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Conyers Jazzed Up the Capitol

John Edward Hasse, Ph.D

Jazz has lost a friend and champion. Within the arts community, longtime Rep. John Conyers, who died Sunday at 90, was regarded as one of the most persistent and influential advocates of this uniquely American music. I knew him for more than 30 years, working together on jazz initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution. We bonded over the genre, which he championed as a proud product of African-American and American culture. Sometimes he would invite me to his office to talk about the music, and he spoke frequently at the Smithsonian, including (to my everlasting gratitude) at my 2017 retirement party.

Though Conyers’s hometown of Detroit became synonymous with Motown soul music, his ears were drawn to jazzier sounds. A onetime student cornetist, he revered saxophonists Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Visitors to his congressional office were greeted by walls filled with jazz posters and a big acoustic bass dominating one corner.

In 1985 he established an annual Jazz Issue Forum and Concert for the Congressional Black Caucus, of which he was a founding member. Over the years, he brought jazz royalty to speak and perform in Washington, including Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Lionel Hampton, Shirley Horn, Nancy Wilson, Randy Weston and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Before the black political class and press, the panelists drew attention to issues like health care for musicians, the economics of the music industry, and arts education.

In 1987 Conyers introduced a resolution officially designating jazz “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.” Its passage thrilled the jazz community, which perennially feels its music is underappreciated.

Some grumbled that the resolution did nothing to fund the music, but I perceived that it indirectly helped many gatekeepers of culture and philanthropy recognize jazz as an important part of American culture. Only after the resolution was passed did leading philanthropies such as the Wallace Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation became major funders of jazz.

Thanks primarily to Conyers, in 1990 Congress passed legislation authorizing the establishment of a national jazz band, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, to make the museum’s music archives sing. The “big band in residence” at the National Museum of American History, it has performed hundreds of concerts around the world.

Conyers told me that helping establish the Masterworks Orchestra was one of his proudest musical achievements. Now in its 29th season of concerts, it is on a world tour, supported by generous donors. The congressman may be gone, but the band plays on. I think he’d be proud of that.

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