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Why Murals Matter

1 Jun

June is Black Music Month. First observed in 1979 at the White House, I’m kicking off the celebration at City Hall where I will offer public comments at a hearing on the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund. Some background.

Last year, the Pennrose Company demolished the John Coltrane mural in Strawberry Mansion. Pennrose has been feeding at the public trough of government subsidies for decades. But in an instant, the company erased a tribute to an American cultural icon.

John Coltrane Collage

While the nation celebrates the centennial of the birth of Billie Holiday and Mary Lou Williams, the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish this cultural asset.

Women of Jazz Mural

Now, you might be wondering what is the connection between murals and the affordable housing crisis? Kelvin Jeremiah, President and CEO of PHA, said it best in his remarks before the City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless on April 27:

It is my view that the affordable housing crisis that confronts this great city is also an issue of deep-seated structural poverty. … Solving the poverty problem will go a long way to solve the affordable housing crisis.

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. A whopping 40 percent of school-aged children live in poverty. There is a correlation between education and poverty. If the educational achievement of poor children is increased, fewer will end up on PHA’s 10-year waiting list for public housing.

A growing body of evidence shows that students with access to arts education perform better on standardized tests. In addition to improved student achievement, arts education contributes to the development of cognitive and social skills, nurtures a motivation to learn, increases student attendance and fosters a positive school environment. At-risk students cite their participation in the arts as a reason for staying in school.

Students involved in arts instruction report less boredom in school. Ask students why they dropped out of school, they will say they were bored.

The School District of Philadelphia has drastically cut arts and music programs; 25 percent of schools offer no music instruction. In the absence of arts education, murals may be poor students’ only exposure to the arts.

At the opening of the new Whitney Museum, First Lady Michelle Obama said the arts “could inspire a young person to rise above the circumstances of their life and reach for something better.”

Community-based public art inspires young people to reach for their star.

Reach for Your Star

To be clear, it’s not about preserving brick-and-mortar. Instead, it’s about the transformative power of the arts to engage, motivate and keep students in schools.

It’s also not about money. Through digital and mobile technology, a mural can be recreated at a fraction of its original cost. Indeed, the cost of preserving this great city’s cultural heritage would be far less than, say, Pennrose’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.

Jazz Early Warning Signs

4 May

Jazz Appreciation Month 2015 is now in the archives. From Philadelphia to Paris, fans turned out to celebrate America’s classical art form.

But there are early warning signs that all is not well. According to Nielsen‘s 2014 Year End Report, jazz is tied with classical music as the “least consumed” music in the U.S. Jazz represented just 0.3% of all music streamed in 2014, a reflection of its aging audience.

However to expand the audience for jazz, it’s not enough to simply showcase young artists. In an interview with JUMP magazine, Philadelphia Jazz Project Director Homer Jackson observed:

The point about young people that is really critical, is that if we have so many young artists working in jazz, why aren’t they able to engage young people themselves? Most young artists I know do not have a huge youth audience themselves. That’s really critical because at some point the elders are gonna be gone and so who is going to be in the audience? So, I challenge young artists to come up with some strategies and I challenge the curators to come with strategies to help young artists to be able to present their stuff.

One of the strategies must be to make jazz fun for the audience. Thelonious Sphere Monk III (T.S. Monk) recently wrote:

If we just add some ingredients from the rest of the entertainment world, people will view jazz as fun once again, and they will come back. If millions didn’t love the music today, there wouldn’t be what we call a catalog, and my father, Thelonious Sphere Monk, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Buddy Rich and so many more, would have disappeared. We wouldn’t have had an International Jazz Day concert streamed to 1.2 billion people in 2013, and 2.5 billion people in 2014. None of that would be possible if there wasn’t an inherent love of this music, ironically by Americans. We often love ourselves, and don’t know it.

So I say to all my friends in jazz — musicians, promoters, club owners, listeners, and everybody — let’s bring back the fun. Let’s go big. That will bring the attention, and the money will follow.

To borrow a phrase, listeners just wanna have fun.

Earth Day 2015

22 Apr

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