Thursday, August 18, 2011

Patronage in Jazz Today: The New Microbenefactors

Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy (1714-90)
Patron of Franz Joseph Haydn

Patronage in the arts is nothing new, but not much mention has been made of the fact that it's playing a growing role in the world of avant garde and non-commercial jazz.  Just as it took James Laughlin, who was independently wealthy, to underwrite a lot of avant-garde literature during the mid-twentieth century via his New Directions Publishing Co. (read about Ezra Pound here), these days a lot of the jazz scene stays afloat with the support of external revenue sources.  Many jazz musicians take commercial and teaching gigs, and some solicit benefactors through organizations such as ArtistshareMaria Schneider has found several people who are happy to donate several thousand dollars to her recent recording projects (see the list of "participants" in her Sky Blue project here).  But the music also has some benefactors who, more or less, seem to support the jazz scene's commercial infrastructure as a personal hobby.

There's Nick Lloyd, owner of Firehouse 12 Records (and a club in New Haven, CT), which has issued a lot of avant-garde jazz by artists such as Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon, Tyshawn Sorey, and Mary Halvorson.  Lloyd surely has some other source of income; it doesn't seem quite possible that his music business is independently lucrative enough to support his living quarters, which were featured in the NY Times "Home" section.

And there's Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang of Pi Recordings, whose roster includes Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, and Marc Ribot ; they're featured in this recent NY Times profile.  Wang evidently spent a couple of decades in investment banking before striking out in the record business, and Rosner's primary source of income is still apparently his job in real estate.

Whereas some sectors of the art world can stay afloat with the support of philanthropists who simply donate money and serve on non-profit boards, jazz's "microbenefactors" actually take an active hands-on role in the day-to-day running of the musical infrastructure they're supporting.  On the one hand, it's great that these folks are able and willing to commit to supporting innovative creative work, but on the other, it means that some of the most exciting music being created today has pretty precarious financial underpinnings, and who gets supported is very much subject to the whim and personal preferences of a very small limited number of people of independent means.  Economically, the music just doesn't have the breadth and depth of societal support that it had in the days of wealthy entrepreneurs like John Hammond.

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