Pinning a congressional medal on jazz

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A CONGRESSIONAL resolution, introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D) of Michigan, is ``designating jazz as an American national treasure.'' One hears a mixed message - a solemn drumroll of honor, with the sassy wah-wah of a jazz trumpet in the background.

Obtaining official recognition for the arts is a little like having your parents laugh at your jokes. It may be the ultimate stamp of approval all right, but if these folks like what you're doing, what are you doing wrong?

There is - or there ought to be - a touch of the subversive to artists in full song, never more so than when the music is jazz. If not downright anti-establishment, jazz certainly came from the funky side of the tracks - and was strutting proud of it.

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Giving jazz the congressional seal of approval is a little like making Huck Finn an honorary Boy Scout.

Still, formal recognition of one sort or another is disgracefully overdue. Congressman Conyers does not fail to note that Duke Ellington was inexcusably passed over for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965. Then in his 65th year, Ellington remarked: ``Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young.''

It has become a cultural truism that jazz is America's only original art form. Furthermore, it is an art form presented to the rest of America by gifted members of an oppressed black minority. If this debt is acknowledged by ``designating jazz an American treasure,'' the gesture cannot be quibbled with. It is a necessary gesture - a gesture to make things clear to the rest of us.

Honors are reminders to those who give them; those who are honored know what they've been doing - and not doing - all along.

Inevitably, honors are bestowed in a style appropriate to the giver rather than the receiver. The folk singer goes to court, as it were, dressed in black tie and tails.

There are marvelous ironies to being honored. Who, after all, is honoring whom?

By honoring artists, society presumes to grant status. It says to the artist, in effect: ``We movers and shakers who keep the world running recognize that you, too, are achievers - of a sort. After we've done the important work, we need minstrels to restore our souls before we go back to the real business of life.''

Those who honor artists are, in some way, acquiring them - honoring them by hanging them up in the patron's museum.

Any artist vital enough to be honored must feel out of place at the moment of being honored. There is never any canvas, any writing paper, any musical instrument on the scene. Only weighty trophies, too-bright spotlights, and momentous - not to say, monontonous - speeches.

How can we honor artists? The real honor comes from inside the group, from peers - like the jazz artists who did the first designating, royally dubbing one another the Duke and the Count.

As for the rest of us, we can best honor jazz by listening to it with a little of the passion and joy shared by its performers. That means: No talking or clinking of glasses during solos, please, and preferably a concert rather than a nightclub setting anyway, though a ballroom is perfectly fine. For jazz is one of life's great dances - in the feet and in the heart.

As long as national treasures are allowed to be movers and shakers of this second sort, why not let the movers and shakers of the first sort so designate it?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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