From 'Hamilton' to Jazz at Lincoln Center: 10 Music Projects You Have the NEA to Thank For
As President Trump vows to defund the arts agency, Billboard looks at its legacy & the landmark works it has helped fund.
The greatest fears of many arts organizations appeared to come true last week when President Trump unveiled a budget proposal that would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and scrap funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It marked the first time a president has suggested a complete cutoff of the NEA, which, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities, was created in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson.
Though The New York Times reported that the annual budgets for both endowments are around $300 million -- a small fraction of the $1.15 trillion of total annual discretionary spending -- grants from both agencies have been vital lifelines for generations of actors, musicians, writers and scholars. While Trump's drastic budget-cutting first bid is not the last word on the NEA's funding -- Congress has final say on what does and doesn't get budgeted -- his actions have sent a shiver through the arts community at a time when Republicans have control of both houses of Congress and the White House.
Both PBS -- which like NPR derives a portion of its funding from the federal government -- and the Recording Academy of America released statements denouncing the proposed funding cuts. They were joined by the Hollywood unions that represent actors, directors, writers and other crew and craftsmen -- Directors Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA, the Writers Guild of America West and East and IATSE -- urging Trump to reconsider defunding PBS, NEA and NEH.
The groups urged our nation's leaders to "preserve funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As a source of inspiration, action and economic growth our country's arts are integral to our culture, our American identity and our democracy," they wrote in a message. "Access to the arts has fueled generations of great Americans, uplifted communities and helped heal our nation's great divides. Cutting federal support of these programs will not only hurt artists and those who benefit from their work. It will also send a damaging message to future generations about the power of art and its place in our culture."
PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger also noted that the cost to taxpayers of funding public broadcasting is tiny compared to its benefits, amounting to around $1.35 in taxes paid per year per citizen.
The assault on arts funding is particularly worrisome for Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow, who told Billboard in an exclusive interview on the subject, “To defund the arts is to risk silencing one of the very forces that defines us as a nation, and that is what is so seriously troubling and alarming about what is proposed in this budget.” Taking just the Grammy-winning Hamilton as an example, Portnow said the historical musical could not have moved from idea to “brilliant Broadway production” and inspiration for thousands of attendees without the help of organizations like the NEA.
“You talk about the NEA Jazz Masters [fellowships]… what is more primary and critical to the underpinning of our musical heritage than American jazz? It has influenced the world over the decades and will for decade to come.” Portnow sees a “dull future” if Congress looks to reducing comparatively modest funding to the arts as a means to tackle the nation’s much larger economic shortfalls, calling it a shortsighted fix that will have lasting negative impacts on America's cultural heritage.
ASCAP Chair and legendary songwriter Paul Williams agreed, adding that the NEA is a vital part of making music and arts accessible to Americans in all 50 states, “including rural areas who may not have the same opportunities to engage with our nation's great art institutions -- from veterans to schoolchildren to the elderly."
Regardless of your political affiliation, the beauty of music and the arts, according to Williams, is that it “serves to shape experiences and open minds for citizens of all ages… I implore music creators and other artists, as well as people who love the arts, to contact their members of Congress and urge them to support robust federal funding for the arts. Remind the country that music is the universal language that the world dances to. It heals the spirit and fills the heart in trying times and crying times. The United States is the world leader in providing the soundtrack to people's lives. Music is one of America’s greatest exports and where we hold a strong global competitive advantage. This is worth protecting.”
Why, he asked, would Congress want to deprive our citizens of something so valuable, especially when you consider the NEA’s minimal impact on the federal budget? “The National Endowment for the Arts is living proof of America’s conscience and soul,” he said. “Through programs supported by the NEA, I believe countless of our nation's great artists -- musical and otherwise -- have been ignited with the spark to create… American creativity is part of what makes us a great nation -- we export far more music than we import, and our values reach the world through music -- from pop, to hip-hop, to symphonies, to jazz, to music in films and TV shows. It is the music and art of a nation that really defines the enduring greatness of a nation and that lasts through the centuries.”
Billboard took a look at 10 iconic projects or pieces of musical art that might not have happened if it wasn't for the NEA, which along with the NEH and PBS comprise less than .005 percent of the $4 trillion federal budget. Between 1966-2016, the NEA has provided more than $423 million through its music program, helping support everything from classical to contemporary, jazz and world music, as well as symphonies and music festivals:
The Monterey Jazz Festival
The legendary festival (Sept. 15-17) in Monterey, California, will present 500 artists on eight stages this year, with the 60th annual lineup slated for release March 30. Among the performers who've played the fest over the years are: Duke Ellington Orchestra, John Coltrane Quartet, Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Diana Krall, Herbie Hancock, Cassandra Wilson, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Trombone Shorty and thousands of others.
The NEA ponied up early, critical funding that helped get more than a dozen critically acclaimed musicals to Broadway, including A Chorus Line, Into the Woods, In the Heights and, yes, the biggest Broadway smash in recent memory.
Bang on a Can Allstars
The group's collaboration with composer Julia Wolfe, Anthracite Fields, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music using a combination of oral histories, interviews, speeches as well as folk, classical and rock to tell the stories of the workers who toiled in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region.
NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships
Since 1982, the NEA has awarded these fellowships, the highest honor for the nation's jazz artists, to 145 musicians including Art Blakey, Carla Bley, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Ella Fitzgerald, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Palmieri, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan and the Marsalis Family.
National Folk Festival
The free, 77-year-old event, which travels to a different host city for a three-year stay, was the first event of its kind in the nation to present arts from a wide range of cultures, races and nations on equal footing. Among the firsts presented at the NFF were "father of the blues" W.C. Handy's first performance on a desegregated stage in 1938, as well as the first public performances for such genres as the blues, Cajun, polka, conjunto and Peking opera. The NEA has funded the event -- which has drawn 100,000-175,000 attendees every year since 1987 -- since 1970.
The legendary contemporary string quartet has been a regular NEA grantee, receiving more than $557,500 in NEA support over the past decade. Part of their 2016 grant was for "Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire," which commissioned 50 new works -- 25 each from male and female composers -- that included the writing of five string quartets for players of multiple skill levels, ranging from beginner to pre-professional. The scores, individual parts, downloadable sheet music and a wide range of other project-related materials are available for free online and master classes and workshops were held in conjunction with premieres of the works.
Juneau Jazz & Classics
The annual music festival in Juneau, Alaska, has received $112,500 in NEA grants over the past 10 years. Last year's 30th-anniversary celebration included free and ticketed classical and jazz events in venues throughout Juneau. Among them was a free outdoor performance that included a staging of "Inuksuit" by John Luther Adams, conducted by percussionist Doug Perkins on the University of Alaska's southeast campus and featuring more than 30 percussionists and the Third Coast Percussion ensemble.
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Nearly $1 million has flowed to Jazz at Lincoln Center over the past decade to support projects such as last year's Jazz Jam and Jazz & Popular Song performance series. The former series featured performances by Christian McBride, Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and The Hot 9, as well as a Bill Charlap: Broadway to Harlem program. Michael Feinstein's Jazz and Popular Song series ranged from "The Great Jazz Standards," which focused on songs originally written for film, stage and nightclub acts, to "A Right to Sing the Blues," which looked at how composers like Harold Arlen and George Gershwin integrated blues and American popular song.
Sonny Boy Blues Society
This organization, based in Helena, Arkansas, has received $155,000 over the past seven years for their King Biscuit Blues Festival. Last year's three-day event featured more than 100 ticketed and free music performances on multiple stages by the likes of Charlie Musselwhite, John Mayall, Sonny Landreth and Roy Rogers. The festival also includes activities for adults and children, including the Blues-in-Schools program at four public schools and the Boys & Girls Club of Phillips County and a Blues Symposium for musicians and the community.
Over the past 20 years, the lauded contemporary classical ensemble has commissioned and premiered hundreds of works by composers, including David Lang, Steven Mackey, Missy Mazzoli and Steve Reich, whose Double Sextet won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. Their NEA grants have totaled $75,000, including one in 2016 for a Chicago series of concerts tied to educational activities, including performances of works by emerging and established composers in venues throughout Chicago and residencies at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the University of Chicago.
"As a nation, I believe we must support this kind of enrichment for everyone -- whether they live in a big city or a small town in Oklahoma, like where I came from," Williams said. "NEA funding for arts programs across the country is part of what makes our nation vibrant and our citizens among the most ingenious and creative in the world. We remember great societies by their lasting contributions to culture. Let's not deprive our people of the great joy, healing and enrichment that music and arts programs bring to our lives every day."
For a longer list of projects threatened by Trump's proposed budget, click here.