The 27th annual Detroit International Jazz Festival, which took place over Labor Day weekend, is the marriage of two distinctly American art forms: jazz and charitable giving. The first is a synonym for American individualism; the second, for civil society. If not for the generous $10 million endowment from philanthropist and jazz enthusiast Gretchen Valade, this year’s festival — and the promise of festivals for the foreseeable future — might never have occurred. Valade’s endowment attracted Ford Motor Company back into the sponsorship fold, as well as new sponsor Absopure Water Company.
Jazz evolved in the 19th century out of a form of music closely associated to blues or "ragtime," which itself was heavily influenced by African-American traditions. The term "jazz" was — many believe — born in New Orleans where the rich mix of ethnicities (African, Latin and European) seemed to facilitate experimentation with different music and performance styles.
The history of jazz music also is inextricably linked with the city of Detroit. The Jazz Age of the 1920s saw the burgeoning musical form take root with the nascent Victor recordings of such city luminaries as Bix Biederbecke, who made some of his first recordings as a member of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra at the Detroit Athletic Club in November 1924. In the latter part of the decade, Goldkette’s Graystone Ballroom helped launch the careers of such legends as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Frankie Trumbauer, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. By the 1940s, jazz musicians were as much of the city’s landscape as automobile and advertising executives. Earl Klugh and Donald Byrd are only a few of the Detroiters to gain international prominence.
Another reason jazz may have become America’s first original art form was the nearly anarchistic setting of American life in the 1800s. For most of the nation, government intrusion was minimal. As government gets bigger, people necessarily get smaller. That is why jazz is important to American cultural history. It is symbolic of American ideals. It not only permits, but encourages individualism; and it does so in a way that allows a collection of improvising musicians to produce admirable works without central direction. It is, in a phrase, "spontaneous order."
Duke Ellington, perhaps America’s greatest jazz composer, said, "Jazz is a good barometer of freedom.… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country."
This is precisely why the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has long opposed government interference in the arts. Reliance on government booty can betray art and artists by limiting support to the best grant writers or to politician’s subjectively favored artists. Government grants also come with government restrictions. The Ann Arbor Film Festival, for example, effectively lost state funding due to the violation of one such parameter.
In fiscal year 2007, the state of Michigan is expected to redistribute $10 million in grants through its Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs program. That represents involuntary tax contributions from arts patrons and others alike. To the everlasting credit of the Detroit International Jazz Festival, it has never taken a government arts grant. We encourage them to retain this independence.
The best mechanism for preserving such independence is through what the Mackinac Center calls "civil society." A civil society represents from-the-heart transactions that provide societal benefits through private action. Gretchen Valade improved Detroit’s cultural scene with her gift, just as tens of thousands of Americans have done with their own contributions to countless organizations and enterprises.
According to the nonprofit Giving USA, Americans donated a staggering $260 billion to charity in 2005. And that’s just financial donations. The total value donated in volunteer hours also ranks in the many billions of dollars.
One of Detroit’s most endearing qualities is the way it honors its musical past while staying very much in the current musical vanguard. Garage, rock, techno, rhythm-and-blues and punk all experienced birthing pangs in Motown, and are celebrated in festivals throughout the year. Thanks to Valade, jazz will continue to be part of Detroit’s wonderful mélange of music.
Bruce Edward Walker is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Michael D. LaFaive is fiscal policy director for the Center. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.