Satchmo at the Waldorf about the backstage life of Louis Armstrong and the personas and relationships that surrounded him.

I am grateful for Tony and Bill’s efforts in bringing us together today for another affirmation of the Academy’s belief in the importance of music and jazz. It is my hope that we all leave today with some new ideas on where jazz stands, and where it may go, and that we might share those thoughts with our membership, or use them to inform our upcoming Arts Commission which is still in the planning phase.

Music is an indispensable art, and jazz an indispensable music. Thank you all for coming to Cambridge today to help us explore jazz’s past, present, and future.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program over to Tony Earls and Bill Damon.

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