Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee Launches Jazz Initiatives


Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee speaks at a Dec. 13 press conference in Washington, D.C. Looking on are, from left, Herbert Scott, Executive Director, Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation; and Aaron Myers, Chair, Board of Directors–Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation.

(Photo: Ceylon Mitchell, II)

Michigan U.S. Representative John Conyers’ controversy-mired resignation in December had major implications for the jazz community. Conyers had long been jazz’s best friend and advocate on Capitol Hill. He authored HR 57, the 1987 concurrent congressional resolution designating jazz as a “rare and valuable national treasure” (and several subsequent resolutions reaffirming that designation), and created the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual jazz concert and issues forum in Washington D.C. His departure left the music and its stakeholders without an apparent champion in government.

However, a group of activists in Washington found a new one, and worked with her to form a Congressional Jazz Caucus in the House of Representatives.

On Dec. 13, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D–Texas) held a joint press conference with Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation Executive Director Herb Scott and board chair Aaron Myers to announce the re-establishment of the caucus, a long-dormant Conyers initiative. Grammy-winning bassist and Washington native Ben Williams, as well as DC Jazz Festival Artistic Director Willard Jenkins, also participated.

“This caucus will serve as a symbol of hope for renewed interest in promoting and preserving one of America’s greatest treasures,” Scott said. “We hope that it will serve as a forum in which we can begin to acknowledge the rich history of jazz music, but also help strengthen commitment by elected officials to create policies that promote economic development for jazz musicians, venues and the industry.”

Jackson Lee will chair the caucus. In that capacity, she introduced on Dec. 12 a new House Resolution (HR 4626): The National Jazz Preservation, Education and Promulgation Act of 2017, which is a bill “to preserve knowledge and promote education about jazz in the United States and abroad.”

“I truly do believe that jazz and politics works,” Jackson Lee said, connecting the music to the previous day’s surprise victory by Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama’s special Senate election.

“It showed a body politic of people who come from roots in the Deep South and began to rise up,” she said. “Jazz, too, [comes from the Deep South] and has risen up through the decades and ages, worthy of salvation.

“I think there is a misunderstanding and a lack of appreciation of jazz,” Jackson Lee added. “This story needs to be told. Jazz needs to be held up as individuals who create music, write music, play music.”

Because the press conference served as the inauguration of the caucus, its existence had not yet been formally entered in the congressional record. As such, while a number of members have expressed readiness to join, it was not official. “We are building our membership now,” Jackson Lee said. “We expect our caucus to grow.”

Myers offered thanks to House Minority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D–Maryland), whose staff gave the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation guidance in re-establishing the caucus.

“We’ve had meetings with over 40 members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers,” he noted.

Established only this year as a 501(c)(3) organization, the CHJF has quickly found success in spearheading initiatives. It sponsors a weekly jazz jam session at Mr. Henry’s, a popular bar and restaurant near the U.S. Capitol, and in October inaugurated Hill Fest, a four-day festival featuring performances and a conference on jazz-related policy issues. Its successful lobbying for the jazz caucus, however, is its most visible accomplishment.

“These guys are putting in real work,” Williams said. “I want to applaud some young brothers putting in real work on behalf of their culture.”

Scott and Myers also helped to draft Jackson Lee’s bill, which is modeled substantially on Conyers’ 1987 resolution. The bill would authorize the appropriation of $2 million for fiscal years 2018–2020 for the purpose of preserving the history and impact of jazz musicians. Specifically, the appropriation would be used to record audio and video interviews with leading jazz artists; acquire, preserve and share jazz artifacts; and establish a series of jazz concerts to educate Americans about the music.

Now Congress’ primary jazz advocate, Jackson Lee encouraged constituents—including members of the jazz community as well as fans—to engage with their representatives in an effort to pass HR 4626 into law. “This is your time to go all over this Congress, Republicans and Democrats,” she implored. “Get on this bill.”

To learn more about the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, click here.

To see a list of members of the DownBeat Hall of Fame, click here. DB

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