Heartfelt congratulations to saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón on having been named a 2008 MacArthur Fellow. I am a big fan of Miguel's work both as a leader -- his recent disc Awake is an excellent place to start if you don't know his stuff -- and also as a member of Guillermo Klein's badass 12-piece band Los Gauchos. (Miguel is kind of famous in NYC jazz circles for playing long, complex stretches of Guillermo's dense, rhythmically contorted compositions with his eyes closed. It's been confessed to me that his apparently effortless total recall makes the other guys in the Gauchos sax section feel a bit nervous.)
Zenón was an inspired choice for the MacArthur, and fully deserves the honor. But beyond the satisfaction of seeing such a high-profile award go to an artist I admire, the symbolism of this choice is powerful and is worth considering for a moment. Miguel is the perfect example of the kind of new mainstream, post-Jazz Wars player I was talking about in my NewMusicBox piece -- someone to whom the old ideological battles between avant-gardists and traditionalists, fusioneers and purists, etc., seem completely retarded.
Previous MacArthurs given to jazz musicians have generally gone to critically respectable members of the avant-garde elite: Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Ken Vandermark, John Zorn, etc. No disrespect intended to these trailblazing masters, but I am heartened that this year the MacArthur brain trust had the cojones to give the award to a musician who is still in his early thirties. (Miguel is the youngest jazz musician to ever receive a MacArthur.)
Bluntly -- I am tired of awards that seem to be all about bolstering the reputation of the award itself (and by extension, the wealthy donors who support it) by throwing impressive piles of money at long-established, world-famous artists who, frankly, are not hurting for either cash or critical recognition. (A recent case in point.) I am even more tired of the idea that jazz musicians in their twenties and thirties are unworthy inheritors -- that only the old masters (and those who hew slavishly to long-established styles) are worthy of serious consideration. And I am sick to death of people asking "Where is the new Charlie Parker?" or "Where is the new John Coltrane?" I suspect those doing the asking are the very same people who would have plugged their ears in horror at the unfamiliar sounds coming out of Bird's horn in 1945 (when he was 25 years old) or Trane's in 1955 (when he was 29).
Peter Hum, in his post on Miguel's "genius grant," observed that two of the greatest living geniuses in jazz, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, have yet to be singled out for MacArthur honors. This is true. And, in some sense, lamentable -- perhaps especially in Shorter's case, as he is having his most creatively fertile decade since the 1960's and his current working quartet (which includes comparative youngster Brian Blade) is arguably the best band in jazz right now. But as I wrote in the comments over at Peter's place, when you are handing out a half-million dollars with no strings attached, I think you ought to take more than just merit into account. I think you ought to think about the effect that kind of money and recognition will have on someone's career and future artistic output.
Does anyone believe that an extra $100,000 per year in disposable income over the next five years would make a significant difference to the kind of music Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter or [insert Established Jazz Genius here] is going to produce going forward? These guys are already in a position to do whatever the hell they want, and that is exactly what they have been doing. (If Herbie decides he wants to work with Christina Aguilera, it's not because he needs the gig to keep the wolf from the door.)
But -- if you will allow me to channel Captain Obvious for a moment -- half a mil over five years makes an enormous difference to a 31-year old musician who is still largely unknown even to most Down Beat subscribers -- let alone the musical community at large. All of a sudden, Zenón has the freedom to not devote every single waking moment to figuring out how to hustle up this month's rent. All of a sudden, he has options. He can pick and choose his projects. He can afford to turn down lucrative but artistically unrewarding gigs. He can afford to take more than three days in the studio to record his next album, and he can make that record as expansive and ambitious as he chooses. He can decide how much or how little teaching he wants to do. He can go anywhere in the world to research indigenous music and play with the locals. Or he could flee the NYC perma-hustle and spend a few months in remote isolation. Whatever his choices, the important thing is that now he actually has them. The MacArthur Fellowship is going to have a profound impact on the nature of the work Zenón is able to pursue over the next five years, and probably well beyond. It seems to me that this ought to be the whole point of handing out these kinds of big-money awards -- to reshape the artistic landscape by vastly expanding the opportunities available to artists who are still struggling, every day, just to be heard.
1. (Regina Carter is the outlier.)