Ubiquitous Yet Underfunded: Behind a Rare Campus Gift for the Study of "American Music"

Given the global omnipresence of American music, you'd think donors would be more enthusiastic about promoting it. After all, donors fund initiatives with popular appeal all the time. Yet that is not the case with "American music." Funders like the Aaron Copland Foundation and Herb Alpert Foundation are active in the space, but they're the exception, rather than the rule. (I'll get to why I think this is in a second.)

And so it's always newsworthy when a gift earmarked for American music crosses my desk. In this case, it's courtesy of the estate of University of Texas at Austin alumnus Richard E. Rainwater to establish and endow a fund for the study of American music at its Butler School of Music.

The Richard E. Rainwater Fund for American Music will support the "teaching, scholarship, and performance of American music, from roots and jazz to film music and the concert hall." To that end, the endowment will provide approximately $250,000 annually to "expand the scholarly activities of the Center for American Music, support travel and program assistance for ensembles whose repertoire is drawn primarily from the Americas, and bring the most inventive and diverse American composers to campus."

Prior to his death in September 2015, investor and fund adviser Richard Rainwater generated a good deal of coverage here on IP for his work in the fields of education and medical research in his home state of Texas. But he also loved music. And so upon his passing, the Richard E. Rainwater Fund for American Music formed in accordance with his wishes to support UT’s Butler School of Music. 

Which brings me back to reasons why American music, relatively speaking, is underrepresented in the arts philanthropy world.

First and foremost, it's important to dispense with generalities. American music, by definition, is a vague term, and like the very American Walt Whitman, it "contains multitudes." Why aren't donors keen on promoting the rich musical legacy of, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein or Michael Jackson or Frank Sinatra? Perhaps it's because their work is so deeply embedded in our collective psyches. There's no sense in promoting something that is already ubiquitous, is there?

Conversely, it makes perfect sense to promote something that's criminally underappreciated by the general populace. This logic permeates the mission of the Aaron Copland Foundation. Up until its namesake hit the scene in the early 20th century, classical music was a distinctly European art form. American composers have made progress in the intervening years, but their work, unlike that of, say, Elvis Presley, could certainly benefit from more exposure. And so the mission of the Aaron Copland Fund for Music is to "encourage and improve public knowledge and appreciation of contemporary American music."

I'd argue that the most frequent recipient of support within the American music framework is jazz. This, of course, makes perfect sense. It is the quintessential American art form and to hear purists tell it, it's perpetually on life support. It's no wonder that funders like the Herb Alpert Foundation, Chamber Music America, the Cleveland Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation—just to name a few—are perennial proponents.

So what genres of American music will the Rainwater gift to UT Austin support? College of Fine Arts Dean Doug Dempster gives us a clue: "American music—whether jazz, musicals, bluegrass or mariachi—reflects our rich, diverse cultural history. Music is an enormous part of what makes us uniquely American."

I agree. Just one request. I'd humbly ask the folks behind the program's curriculum make this video of Jerry Lee Lewis performing on the Steve Allen Show in 1957 mandatory viewing. It's amazing and educational.