What Does the White House Music Series Mean for the Arts?

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If you take a look at any or all of the videos within this post, what is becoming increasingly clear is that we now have a President and First Lady who not only understands but, in fact, implicitly trusts the arts as an American symbol and treasure. Courtesy of the White House Press Office and Jazz at Lincoln Center, the following press release came to my email box a few days ago:

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First Lady Michelle Obama will introduce the White House Music Series which will feature artists of all ages who will perform, educate and interact with young people. The series will begin with the Jazz Studio on Monday followed by country and classical music events this summer and fall.

On Monday, June 15th, 150 students will participate in classes led by jazz experts including Wynton, Branford and Ellis Marsalis. They will then attend a concert featuring jazz greats, Paquito D’Rivera and child protégés Tony Madruga with his ensemble.

Jazz at Lincoln Center is honored to participate with Mrs. Michelle Obama in the launch of the White House Music Series: The Jazz Studio. The series presents educational events that demonstrate the importance of arts education to reinvigorate the creativity and innovation that has made this country great.

Through the Jazz Studio educational workshops, young students will come to the White House to celebrate this uniquely American art form and learn from and interact with some of the world’s most renowned jazz musicians.

Musicians and educators leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center produced workshops include: Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Delfeayo Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Jason Marsalis, Sean Jones, Stephen C. Massey, Todd Williams, Eli Yamin and others.

The White House has brought together a number of organizations to participate and Jazz at Lincoln Center is proud to collaborate with the following: Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts; Duke Ellington Jazz Festival; Levine School of Music; New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts; SITAR Arts Center; Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz; WPAS Capitol Jazz Project.

The Jazz Studio workshop themes include exploration of the core elements of jazz: American History and Jazz; The Syntax of Jazz; Improvisation; The Blues Experience and Jazz; Duke Ellington and Swing. The audience will include 150 instrumental middle school and high school students from the collaborating organizations.

The Jazz Studio culminates with a concert featuring Paquito D’Rivera, Artistic Director of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, with Tony Madruga, Zach Brown, Kush Abadey and Elijah Easton.

The event itself, slated to be the first in a series, occurred yesterday: this first video documents the reception received by the First Lady. (You can read a full transcription of Mrs. Obama’s address to the gathering yesterday here.)

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What I would like to do, meanwhile, is pose a subject for discussion and debate. As loyal readers of this website are no doubt more than aware, one of my greatest personal fears — well, predictions — is that the extreme far-right could begin to politicize the arts as it did in the early 1990s, to use it as a social/cultural wedge issue heading into 2010. Of course, I have explored this issue in quite a few previous posts, including this one, this one, this one and this one. And I do understand that the way the NEA in particular will be managed by incoming chair Rocco Landesman means that a lot of funding anti-religious artistic work is not likely to be distributed, thus robbing the right of a playing card.

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Still, my posts have situated me somewhat outside the mainstream of left-of-center thinking. I continue to maintain, for example, that federal arts funding is a problematic matter: as ever-rising appropriation levels for the NEA and NEH probably cannot be sustained over the long-term, I believe the NEA should eventually be freed from its Congressional moorings and transformed into a public-private entity with the legal ability to fundraise in the private sector under the governance of a bipartisan board. True, the likelihood of this occurring is low for the moment, and that is, indeed, what worries me: with this as the NEA’s request for FY2010 funding, and with the budgets for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities probably settling in at somewhere around $170 million (here’s the current Congressional markup), both groups could become easy targets for Republican vitriol. The more the Obamas give credence to the arts by bringing it to the White House or taking in Broadway shows (despite what reactionary theater critic Terry Teachout said about it), the more they demonstrate through their example that the arts should be and must be an integral element of the lives of the American people. To what degree with this begin to drive the right mad? What does the White House Music Series itself mean for the placement of culture on the American social diet?

(By the way, check out this squib from the Los Angeles Times on our culture-vulture First Family!)

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Check out these two other videos:

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