John Conyers: The Congressman of Jazz
John Conyers Jr. has been a member of the United States House of Representative since 1965, with a long list of accomplishments to his name. Conyers, who represents Michigan’s 14th District, co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus, introduced the bill that led to the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, has served in Congress longer than any African-American in history, and even appeared on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list.
In addition to his legacy as a legislator, Representative Conyers has also earned a reputation as jazz’s best friend on Capitol Hill. Conyers has created legislation recognizing jazz as a “national treasure,” honoring the 50th anniversary of the recording of Kind Of Blue and appropriating funds to the Smithsonian’s jazz program. Conyers’ dedication to jazz is so strong that on the “Issues” page of his website, alongside 10 other topics including health care and Afghanistan, there is a link to his work on behalf of jazz.
We spoke with Congressman Conyers to discuss his love of jazz and ways he thinks the federal government can help support it.
How did your love of jazz start?
We had a piano in our home and I took lessons. When I was in intermediate high school, I was presented with a cornet and later bought a trumpet. I think I made a down payment of $10 on it. Then I played in a jazz band, and I was the youngest person in the band. I played third cornet. I got a letter in music for playing trumpet in the band. Then, of course, I began to hear jazz people at the Blue Bird Inn, which was located on Tireman and Beachwood. Many of the people were at the old Paradise Theatre, and that was where I first encountered many of the big bands, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie’s band. They’d have jam sessions with themselves and musicians in the community. I remember seeing Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon were there once, and others across the years. I also began attending the most famous jazz spot of all, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on Livernois and 8 Mile Road in Detroit. What a place. They had pictures of all the greats. And I saw all the modern jazz people there. That was my beginning.
We’re in an era of budget cuts and deficit reduction, and many legislators are opposed to any nonessential government spending. How do you justify spending money on the promotion of jazz?
I realize that that is an argument made by mostly conservatives, but I point out that this deficit is not going to be reduced by the very small amount of money that the federal government devotes to jazz. As a matter of fact, reducing the tax cuts to the wealthiest 2 percent [of Americans] would exceed by many times the amount of money in one year that the jazz culture has received totally across the years. Of course, there are the huge military outlays and policies of the Department of Defense, devoting enormous amounts of money that to me aren’t spent wisely. It’s important to preserve our culture in different forums all over the world.
What specific actions would you like to see the government take in supporting jazz?
I think we have one organization that’s been very good in Washington, and that’s the Smithsonian Institute, which has a jazz component. The remarkable Dr. John Hasse has been leading the organization for many years. We coordinate the work of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congress itself with the Smithsonian. We need the appropriators to increase the Smithsonian’s appropriation to be able to do all of the many varied things that they do.
Looking forward to the next generation of legislators, what is the outlook for the advocacy of jazz in the future? Is there anyone leading the charge?
I know a lot of the newer members in the federal legislature who share my concern about jazz. One is Congressman [Steve] Cohen of Memphis, Tenn., which is a birthplace of a form of jazz, and he’s a very strong supporter.
I think that our culture requires that our government support it. I know, for example, President Carter invited the current jazz people 30 years ago to the White House for an evening of jazz. President Bill Clinton was, of course, a strong jazz supporter, and he frequently had jazz musicians. And President Obama, I see he’s had several musicians that have always been at events he’s had. His actions tell me that he and Michelle are quite supportive. I think that jazz’s credibility is not under debate, and it will be seen as worthy of support by the White House and Congress.