John Conyers and Cedric Hendricks in July 2018 at John’s home in Detroit

In the Beginning

John Conyers, bassist Ben Williams, and Cedric Hendricks at the 33rd Annual Jazz Concert during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference (CBCF ALC), September 2017. This was the last concert to occur before John’s retirement

I went to work for John Conyers in September 1983, following my graduation from the Howard University School of Law. I soon that learned he had formed the Parker/Coltrane Political Action Committee. It was not functioning—he had to shut it down after Alice Coltrane contacted him and expressed her unhappiness with her family name being used without her permission—but it boldly linked our culture and politics in a profound way.

That linkage of culture and politics surfaced again during the summer of 1985, when John came to my desk and told me to put together a workshop on jazz to take place that September during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s (CBCF) Annual Legislative Conference at the old Washington Hilton Hotel. At that time, I was a legislative assistant serving on his staff. “Jazz: Its Cultural Importance and Its Link to Black Political Empowerment” was the title that Congressman Conyers gave to that workshop. He told me that he wanted the panelists to explore the artistic significance of jazz, and how he, as a member of the federal legislature, could best use his presence in that body to recognize and support jazz.

The instruction that Mr. Conyers gave me posed an initial challenge because I knew little about jazz. Having grown up in Conyers’ congressional district in Detroit, the R&B music of Motown was the soundtrack of my youth. The successful completion of my task became possible after I connected with Katia Stitt, daughter of iconic jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt and a friend of the office. She began connecting me to people in the local and national jazz community. All of them, through their creative work as musicians, had solidly contributed to establishing jazz as an exceptional contribution to American culture. Her invaluable guidance and contacts led to a panel discussion and jazz performance that became the prototype for a long series of CBCF Jazz Forums and Concerts that early on, produced an historic legislative accomplishment about which I shall say more below.

Among the jazz artists, academics, and broadcasters delivering presentations were National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) jazz masters David Baker and Jimmy Owens, along with a then-emerging talent named Wynton Marsalis. I used a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to support performances by saxophonist Buck Hill and the Hobson Middle School Jazz Ensemble.

For 34 years now, I have been blessed to serve as the executive producer of this event, which continues to sustain the focus on jazz during our nation’s premier annual gathering of Black elected officials.

Rep. Conyers and Jazz

Conyers came to know jazz while growing up in Detroit, Mich. As a youth, he aspired to play the trumpet. While his skill as a musician did not develop as he had wished, he nonetheless developed lifelong friendships with many of the city’s emerging jazz greats. Donald Byrd, Barry Harris, Milt Jackson, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter, Kenny Burrell, and Yusef Lateef were among them. He would ride with them to clubs where they performed. Places like the Paradise Theatre, the Graystone Ballroom, the Flame Show Bar, the Blue Bird Inn, and Bakers Keyboard Lounge were among the large and small venues in Detroit where jazz flourished. From this rich environment and the experiences that it offered, Conyers developed a lifelong passion for jazz, which he has continuously displayed both as a patron and an advocate.

Conyers and the Congress

Following his service in the Army during the Korean War, Conyers obtained a law degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement during the early 1960’s, spending time in Alabama working for voting rights. Conyers first won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1964. It was just a few months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. An important ally during this initial campaign was Rosa Parks. She had moved to Detroit in 1957 with her husband, Raymond, after the leading role she played in the Montgomery Bus Boycott caused her life to be threatened and she found herself unable to find work. Conyers promised Mrs. Parks that if he won a seat in Congress, she would never want for a job again. After he was elected, he brought her on board his staff, from which she retired after 23 years of service. Conyers went on to distinguish himself as a champion of social justice during his over 50 years in the Congress. Congressman Conyers’ most significant legislative accomplishment was authoring and securing the passage in 1983 of the Martin Luther King Public Holiday Bill. Conyers introduced it four days after Dr. King was assassinated in April 1968. It took 15 years of continuous advocacy before it became law.

The Development of House Concurrent Resolution 57

The 1985 Jazz Forum provided another opportunity for Congressman Conyers to secure a significant legislative accomplishment for African Americans. Near the end of the session, those assembled called on Conyers to “introduce a bill for jazz!” Thus began an effort over the next year to draft the legislation that Congressman Conyers would introduce. National Jazz Service Organization (NJSO) Executive Director Eunice Lockhart Moss, author and producer Bill Brower, and I met periodically to discuss and draft the provisions of a resolution. A year later, Congressman Conyers introduced the bill we presented to him on the eve of the second CBCF Annual Legislative Conference in September 1986.

While its overall text was profound, the resolution contained two important messages that continue to resonate today throughout the jazz community. First, the resolution contained the following provision that makes clear jazz’s provenance:

…jazz has achieved preeminence throughout the world as an indigenous American music and art form, bringing to this country and the world a uniquely American musical synthesis and culture through the African-American experience…

The second and most memorable provision proclaimed jazz’s importance:

…that it is the sense of the Congress that jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support, and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood, and promulgated.

We borrowed the concept of art as a national treasure from the Japanese. Its application to jazz by Congressman Conyers has brought this music much-deserved reverence. The resolution passed the U.S. House of Representatives during the 100th Congress on September 23, 1987, which coincidently happens to be jazz icon John Coltrane’s birthday. The U.S. Senate passed the measure a few weeks later, on December 4, 1987. For Congressman Conyers, this achievement was the consummation of the call to action that he had received from the participants at the Forum two years earlier. Passage of the resolution was also the response to the call implied in the title he had given that event. Now a national treasure, the importance of jazz was firmly established. The Black political empowerment that manifested Conyers’ presence in the Congress provided access to the pathway he needed to achieve this high and unique designation for jazz.

Going for the Gold

In early 1989, a journalist with the Arts Midwest Newsletter interviewed me about the impact of the enactment of House Concurrent Resolution 57. He asked what, if any, difference it had made for jazz music and artists during the two years since it had passed. This caused me to reflect upon the fact that the Resolution had not impacted arts policy or program funding; it simply made some profound statements about jazz music. That realization got me started working with Congressman Conyers on securing funding for jazz through the congressional appropriations process. We had significant success with this effort, obtaining earmarks on four separate occasions for the Smithsonian Institution’s jazz program during the early 1990’s. We targeted the Smithsonian because it serves as the nation’s treasure chest. We were investing there to ensure that jazz—our national American treasure—is permanently and accurately enshrined there. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra was established in 1990 as the result of an appropriation of $242,000. It began performing repertory jazz in 1991, with NEA Jazz Master David Baker serving as one of two artistic and music directors. It continues to tour now, 26 years later, having performed in nine foreign countries and 26 states. Howard University’s Charlie Young serves as its current artistic director.

Reaching a Milestone

September 2007 marked the 20th anniversary of the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 57 by the U.S. Congress. This milestone presented the timely opportunity to assess the resolution’s impact at the Annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) Jazz Issue Forum, held that same month in Washington, D.C. Congressman John Conyers, Jr. convened a panel of experts to examine the progress made toward meeting the following three challenges the resolution had set forth: that jazz be promulgated, preserved, and understood. At the conclusion of the panel discussion, Congressman Conyers stated that while it is possible that House Concurrent Resolution 57 inspired some of the positive developments that had taken place within the field of jazz over the previous two decades, it was time to develop new legislation that could help stabilize, secure, and enhance the genre.

A Focus on New Objectives

Federal legislation can articulate findings of fact as well as establish policy and programs. House Concurrent Resolution 57 made statements about the origin and cultural importance of jazz. It did not, however, directly mandate any new jazz initiatives at the NEA. It did not direct national cultural institutions like the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian or Lincoln Center to build significant jazz programs. They took the initiative to do so on their own. While we have seen positive jazz-related developments take place at these institutions since the legislation passed, one must ask: can they, should they do more? Could more investment in them and in jazz organizations and artists at the state and community levels make a positive and lasting difference?   Should new jazz legislation direct such investment? With respect to the work-life quality of jazz musicians, audience development, and marketing, what, if anything, could legislation accomplish?

A New Legislative Proposal

To spark a comprehensive and progressive dialogue about the nature and scope of a new bill for jazz, Bill Brower and I once again went to work with Congressman Conyers on drafting the National Jazz Preservation and Education Act. The elements of this legislation are as follows:

Section 2 – Preservation

Establish a National Jazz Preservation Program at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The Program shall: A. create oral and video histories of leading jazz artists; B. acquire, preserve, and interpret artifacts; C. conduct exhibitions, educational activities, and concerts; D. continue Jazz Appreciation Month; and E. establish collaborative arrangements with governmental agencies, universities, and museums with jazz archival collections and with community-based organizations. Authorizes two million in funds for these purposes.

Section 3 – Education

Amend the authorization for the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Education (20 USC 7243) to specifically provide for the use of funds for Jazz Education Programs, including the following:

Jazz Artists in the Schools – Modeled on the program previously operated by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from 1978 through 1982 as a component of the NEA’s Artists in Schools Program, State arts agencies working with city school administrators would select participating regional jazz artists and schools. Regional jazz artists, teachers, school and state administrators chosen to participate would be required to attend an annual National Training Workshop in advance of placement.

Educational tools for classroom use – This initiative would promote the development, distribution, awareness, and teacher training related to lesson plans and other educational materials, such as the NEA’s Jazz in Schools program, the Thelonious Monk Institute’s Jazz in America offering, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ EDSITEment Web site, the Smithsonian’s Jazz Class offerings, the Quincy Jones Foundation’s educational modules on American music, and the African American Jazz Caucus/Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies offerings.

Ambassadors of Jazz – Inspired by the program that the U.S. State Department ran from 1956–73, sending noted American jazz musicians to perform abroad, and the Jazz Ambassadors program previously operated by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs from 1997 to 2006, jazz artists and orchestras from secondary schools would be sent abroad on missions of good will, education, and cultural exchange, to perform for diverse audiences.

Panelists at the CBCF Jazz Issue Forum held in September 2010 were asked to offer their views on the content of the draft legislative proposal. The feedback from the Forum’s participants indicated that the resources made available by the bill must be disseminated down to the grassroots/community level and not stay in Washington at the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Department of Education.  Non-profit community-based organizations involved in jazz presentation and education need the resources to sustain their efforts, as do schools at the elementary and secondary levels striving to teach jazz to new generations of musicians.

The next dialogue about the draft bill took place at the Jazz Education Network (JEN) Conference in New Orleans in January 2011. Congressman Conyers discussed it during his keynote address and at a workshop following his address entitled “Federal Government Support for Jazz: The Next Opportunity.” We sought input from the audience to further inform the development of the bill’s content.

Following the JEN Conference, additional discussions were undertaken at relevant music industry and grassroots gatherings. We also utilized jazz radio stations and programs, magazines, organizations, blogs, and listservs to continuously inform the jazz community about this initiative. All the input that we received informed us that the framework for the new bill, while not perfect, was sound. However, we consistently got the message that resources needed to be made available outside of Washington at the local level. In response, we added a new fourth section to the bill to focus on promulgation: the creation of new jazz music:

Section 4 – National Jazz Appreciation Program

This provision authorizes the Secretary of the Smithsonian to establish a series of jazz performances across the country in conjunction with the NEA and the Smithsonian’s Affiliates Program. The objective is to further the appreciation of jazz by presenting it to the public in an accessible manner. One million in funds is authorized for this purpose.

The Way Forward

Congressman Conyers introduced H.R. 4280, the National Jazz Preservation, Education, and Promulgation Act in March 2011. The bill made no progress during the 113th Congress, and he reintroduced it in March 2015 during the 114th Congress as H.R. 1682.  Congressman Conyers retired from Congress in December 2017, without having secured passage of this legislation. Jazz Bill and Letter – January 9, 2014

The mantle for jazz advocacy has been taken over, however, by Conyers’ Congressional Black Caucus colleague, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Soon after Conyers’ departure, Jackson Lee reintroduced the National Jazz Preservation, Education, and Promulgation Act during the 115th Congress as H.R. 4626. Congresswoman Jackson Lee also announced she would be chairing the newly formed Congressional Jazz Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. Working closely with her are local D.C. musicians Aaron Myers and Herb Scott of the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation. Together, they share Congressman Conyers’ strong commitment to preserving and promoting jazz, one of America’s greatest treasures. Early in the new Congress, which began in January 2019, they reached out for public support to get the bill passed. Give them your support!

Cedric Hendricks, a lawyer and political activist, was the longtime Congressional Aide for the Honorable John Conyers, Jr. and the organizer/manager of the celebrated Congressional Black Caucus Jazz Forum and concert.

Copyright © 2020, Cedric Hendricks. All rights reserved.

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