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Let's Give a Boost to American Jazz, Too


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Lawrence A. Johnson, a music critic who also runs a group of web-based classical-music sites, has had a corker of an idea: He's launched a nonprofit foundation whose purpose is to boost the number of performances of American classical music.

Not only will Mr. Johnson's foundation commission new compositions and ensure that they get performed and recorded, but—even more interestingly—it will also make grants to musical ensembles and concert presenters that want to perform previously existing works by American composers.

“I'm starting this foundation because I feel American music is underrepresented in American concert halls," Mr. Johnson said in an interview with Chicago Classical Review, one of his publications. “I think we have a real responsibility to present this music, and I believe many of these works would become standard repertory if audiences only had a chance to hear them." Part of the problem, he explained, is that “nobody gets excited about doing a second or a third performance. Ninety percent of [new works] disappear." Hence his plan to underwrite performances of pieces by such important but insufficiently known midcentury modernists as Paul Creston, David Diamond, Irving Fine, Walter Piston and William Schuman, who wrote accessible, impeccably well-made classical works that deserve a second hearing but simply don't get played nowadays.

I couldn't approve more. I have only one quibble, and it's with the name of Mr. Johnson's foundation, which he calls the American Music Project. Yes, it's catchy and to the point. But I'm sure Mr. Johnson knows very well that the phrase “American music" doesn't just mean “American classical music." As Virgil Thomson once observed, all you have to do to be an American composer is to be born in America, then write whatever you like. Classical and jazz, Broadway shows and bluegrass, hip-hop and zydeco: all fit comfortably under the vast umbrella that is “American music." To suppose otherwise is to miss part of the point of what it means to live in what Paul Hindemith, the German composer who spent a productive decade living and working in Connecticut, wittily called “the land of limited impossibilities."

So Mr. Johnson should change the name of his outfit to the American Classical Music Project, right? Maybe not. In fact, I have a better idea. Instead of coming up with a new name, I'd like to see him expand the range of the American Music Project's activities. Not infinitely—money only stretches so far. But what he could do without altering the AMP beyond recognition is start making grants to composers, performers and presenters who are interested in large-scale jazz composition.

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