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Grants and Commissions Keep Jazz Composers Creating

May 19, 2020

With live performances comprising a significant part of their income, performing artists have been focusing on other forms of work during the current global pandemic, including online instruction and streamed concerts. A fortunate minority of musicians continues to receive a steady paycheck, including those on faculty at schools as well as others who are currently working on commissions.

In the jazz world, in which arts and university institutions have only played a role in comparatively recent history, gigging and recording have been the main sources of income and they still are. But as jazz programs at universities rapidly expanded in the 1980s-90s and organizations like Jazz at Lincoln Center (founded in 1987) began to operate, the jazz scene has changed so that it has taken on aspects of classical music’s institutional backing.

One of the oldest hot takes about jazz is that it’s “America’s classical music.” In reality, there has always been a completely organic musical relationship between African American music and European classical, though that was covered in layers of racial prejudice. And from the 1970s on, institutions that were being run by people who grew up with jazz and had connections to those musicians, began to commission them for more expansive works. Now, jazz artists are benefitting more widely from that European classical-music tradition —  the kind of support was once the province of wealthy families and royalty — as a host of nonprofit organizations and foundations commission ambitious new jazz compositions.

A perspective from the creative side

Musicians can apply to have their compositions commissioned for performance and sometimes also recording. Grants can be applied towards a specific project. Both forms of funding can give independent musicians a chance to work with resources not often available to them, such as extended access to string quartets, woodwind ensembles, or big bands.

Alto saxophonist and Santa Cruz native Remy Le Boeuf has received commissions and grants from institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center, American Composers Forum, SFJAZZ, and Copland House. One of his five current commissions is for the ASCAP Foundation & Symphonic Jazz Orchestra Commissioning Prize, a $5,000 award that allows him to compose for a new instrumentation. “I had been rejected for several things the week I found out I was chosen, so I was delighted,” he admitted, with a chuckle, when reached by phone at his home in Brooklyn.

Asked about his familiarity with both the 67-member group and its format that combines European orchestra and jazz big-band instruments, Le Boeuf replies, “I have not written for the symphonic jazz orchestras before. I’ve listened to the music and I’ve performed in that setting a number of times.” (In addition to the Southern California-based Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, there have been groups with similar instrumentation and mission statements in Cologne, New York City, and elsewhere.)

“I’m really excited to have the opportunity,” he continues. “I’ve always wanted to write for orchestra. For my first time, it’ll be for a symphonic jazz orchestra — a gateway into [classical] orchestra, perhaps. Or maybe I’ll just be happy living there for a while.”

Le Boeuf’s symphonic jazz orchestra commission is due at the end of the year, and he plans on presenting it in 2021. In the meantime, he’s been spending about half his sheltered-in-place time woodshedding on his horn and the other half composing.

In the FAQ for its 50 Arts Commissions project, the Hewlett Foundation states, “Competitive [applicants] will have a proven and compelling track record of creating and presenting works that demonstrate they are ready and able to create a work of exceptional professional and artistic standards.” Having written and performed original works with the likes of groups ranging from Peninsula Symphony Orchestra, Oakland Symphony, and San José Chamber Orchestra locally to the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and Boston Youth Symphony, pianist and Menlo Park native Taylor Eigsti has an impressive portfolio of original compositions and arrangements.

For his upcoming Hewlett Foundation 50 Arts Commissions project, the longtime resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side has conceived an impressively broad piece in which he’s partnered with students at the Community School of Music and Arts (CSMA) in Mountain View to co-create an extended multimedia work in a decidedly postmodern manner. With $150,000 of Hewlett Foundation funding, Eigsti invited CSMA students to respond to the prompt “Imagine our future.”

“I wanted to see what would happen if you took a snapshot of young people in one region,” he said early on during New York’s statewide stay-at-home edict. “They could write a song or a fragment of a song. They could submit artwork, poetry, photography, dance, or even a video of a performance.”

With this communal input, Eigsti is writing a (currently) 12-movement work that incorporates every student’s entry in one form or another. The visual pieces might inspire something musical on his end or be presented in the concert, while the musical ones could be incorporated into the score itself. He’ll send a video to each participant that explains how and where her or his contribution was utilized, and he’s also documenting the process with a behind-the-scenes video.

“It’ll be about an hour-long piece performed by a large ensemble,” he says of Imagine Our Future, which he hopes will premiere in February either on the CSMA campus or at the two-year new Rothschild Performing Arts Center at The Harker School upper school campus in San José. “The awkwardly egotistical part of this is I get to play the role of God or ‘the universe.’ But since I’m trying to combine all of these ideas big and small, the idea is that at the end of the day, the piece could never look or sound the same without their contribution.

“There’s a handful of tunes that have already written themselves,” he goes on to reveal, noting that he’s received 80 submissions. Eigsti reckons that he’s only five percent done with this massive process, though he’s grateful that he now has the isolated time and the financial resources to dive into — after his daily self-allotted one hour of Madden NFL 20, that is.

The prospect of applying for a grant can elicit less-than-pleasant memories of trying to get accepted into one’s dream school or, more recently, attempting to craft the perfect cover letter and resumé that will lead to that initial job interview with an ideal employer. “I got lucky in the sense that the first time I ever applied for a grant, I received it,” pianist/composer Edward Simon recalled recently. “It encouraged me to continue down that path. But if I had not gotten that first one, I might have been discouraged and not applied to any others.”

Simon’s Venezuelan Suite received a grant from Chamber Music America (see more below) with additional support from the now-defunct America Music Center’s Composers Assistance Program and a contribution from The Aaron Copland Fund for Music. Funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, its New Jazz Works Fund (formerly called America’s New Works: Creation and Presentation Program) allowed him to record the four-movement work that features tenor saxophone, flute, piano, bass, drums, cuatro, and maracas plus harp, bass clarinet, and additional percussion on specific tracks. Venezuelan Suite, Simon’s tenth studio album as a leader, was released on the Sunnyside Communications label in 2014.

“After many years of applying I’ve learned to really develop a thick skin. But it’s the kind of thing that you always have to be shooting for,” said Simon, who was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Creative Arts for Composition in 2010. “You figure out the ones you think you have the best chances for. And I always tell people just keep a grind. The panels change from year to year, and the applicants change, too. You never know when somebody there’s going to like your stuff.”

“I first learned about commissions playing with, with Vijay [Iyer] when I was 19, 20 years old,” said trumpeter and Berkeley High School alumnus Ambrose Akinmusire. “We did the In What Language project that was a commission he got from the Asian Society. I remember asking him a bunch of questions about it. And then I started applying for smaller commissions through ASCAP, the Young Composers Commission, when I was in college.”

Speaking last year by phone from his home in Oakland, Akinmusire reminisced: “It took a very, very long time for me to get a grant or a commission.” Although he started while still an undergraduate, it wasn’t until his mid-20s that he was awarded his first commission, he detailed. “But now a lot of organizations, like festivals, are contacting me. So it’s not something I’m applying for.”

Akinmusire’s most recent album, Origami Harvest (Blue Note 2018) placed fifth on the 2018 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. With an MC, piano/keyboards, trumpet, and a string quartet, it was co-commissioned by Manhattan’s Ecstatic Music Festival and the Liquid Music Festival in St. Louis and presented at both. “I wanted to document it,” he replies, when asked about the studio album. “I just wanted to feel like it lived beyond those two performances. But my initial thought wasn’t even to release it.”

He’s appreciated that commissions have allowed him to work at home — and not be on the road — and spend more time with his family in pre-quarantine times. “The older I get, the more, the more things I’m interested [in],” he said. “I am also using the commissions now as a way to initiate the research process.”

Like Simon, he understands that there can be some strategizing involved when applying for grants: “I find that a lot of the more creative musicians don’t understand the value put on the actual application. But I think that organizations are addressing that by asking more artists to be on panels.

“So when I’m on those panels, I tend to weigh more on the actual art itself versus the amounts of grant-speak,” he admitted.

Inside the grant process with Gargi Shindé of Chamber Music America New Jazz Works

Funded by the Doris Duke Foundation, Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works program is one of the most coveted commissions in the field. Recipients are awarded funding to compose, rehearse, and perform a new, long-form piece with the option of making a recording of it. The program was established in 2000 and brought jazz into the previously classically oriented nonprofit institution.

Gargi Shindé has been the program director for CMA Jazz since 2016. Her staff bio describes her as “a ]Hindustani] classically trained sitarist and composer whose collaborations bridge Indian classical music and jazz.” She spoke with SFCV about CMA Jazz by phone last year and again via Zoom late last month.

Drilling down to the very basics, can you clarify the difference between a commission and a grant?

In the classical world, the patronage system was in place for much longer, and grants are a similar idea in jazz. There are various kinds of grant support out there: for presenting, creating, recording. We launched Performance Plus in 2020, specifically to support women bandleaders and develop their ensembles.

A commission is fundamentally a grant for the creation of a new work.

And how does it work with Chamber Music America?

That’s the case specifically with New Jazz Works. It’s commissioning support to create, perform, and — if preferred — record a new original work. And there are also funds set aside for the artist to get some publicity and booking support, which we call administrative support. It’s open enough so that if they need to book a recording studio or pay an administrative fee, they can use that money for that.

How much does the jazz-commissioning infrastructure owe to what the classical model has already established?

We have distinguished the jazz grants by borrowing from and also separating ourselves from the classical model. When our grants were first established in 2000, what was borrowed, I think, from the classical model was the idea of the fixed ensemble, which jazz doesn’t necessarily have. There are ensembles, of course, that identify themselves through fixed group members — Miles Davis’s quintets, the John Coltrane Quartet.

But for the most part, the ensemble members are constantly rotating in jazz. And it’s very much determined by the leader. So classical music chamber ensembles [typically] don’t have that leader. The ensemble itself is the identity.

We have one component of the grant which is called Continued Life, where we want to support the life of this new piece. They can play at different venues locally, or they can go touring, if that’s a possibility for them. But it just gives the artist a chance to work with one group, to hone that dynamic within one group — an advantageous component of the classical world.

One way we distinguished this program for the jazz field is we stripped the application form from the artist having to create an exotic project description or having to advocate for their art form through any other way than the music itself. To apply for this program, all jazz artists have to do is submit four audio samples — two that will be evaluated for the strength of their composition and two that will be evaluated for the strength of their ensemble playing.

That is literally it. They fill out an application form, which requires their names and the names of their ensemble members, and some contact information. The panel adjudication is blind listening [and] adjudicated in a manner where panelists do not know who it is they’re listening to.

Speaking of the blind panel, Chamber Music America’s website says that the board “… has made diversity, inclusion, and equity a primary focus of the organization’s work.” How is that achieved without knowing anything about the applicant?

When we looked at our data in the past years, the answer to why artists of color were not represented in the grantee pool was not in the ones who were getting commissioned. The answer lay in understanding who was applying. We saw a very, very drastic skew in the application rate where the categories of race and gender were underrepresented. But if the pool is diverse enough, and the diversity ratio and the gender equity ratios are well-represented, then the excellence will be there.

What we do is we invest our time, strategy, and resources in looking for all the artists who have been off the radar from a grants-application perspective. We discovered with jazz artists there were a myriad of responses as to why they were not interacting with us.

And, of course, historically there was a very academic pool of applicants who were very comfortable with the application process and therefore apply. Also, a younger pool that’s coming out of conservatories that is also very comfortable with  the application process.

But there is a large part of our stalwart jazz artists who are of a certain age who are very active, who are still redefining the scene but were just not coming through this program. It took a lot of personal conversations with them and impromptu appearances at their gigs to really understand what it is this artist does and ensure that we connect with them.

[During] the panel process, it’s their peers who come and adjudicate. So we really believe that if the diversity is represented, the excellence will stand out.

Do any particular success stories come to mind?

Through my research, I realized that artists from Puerto Rico were absent from our and [from] most other national grants. This is a demographic that was already reeling from the effects of Hurricane Maria, and then the island recently experienced multiple earthquakes. And now it’s dealing with the pandemic. This is a group that had never even applied to the program, and the realization was that they are simply not communicating with the institutional system of arts philanthropy.

There are two advocates for the music who initially brought this to our attention: the drummer Henry Cole and the music journalist Tomas Peña, the creator of the blog JazzDelaPena, an amazing repository of Latin-jazz coverage. These two gentlemen came and said, “Look, we need to talk about this. This is a critical absence in developing support.”

And Henry said something very poignant: “You know, Gargi, most of the Latin jazz I play comes from Cuba and South America. I even play flamenco. But I never hear myself represented in any of this.” And he loves playing that music — no doubt about that. So he said, “What about the Puerto Rican presence?”

In CMA’s 43-year history, an artist in Puerto Rico [Henry Cole] was finally commissioned last year. Since then, we received some funding from the Mellon Foundation to fly in cohorts of 20 jazz and classical artists and presenters from the island to CMA’s  annual national conference. [Three presenters received CMA's Presenter Consortium for Jazz Grant to present the legendary trombonist William Cepeda on their stages across the island.] We said, “Just having them apply isn’t enough. We have to invest in infrastructure-building.”

And they in turn have a lot to teach mainland funders about sustainability and thriving without any institutional support and through three sorts of environmental crises.

NB: The interview with Gargi Shindé has been corrected and revised.

Yoshi Kato is an independent journalist from the South Bay who covers both popular and performing arts-oriented music and arts and entertainment in general. He tweets and is on Instagram as @yoshi140.