Writer Stanley Crouch delivered a speech at Michigan State University in 1995 which focused on how the blues tradition, and its soul sister--jazz, is the embodiment of our national character as Americans. He compared the American aesthetic of jazz to the Constitution, a living, breathing document with built in checks and balances that, like the blues, allows us "to remove the blues of government by using the government," just as you play the blues to get rid of the blues. Crouch saw the framers as individuals who knew all too well the frailties and possibilities of the human heart and the pitfalls of collective hegemony, and designed the Constitution to be an improvisational lever that Americans might use to smooth out the inevitable group conflicts that would arise in this new experiment they called democracy.
In a very concrete sense, the format change at WRTI was a self-serving power grab by an insulated minority of actors who were given the cultural green light by the wealthier and well connected members of our city who sought to push their ideas on the world, the "real" world as one of the classical letter writers so aptly put it. A "real" world where bank accounts determine the bottom line, not ideas; where political backscratching substitutes for discourse, and where citizens feel they must pigeon-hole themselves according to market research dictums to try and have a vote in decisionmaking. In order for this accepted "real" world to hum along smoothly, it is important to clear the cognitive field of discussions that might feature irritating voices that disturb the ideological apple cart of a political "consensus." If saying is believing, in our overly mediated existence, than it matters greatly who is doing the talking and who is being muzzled, who is listening and who is not and why they are not.
When jazz vocalist and composer Abbey Lincoln appeared at the Zanzibar Blue nightclub a while ago and discovered that the patrons were more interested in their pasta salads than in what she had to say or sing, she withdrew from that field of discourse after her first set, rightly leaving the crowd to their buttered rolls and whiskey sours. She knew that even though she possessed the platform of a stage and had the benefit of a microphone, she was powerless against the lack of interest from the diners. The jazz community felt this same overwhelming futility, a tragic recognition of total dismissal, when Temple decided to change the music format at WRTI. Temple wasn't interested in listening to the community because the community wasn't a part of their "real" world except as wallets to be milked at pledge time or later as a minor annoyance in their game plan that had to be managed by a public relations team.
The voice of this "public" university, this supposed haven of pluralistic ideas, has been and is now overly determined by private interests and private concerns, just as the voice of public radio is now controlled and motivated by corporate visions of the "public" trust. Two important public missions were trashed in this small Philadelphia imbroglio: Temple's mission to educate city students and NPR's mission to give air-time to ideas and voices not ordinarily heard on commercial radio.
In order to accomplish an uninterrupted flow of "reasonable" debate that would reinforce the university's new plan of action and maintain the disciplined discourse Liacouras wanted, it was necessary for Temple to suppress the speech of the station's staff and its own faculty, censor the commentary of Mumia Abu-Jamal and ignore the heartbreak of the long time members of their "jazz family." The desperate cacophony immediately following the format change was merely the last hurdle to be overcome in a comprehensive restructuring of the university along conservative ideological lines because the school was dependent on the good will of the Republicans in Harrisburg.
The major problem Temple had to solve was that high school grads were not choosing Temple, but rather than admit that the reason for this was the educational short-sightedness of the administration under Liacouras and the irresponsible lack of funding from the state, conclusions were reached that the good students weren't arriving because of the "confused public perceptions" of suburban parents who, Temple believed, didn't want their children to go to school in an inner city environment. Evidence that the school might have been coming up short in offering a quality education was dismissed by the administration.
Temple's line of reasoning was faulty and racialized from the beginning when it tried to cover up its excesses and poor management with Madison Avenue fluff and muddied the field of discussion by stringing non sequiturs together in a wretched attempt to reconcile Harrisburg's "blame the victim" conservative fiddle-faddle with the serious educational needs of all Philadelphia's students. Since Liacouras and the trustees weren't accepting culpability or bucking the legislature, somebody had to be politically responsible for the dearth of students, so the easiest and ideologically correct scapegoat became the neighborhood surrounding Temple.
Crime was ostensibly driving people away (although students were still clamoring to get into Penn and surveyed Temple students didn't think crime was a big problem either) so Temple began demonizing the community while at the same time distancing itself from it. One might have deduced that since Liacouras was so interested in judicial issues and crime in the streets he would have welcomed the voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal to be heard on WRTI, a black man from North Philly speaking about crime and punishment, but Temple had no use for a sincere debate on inner city problems. The scapegoat had to remain a faceless and voiceless icon to be used arbitrarily for the disciplined discourse to sufficiently mask the serious problems at the university while, at the same time, covering up the administration's continued shirking of its civic responsibilities.
The ongoing urban development of "Temple Town," Liacouras hoped, would give the appearance of progress (a useful American myth) and provide for the public a picture of a gleaming fortress successfully locking out the surrounding community of undesirables with their invisible faces pressed against its sparkling windows. See everyone, we can keep them out. The Johnny who can read won't have to mingle with the Johnny who can't. Even naming the area "Temple Town" served to proclaim that Temple wasn't a part of the community, it was the only community.
The wiley use of the term "diversity" during the immediate aftermath of the format change by the Temple brass was a obligatory nod towards political correctness and a diversionary tactic that moved the debate from salient questions of prejudicial race and class thinking, not to mention outright fraud, and gave the school a shabby veneer of being progressive. "Diversity" became the moral seal of approval for the hegemonic take-over of jazz programming and allowed the classical fans, who didn't want to probe the ethical questions of the switch too deeply, to swallow the flawed rationale in the name of pluralistic fairness! The "diversity" gambit also served to underline a sense of entitlement for the classical fans, a divide and conquer strategy which pitted classical listeners against jazz fans while simultaneously deflecting the spotlight away from Temple's arbitrary and undemocratic tactics. It evolved into a ridiculous argument about which kind of music genre was "better" than the other, a century-old aesthetic debate that has always served to elevate the value of one and deny the value of the other.
Social scientist Pierre Bourdieu has described that an established group in power tends to carry around its own class myths as so much internal baggage. These strong socio-economic sensibilities are so entrenched within their everyday life that they give the members of the established order their own sense of reality, which in turn organizes the accepted discourse they will participate in. He likens this phenomenon to a "conductorless orchestration" which produces a commensensical world that seems, experientially, real to its members. This dynamic was the blank page upon which Temple wrote their diversity story. And most whites in the city bought it because Temple's explanations conformed to what was felt to be "reasonable."
Americans outside of the establishment have a difficult time breaking through the taken-for-granted discourse of the ruling elite because they are not seen as an important, integral part of the discussion, they are merely chess pieces to be moved around and if their voices become too impertinent, they are marginalized outside of the social discourse because they are not really real to the people who make most of the decisions. The silencing of Abu-Jamal and Temple's failure to become involved in any community outreach before the format change is a good example of this marginalization out of the public forum. Temple didn't ask the subscribers their opinions because Temple didn't care what they thought.
This national and local social mechanism accounts for much ignorance and misunderstanding within the public sphere that results in laughable judgements like Reagan's former Attorney General of the United States, Edwin Meese, reviewing a study on the diet of welfare mothers in the 1980s and triumphantly concluding that ketchup is a nutritious vegetable or the horrendous verdict in Simi Valley that found the officers innocent of beating Rodney King. This way of seeing pervades our cultural sensibilities and most of us don't even realize it. The media reflects back to the establishment their own prejudices and fears, reinforcing stereotypes that are then manipulated by financial or political interests which may or not may be civic minded. The fact that jazz took a backseat isn't surprising since the establishment usually has their way in television and radio programming and are continually privileged over others, James Ledbetter's work on PBS references a study done by the City University of New York that followed PBS programming over two years.
In a social environment of taken-for-grantedness, people of good will make decisions based on little information and a lot of stereotypical frames of reference that might seem reasonable at first glance, but on closer examination are horribly flawed and cruel. Advertising exists to reinforce these snap judgements so products or ideas can be sold easily and quickly. Just witnessing the recent Monica Lewinsky brouhaha and the conduct of the press in pulling out of Cuba during a significant visit by the Pope and for the next few weeks basing stories on innuendo and outright lies from anonymous sources with a hidden agendas, rather than thoughtful in-depth reporting, is evidence enough that the search by media giants for ratings is paramount and not even the President of the United States is safe from an abuse of media overload. The machinery to manipulate public opinion grinds on and guides the public debate along in a ways that benefit the conservative order of things, even when that order is out of step with the rest of country (the disconnect between high job approval ratings for President Clinton and the continuing drumbeat of sanctimonious outrage from the pundits) and is doing great harm.
One small example of culture shock where assumptions about the "real" world collided with a different version of reality I witnessed while attending a benefit at the Clef Club for jazz pianist Raymond Grant who was severely ill. (Unlike our classical counterparts in Philadelphia, local jazz musicians don't get weekly salaries, pensions or health insurance so we hold benefits to assist each other and our families.) Richard Galassini, the sales manager for Cunningham Piano, a company that regularly advertised on the old classical station WFLN to the classical audience, decided to buy 260 tickets to the benefit at $10 a piece in order to try and sell a new digital piano product line to the jazz musicians assembled for the benefit. To everyone's horror he held up the benefit for an hour demonstrating a stringless piano that was equipped with programmed bass lines, drums and horns. At the flick of a switch you could have your own band! A piano that might have been attractive to a market of wealthy amateurs who want to fool around playing cocktail music for their friends was actually being pitched to an audience full of professional musicians.
Mr. Galassini was totally blind to the fact that programmed instruments are the antithesis of what the jazz musician believes the jazz aesthetic to be, that jazz is collective improvisation which depends on each musician being a human being. The piano he was so proudly hawking, also represented obsolescence and job loss in the eyes of this new audience he was trying to garner, since everyone could easily picture that piano in every hotel in the city. With Philadelphia's best jazz players in attendance, Cunningham Piano was trying to sell a monstrosity, an unbelievable offense to a jazz musician's senses, while the internationally known drummer Butch Ballard waited in the wings to add his well documented talents in the money-raising effort.
What happened to WRTI in Philadelphia was a wakeup call to people who believe in and support the idea of public radio and provided a small glimpse of the contrasting realities in this city. Even Tom Maxey's brand of tomfoolery cannot cover up the different ways of seeing the world that comprise our daily life, but slick wordplay may change our personal sense of right and wrong. Basic human fairness was the overriding ethical question involved when the decision to gut jazz was made, an idea not culturally specific, but universal. An ethical viewpoint that should not have been lost on Temple, the city leadership, the business community, the classical music fans or the media. Jazz in Philadelphia became expendable--on public radio. It wasn't seen as the precious resource that has put this city on the map all around the world because most of the elite don't understand it and therefore won't legitimize it. A case in point is the death of longtime Philadelphia trumpeter Johnny Coles over the holidays in 1997. A member of the jazz community who was recognized everywhere for his work with Gil Evans, Horace Silver and many others was given no retrospective on hometown station WRTI (I did obtain a tape of a two hour show done on Coles from WGBH in Boston) and no acknowledgment, except for the obligatory obituary, was given his passing in the Philadelphia Inquirer. But when Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, a California native, died it was considered such a loss an entire editorial was devoted to him calling Wilson: "A Voice Lost."
Temple maliciously tore up the community contract it had with its supporters hoping to gain more prestige, money and the ability to whiten its message to the suburbs. As Tom Maxey was quoted as saying "...Temple owns the station" and no matter how much money pours in at pledge time, it will not alter the fact that the public does not. It's important for the classical audience to remember this for future reference and for all of us to think about what it means to have our airwaves, how we get mostly all of our information and an appreciation of the arts, controlled by so few hands.
Some suggestions for public radio, in this environment of communication company mergers, would be to implement the old idea of a tax on commercial broadcasters to help subsidize the public airwaves, an increase in governmental funding and a reduction of ideological manipulation of programming, which can only be realized if corporate underwriting is cut drastically. When corporate involvement is decreased the use of market research surveys to maximize audience (Modal Jazz Research and Modal Classical Research) will lessen and musical diversity on the radio will rise. NPR was created to free radio from the bowlderization that the search for more listeners brings to the commercial airwaves. Concerned groups should petition the FCC to regulate format changes in public radio, as of this writing they leave programming choices totally up to the station's owner who may or may not have any allegiance to the community. Lastly, the board of trustees at Temple should be an elected body, not politically appointed minions of the comfortable classes who will naturally vote their own interests.
In this particular climate of Presidential entreaties that America needs to have a dialogue about race, maybe we should talk about class too. The selective silence of the minority power brokers in Philadelphia during the format change fray and the ongoing demonization of city kids suggests that the self-serving political relationships that have formed over the years have solidified to the point that important civic issues are being left to languish because leaders are making too many compromises that serve the established interests of the "well-heeled." Even though we like to pretend that America is unique in that we are a classless society and everyone has a little piece of the Horatio Alger myth, we know in our hearts that this is not so. What the business sector and elite groups agree upon usually is what is decided for all, without substantive dialogue or discernable dissent.
The complexities and intricacies involving socio-economic status and race that were a huge part of the format change at WRTI and the demeanor of the letter writers in opining about which music is best reminded me of a short essay written by Brent Staples entitled "Black Men and Public Space," from a book I had to read for an English composition course. In it he told of the survival techniques he used to avoid being looked on with suspicion by whites who might fear him because he was young and black and on the street. One of his favorite devices was whistling classical tunes as he walked home and it was a brilliant tactic that fully recognized the power of musical discourse in a society where some Americans get the distinct impression that they are permanent outsiders in their own home.
The Temple Times covered the Beaux Arts Ball that was held at the spanking new Apollo Sports Complex on October 25, 1997 and its theme was centered around "Monuments, Myths and Muses on the Avenue" celebrating Temple's flamboyant return to the glory that was Greece, the cradle of Western Civilization. Tickets were $200 so all the right people were there and the night was everything Liacouras could have wanted with dancing muses, a soothsayer, Peanutbutter the body painter, tattooists and a scaled down version of the Olympic Games. Attendees came in costume and the reporter noted "people dressed as Caesars... and walking and talking archways and building columns, Zeus, a live chess set and a heavy-metal Medusa, who had a flashing headpiece." Guests garbed as stone architecture notwithstanding, the Dionysian excesses of the West were well represented at the hullabaloo with a dash of local flavor as the old Philadelphia oral payback tradition expressed itself when the crowd booed City Council President John Street for trying to hold up the building project so long ago. All was forgiven in the end though and as the search lights beamed through the skies of Broad Street, one ecstatic figure could be seen diligently working the frivolous crowd. Dressed incongruously as the metaphor of perennial wisdom and Temple's mascot, Liacouras was an owl.