Jazz, Billy Preston and Global Governance: the song that ain’t got no melody

There’s a standard seating arrangement in a jazz ensemble; reeds up front, brass in back, rhythm to the side. Jazz seating arrangment imageThe configuration of the ensemble can be changed by the conductor to accommodate her/his artistic vision and the personnel can be expanded or contracted in order to evoke a certain sound, mood, nuance, etc. Chair positions within sections can be arranged to accommodate variations in desired sound. Individual sounds work together to express a common idea and the sound is enriched when there is a diversity of voices. The artistic director is a position that rotates and for a given performance, s/he has the authority to determine the set list. This arrangement has the benefit of being both flexible and diverse.

Will it Go ‘Round in Circles?

This is a great question posed by  Billy Preston but first, Nilofer Merchant’s ideas on concentric circles… In her HBR blog Nilofer explains, “In the concentric model (as in jazz), each party has a role to play that meets shared objectives. Each ‘layer’ has power. Yet each always shares the joint goal. concentric circlesCompared to top-down hierarchy where the things are aligned at the top but then divided into parts, the concentric model shifts power to each “circle” (or musician in the case of jazz).” hierarchy imageThis is similar to my own thinking about jazz ensembles where each ‘layer’ is an instrumental section (reeds, brass, rhythm). As concentric circles move around a given point, so too do ensembles change around the shared goal of performing the score. Chair arrangements change, personnel is increased and decreased, and the artistic director position rotates. All this allows differing artistic visions to be realized and different talent groups to be illuminated. Additionally, different outcomes are realized although the overall goal is singular. Billy Preston’s song is relevant here because in his song “that ain’t got no melody” in his story that “ain’t got no moral” and his dance that “ain’t got no steps” he dares to reimagine his lived reality and embraces uncertainty such as that in reimagining hierarchy. Not only will Billy sing the song with no melody to his friends, he allows the “bad guy” to win every once in a while” in his story with no moral, and in his dance with no steps, he “lets the music move [him] around.” Uncertainty imageTurning normality (hierarchy) on its head and daring to engage uncertainty, Billy wonders “Will it go round in circles? Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?” What will be the outcome of such daring and bold moves?

When leadership is not stagnant things change. Everyone is engaged and can see potential (think no glass ceiling), has decision-making authority, and can also function as an effective team member when systems are flexible and reality is creatively conceived. When all voices are validated, the sound of ensemble is enriched. When all members of a team are empowered by having decision-making ability – when concentric circles pull in talent that exists near the circumference – they can view their contributions as meaningful in the journey to reach a common goal. As it happens, such “buy in” is likely to reap benefits. In “The US Needs to Make More Jobs More Creative” Richard Florida and Roger Martin suggest asking “employees to exercise judgment and [involve them in] decision-making in order to innovate and enhance the productivity of the operation” so that “the possibility for higher productivity, higher firm performance and higher wages exists.”

Bird flyingWill it Fly High Like a Bird Up in the Sky?

In their study of creativity and the US job market, Richard and Roger distinguish between types of employment (routine oriented and creativity-oriented jobs) and income (by occupational groups and industry types). They find that no matter the industry, wages are better in clustered industries (geographically specific and trade mostly outside their home area) than in dispersed industries (they note primary medical care). By extension we can consider global governing systems where each region in a multilateral system can be seen as a clustered “industry” having specific strengths and expertise.
Global IndustryEngaging our multilateral world will mean acknowledging strengths in various sectors and being cognizant of leadership therein. Richard and Roger are concerned about the “current challenges with income inequality” given the income disparity between creativity-oriented workers in clustered industries and routine-service workers in dispersed industries. While the authors note, “there is no quick fix for this problem” they insist “we have to rethink how we utilize workers in our advanced economy.” Asking workers what they think about various processes pertaining to their work-life can tap into resources we’ve yet to discover and increase productivity in ways we’ve not imagined. Flexible arrangements like jazz ensembles or concentric circles are two examples that appeal to me because they dismantle typical organizational hierarchy in favor of lateral, flexible arrangements of people who do a better job of realizing talent, engaging democratically, and altering leadership.

Who will Sing the Song, Tell the Story and Dance?

Yet, structures that lend themselves to flexibility and diversity also require much of the individual. People must not view their positions as “routine” and must “exercise judgment [and] decision-making.” (Richard and Roger again) In a jazz ensemble, for example, each person must be a master of her/his chosen instrument; which means demonstrating exceptional technical ability, infallible literacy, and a deep knowledge of the music and its associated traditions in order to adapt to ever-changing conditions or the possibility or likelihood of change. Each person must contribute her/his voice because to do otherwise would hurt the overall sound. Surely there will be anxiety surrounding the practice of engaging people who are not accustomed to being engaged. Even world-class musicians face difficulty and anxiety when faced with performing new music. Expressing the views of members of the Berlin Philharmonic as they prepared to perform the premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony, Conductor Sir Simon Rattle said, “the trouble is, we just feel so stiff in comparison.”[1] Human frailty notwithstanding, the depth of knowledge and training of world-class musicians coupled with their ability to meet change head-on and prevail in spite of anxiety is required and the more experience a musician has, the greater the likelihood that s/he can enter into volatile situations confidently and deliver sound results.

Democracy, or Who’s Running this Show?

From jazz ensembles and concentric circles, my thoughts moved deeper into democracy, civic engagement and leadership. Global communicationDana Nelson’s provocative text, Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People came to mind. Far from arguing against having a president, Dana Nelson insists that the president is not our Savior and can’t solve our problems. She places that Herculean responsibility squarely on our shoulders and argues for increased civic engagement “something larger than federal and local government and definitely more expansive than presidential leadership.” (183) In insisting that we commit to the “never-ending work of negotiating democratic disagreement,” accept a “certain level of political disunity” and the “unpredictability that lives hand-in-glove with increased creativity” she holds people accountable for their own destiny and asks us to re-imagine democracy as currently practiced. (184) Unknowingly, she also harkens the lessons of blues and conjures Billy Preston’s song “that ain’t got no melody” because she wants people to move beyond their comfort zones. Dana Nelson like Billy Preston advocates “reimagining and expanding democracy as an open system, a project nourished by both our independence and by our interdependence.” (185) – jazz ensemble, concentric circles.

Back to Basics…

Businesses are changing various management styles as our global interconnectedness increases and becomes clearer and as social media challenges existing frameworks for operational efficiency. Going back in time and using the example of Bell Labs and a NYT article highlighting the company’s history of innovation written by Jon Gertner, I found several remarkable similarities between jazz ensembles and corporations, including: (1) the incremental improvements Bell made en route to (but with no guarantee of) revolutionary innovations; (2) the necessity of physical proximity to innovation; (3) deep integration of personnel; (4) physical structure/edifice conducive to business strategy; (5) autonomy; (6) mentorship; (7) time. Who knew a jazz ensemble had so much in common with a historic business known for its technological expertise?

Interestingly, this metaphor can be extended to include workers. Haydn Shaughnessy’s article in Forbes, “What Does Work Look Like When Half of Americans are Not in a Job?” highlights qualities workers will need – individuals who are networked and who can reliably “step into an expansion opportunity and fill it out quickly.” Even when musicians are regularly employed as house bands, they maintain extensive networks of colleagues near and far who play a variety of instruments and who can be assembled quickly for performance. Social mediaSocial media has only expanded these networks. Additionally, ensembles are commonly intergenerational and thereby take advantage of the skills of both younger and more experienced musicians. Shaughnessy acknowledges the trend in business of hiring, “the under 25” group because it has a “stronger grip on social media tools” so necessary today but he notes, “they have no grip on what business needs or how businesses operate.” The need obviously, is for a mixed-generational cadre of workers and such is typically the case in a jazz ensemble where there is deference for the experience only age can bring.

Quick fixes cure nothing at all…

Learning a musical instrument (or playing a sport or learning a foreign language) takes time and is an investment that can’t be easily quantified. Culture has trained us to privilege quick fixes for everything from weight loss and controlling diabetes, to educational testing and aligning cognitive ability with GDP (see my thoughts on PISA), to restoring the economy by putting someone new in the White House this fall. Repeat after me – Barack Obama is NOT the problem.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel as we try to come up with ways to retain US vitality and harness the creativity that leads to innovation. We do, however, need to take lessons from our past and not simply, unimaginatively and arrogantly view history as irrelevant. In The Hero and the Blues, Albert Murray asserts, “[N]ot only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.”[2] So, in taking the example of Bell Labs, we can alter the model to suit our current environment and perchance, realize similar successes long term. Innovation imageHowever, we must rethink our understanding of innovation. Gertner explains, “one type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.” Polly La Barre echoes this sentiment in her Harvard Business Review article, “Reimagining Capitalism” where she asserts, “It’s time to radically revise the deeply-etched beliefs about what business is for, whose interests it serves, and how it creates value. We need a new form of capitalism for the 21st century, one dedicated to the promotion of greater well-being rather than the single-minded pursuit of growth and profits…” We need to invest time and educate culturally from k-16, at least, because nurturing those activities that require an investment of time trains people to meet short-term demands en route to a long-term goal even when, as in the case of Bell Labs, the goal may not be immediately recognizable. Even when we are left wondering like Billy Preston, “Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?”

Investing in time…

Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer discuss “Talent, Passion and the Creativity Maze” in their HBR blog in a way that really captivates me. While everyone raves about wanting top talent, innovating and creating new models, Teresa and Steve present a counter narrative – sort of. Quoting a Nobel Prize winning physicist, the authors write, “The labor of love aspect is important. The successful scientists often are not the most talented, but the ones who are just impelled by curiosity. They’ve got to know what the answer is.” Wait, wait! What about cognitive ability? What about test scores? What about grades? What about GDP! Teresa and Steve explain, “intrinsically motivated people are more creative because they engage more deeply with the work.” It really is that simple. Do we have the courage to sing a song that ain’t got no melody?



[1] Kate Connolly, “All Das Jazz: the Berlin Phil Swing with Wynton Marsalis” June 2010

[2] Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues (New York, Vintage Books, 1973), 72.


Hip-hop and Jazz: cultural models for business and education

Today’s NYT article, “Using Rap to Teach Pithy Lessons in Business” caught my attention because of my interest in the relationship between jazz structure, business strategy and corporate culture. So, help me work through some ideas…

The relationship between jazz and business is being fleshed out by several people including: myself (you’ll just have to wait, the article is coming out this spring in the Journal of Global Studies); collaborative enterprises between professors of business such as John Hollwitz at Fordham University and pianist Eli Yamin; trombonist Chris Washburne and members of the Columbia Business School. But the connection between business and hip-hop is a new one for me and I am intrigued.

So, in today’s article, Claire Cain Miller reports that Ben Horowitz uses rap lyrics to help manage emotion, articulate needs, and generally give voice to what may otherwise go unsaid. Ben acknowledges that “much of rap is about business” and he gives the examples of using hip-hop’s often rough language to help clients deal with troublesome board members or to help explain his own ideas on why founding CEOs are better than those appointed externally. Hip Hop imageFor Ben, rap is an efficient and powerful tool for addressing ambiguous or hostile situations; it provides the language for self-expression. Dealing with the stress of last-minute decisions can be frustrating or even debilitating; rap, for Ben, transforms this angst and channels it productively. In Miller’s article, Professor Adam Bradley situates the use of language culturally and says, “rap is such a direct mode of expression…because of the emphasis of language, of words above melody or harmony.” Bradley notes, “people think of rap lyrics as being only about money, women, status, and cocaine” but highlights its “more pervasive themes [of] leadership, collaboration and the vulnerability beneath the swagger” which are “all relevant in business.”

So, I have a couple of initial thoughts. Rap has the advantage of lyrics while jazz may or may not have lyrics. In my own work, lyrics are lacking. I tend to use instrumental pieces even when I discuss the blues because I deal with the music’s sounds and emotions and these don’t require lyrics. Rap is a vehicle for the unheard and allows a mode of expression that is powerful and empowering in its rhythmic flow. African griot imageThis tradition and its force comes from the African-American oral tradition which comes from West African griots.
I love the cultural transference indicated in Ben’s story. Who would think a Silicon Valley investor would use West African traditions as a meaningful part of his business strategy?  Who would think the vernacular language of hip hop would/could penetrate the corporate technology sector which is not known for its high numbers of African-American employees or investors?

Concerns and Questions…

  1. That the culture of hip hop penetrates the corporate divide is really not so surprising and is an indication of the pervasiveness of African-American culture, its marketability, and its practical use. As Ben’s story makes clear, there is a definite need (and a high-level need at that) for hip-hop knowledge in the business world. So my question on this point is: how can we create jobs in the corporate and technology sectors that leverage the skills of people who are knowledgeable about rap, hip hop, oral culture and the like?
  2. One thing that piques my interest is the hostility of rap lyrics and the common misogyny. Thinking imageConsidering Ben’s use of a song with “superaggressive” lyrics to help guide a client through a difficult situation: what is the impact of bringing hostility into the workplace on men; and also, to what extent does this contribute to an environment of increased hostility for women?
  3. It’s great that Ben is so well versed in hip-hop that he could open his discussion before the Congressional Black Caucus with rap lyrics (I’d totally fail). Considering my interest in educating culturally, I wonder how we might deepen the understanding of the culture that led to the creation of globally recognized rap lyrics. How can we move from a topical consideration of the culture’s use for profit into a deeper understanding of the culture in order to, perchance, cultivate innovation in areas such as business and technology?
  4. My thought is to enrich the k-16 curriculum with oral history courses, poetry and performance studies.  My guess is that by delving into oral history, in this case, we might recognize  or identify cultural coping mechanisms or strategies for negotiation that move us in the opposite direction of misogyny.

But then there’s jazz…

Jazz hails from the African-American oral tradition too. The emotion Ben seeks to manage through rap is negotiated in jazz through the blues. Whereas in rap the verbal acuity can be seen as emanating from games such as playing the dozens or signifying; in jazz, this is a matter of “trading fours” (or eighths or twelves), a call-and-reponse pattern that flows in an obvious rhythm. The commercial market for jazz is certainly not what it is for hip hop. Jazz has institutions that hip hop does not and so is integrated into the culture differently. Both jazz and hip hop have bodies of scholarship that delve into their traditions. Opposites imageJazz and hip hop are both part of the cultural exports by the US Department of State. In thinking about the points of commonality between jazz and hip hop and also the current interest in mining their traditions for use in business strategy, it would be great to have a conversation about collaborating in order to devise a strategy for meeting market demands through educational initiatives, corporate workshops, job training, etc. (Cory Booker, are you listening?)

The relationship between hip hop and jazz for business…

I guess my question on this is: in what ways can the joint cultures and traditions of hip and jazz be instructive in devising a model for collaborating, drafting policy, articulating needs and desires, etc., that connects the dots between education and business? How can we move the joint discussion in practical ways from the classroom to the boardroom or from theory to practice?

What happens when we change a standard?

Last night I had the pleasure, once again, of hearing the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform in Rose theatre. The celebration was in honor of Stan Kenton‘s centennial and featured one time Kenton band member, Lee Konitz.

The performance was powerful; the brass and reeds sections were bold and forceful as would be expected of a presentation of Kenton’s work. The added personnel filled the sections and enriched the performance. The bass trombone added depth and fullness to the section’s sound that made me want to jump from my seat. The trumpets were brilliant and the virtuosity on display last night was breathtaking. My bias in favor of reeds aside (I played alto), the reeds section was tightly woven, powerful, and added texture to the performance that simply carried the show (smile).

So, I really enjoyed the performance and hearing Kenton’s music was a special treat. I was particularly intrigued by the Bill Holman arrangements, “Stompin’ at the Savoy”“Malaguena” and “My Funny Valentine.” Bringing so much brass to those songs changed them (in good ways) for me but the uniqueness of the arrangements really made an impact on me and got me to thinking…

“Stompin’ at the Savoy” is a personal favorite and I was prepared for a different rendition but got more of a change than I expected. Wynton announced the song from the stage but when the band began to play, I couldn’t identify the melody. I just couldn’t find my way into the song I have loved for decades. What would I do? How could I access the piece? Where was my point of entry? Before those thoughts set in, I was pulled into the piece by the sheer power of the sounds on stage, the breadth of talent and the virtuosity of the solos. I applauded enthusiastically when the song was done but still, I wondered: “What happens when we change a standard?”

So, I talked with Vincent Gardner (trombone) who explained Bill Holman’s style of arranging, his use of counterpoint, and the general work of arranging. Victor Goines (reeds) talked to me about the melody and gave me some history on Kenton and Holman. All good stuff that will certainly help in my research. I am always grateful for the time musicians give me and their patience in explaining the intricacies of what they play and what I am hearing.

In seeking an answer to my question, “What happens when we change a standard?” I’ll need to delve into arrangements and consider their different variations (the actual chart and the sound performance) for a given song.  If we think of jazz as improvisational music; then, shouldn’t the score be open to change as well? Changing the structure of what is written, also changes the improvisation that occurs. Albert Murray says, “not only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.” (Hero and the Blues, 72). So, the change that comes from altering the score on a well-loved standard is an indication of continuing the tradition of innovation associated with jazz.

Is it problematic that I didn’t recognize what I was hearing as a song I loved? Not necessarily. You see, I loved what I was hearing even though it was different than what I expected. When I think of governing systems and of documents like the US Constitution that set the parameters for conduct and societal expectations — the contract, if you will, for guiding the populace and checking  the power of government — I think of how emerging and even established democracies may devise relevant documents that share certain characteristics but that also may differ markedly, reflecting individual or country-specific desires.  I also think of a recent NYT article, “We the People Loses Appeal With People Around the World” by Adam Liptak that considers the idea of changing the US Constitution because it is not in step with contemporary needs and the efforts of emerging democracies to create more vibrant documents that govern in accordance with their current realities.

Well-loved standards represent a certain level of comfort and familiarity. I really enjoy “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and listening to it delights me and also brings back memories I associate with hearing the song over the decades. Changing the arrangement in such a way that it doesn’t immediately register with me, changes my interaction with the song; limits my access to the memories I’ve linked to it over the years and makes me uncomfortable. This type of uncertainty is the stuff of the blues.

Managing uncertainty from my seat in the audience is tricky business because it requires me to engage difference and exist outside my comfort zone. Managing uncertainty requires an openness to innovation and to difference, top items for business leaders seeking to maximize their profits and relevance in today’s global economy. The good thing is, musicians work in the realm of uncertainty and change every day; they actually sit down and alter standard charts, transcribing structural change and then test it via performance. So, as part of my thinking on why cultural literacy is so important, I’ll say this: by infusing the creative arts into various sectors, we stand to improve the ability of people in various sectors to successfully manage change, face difference and innovate. Harvard is really onto something in this regard. (See the Harvard Arts Report)

What happens when we change a standard? Well, a lot happens and it is instructive. We can think of a standard jazz chart such as the one that led me into today’s post but we can also, by extension, think of a standard as the US Constitution or governing document for a country, corporation, school system, etc. I listen to the music and the delight I experience is multifaceted. I keep going back to the music because it feels good and it inspires me to think creatively. I am enriched immeasurably.

So for the purposes of my specific research projects, thinking about arrangements and the requisite technical and creative work, helps me reconsider the relationships between the US and foreign nations because there are guidelines that manage those relationships and policies to be written and revised. This will require creativity, innovation and technical skill. Also, restructuring the jazz ensemble by adding instrumental voices changes the sound and dynamics of the group’s performance as well as the interpersonal interactions (personnel). The organizational structure is decidedly not hierarchical/vertical, but operates on a horizontal plane, multilaterally. This, too, is an important feature to examine in earnest as relationships with foreign nations and within and between corporations and government agencies takes on new form.

The “Daddy State” and Swing

Political Scientist Dorian Warren was a guest on Melissa Harris-Perry’s inaugural show today. He used the term “Daddy State” to describe the current trend in Republican politics to curtail the rights of women. I found this really intriguing especially given MHP’s discussion about why it is good for the nation to have a healthy GOP […]

All Star Line up, Jazz Studies – Columbia University

Last night, community members, scholars, musicians and other interested people convened at Columbia University’s Faculty House for an All Star line up of Jazz Studies “greats.” Brent Edwards, Kevin Fellezs, Farah Griffin, George Lewis, Robert G. O’Meally, John Szwed, and Chris Washburne explored the “the Future of Jazz Studies.” Ben Waltzer, on piano, opened the evening with a medley of Ellington songs — what a night.

Let me say at the outset, I have admired Bob O’Meally from the day we first met. As a graduate student in one of his English classes at Columbia back in the early 1990s, I remember being confused when he came to class that first day with a record player and played jazz. I was so confused. I don’t remember the song Bob played but I’m willing to bet it was something by Louis Armstrong; probably, “What Did I Do (to be so Black and Blue).” Whatever it was, it didn’t belong in an English class… or so I thought. Bob explained the literature we would study that semester in terms of the music and its cultural connections to the people who made and played the music. He connected the music to the lives these people led, explained how the music formed a sense of community and he never offered an apology for delivering what — in my mind — was material decidedly not designed for an English class! The message for me was clear, I’d have to get on board because this train had already left the station — and what a ride it has been.

Bob continued to change my life that semester by also bringing Albert Murray to class. Murray, a public intellectual and seminal figure in the blues and jazz realm, came to discuss his work and the book we were reading in Bob’s class, Train Whistle Guitar. I was totally captivated by Murray’s thoughts on American culture and committed myself to reading everything he had written. I never had another professor use Murray’s work in class but I did read everything Murray wrote and even wrote my dissertation on him: The Blues and Jazz in Albert Murray’s Fiction. From my study of Murray’s literature, I have moved on to the cosmopolitan nature of his protagonist, Scooter, with whom I have always identified on a very personal level. Like Scooter, I have an unquenchable thirst for life and travel. My current project, Cultural Diplomacy in the Spirit of Pops and Duke, includes case studies from various countries where I’m exploring the relationship between the market demand for jazz, cultural integration, and democratic formation. Please check the “Crossroads” section of my website for updates. Right now, I’m working on Ukraine. If you have any insights on any of the countries to share, please post a response here, email me or reach me on twitter @GlobalJackie

So… last night’s All Star line up was great for me because it was the first time I heard Bob tell the story about how the Center for Jazz Studies came to be at Columbia. Of course I knew Bob had founded it but how and why? When I realized how closely connected Brent Hayes Edwards was to the founding of the CJS, I was hardly surprised. Brent and I were in a graduate seminar together at Columbia. There were four of us in the class; two lowly MA students and two PhD students, Brent and someone else. I took as many notes in class from Brent’s comments as I did the professor’s. Last night, Brent gave me flashbacks of our graduate seminar. He explained a current project, his archival work and his thoughts on archiving in a way only Brent could. I took notes — again — and more on that later…

Farah Griffin is always warm and her intellect envelopes you in a way that makes you think “yeah, I ‘get’ this” or “I can do this, pursue this idea” and “I’m on a meaningful journey.” Farah has broadened my horizons, intellectually and personally. She may not remember but I will never forget, early discussions in her office about challenges I was facing. When I told her I was “keeping to the river, traveling by night and following the Drinking Gourd” she “got me” and rained down on me with advice and kindness that encouraged me and helped me heal. Last night, she recommended three books by scholars who represent the future of Jazz studies: Salamishah Tillet  who is working on a book on Nina Simone and exploring her transnational connections; Meta DuEwa Jones’ The Muse is Music; and Monument Coltrane: the Music of Alice Coltrane.  Funny, last night Farah said she prefers dealing with the past; interesting. Perhaps in making sure the past is a story well told, she creates a foundation upon which the future and all its uncertainties can be balanced more confidently… just my take.

George Lewis stole the show for me. I have seen him often but have never met him or heard him speak. Last night, he told a story about his connections with the CJS. He was funny, insightful and delivers a story with great rhythm, dynamics and style. Through tears of laughter, I sat fully engaged as George told us that ideas will guide us into the future of jazz studies. He left me with the thought that as long as we have ideas, we have a future. Yes, George, yes. In my darkest moments of scholarly and personal angst, ideas have given me light.

Kevin Fellezs is a new face for me at the CJS and I was eager to hear him explain his interests. His current project is on smooth jazz but he has written a book, Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk and the Creation of Fusion, that deals with cultural intersections in different musical traditions — sounds right for my own explorations of cultural connections through jazz. I am looking forward to reading the book and to following Kevin’s new project.

Chris Washburne is a trombonist who heads the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program.  Chris is a treasure trove of information and is working on a new book on Latin Jazz (Oxford 2013). Imagine my surprise when Chris relayed a story about Louis Armstrong’s,  “The Peanut Vendor” (1930), a Cuban song that serves as an early example of Armstrong’s transnational connections and sensibility, and a perfect tie-in for my article, “Capitalizing on Cosmopolitanism: Armstrong and Ellington Swinging Abroad, 1930 – 1950” (see my abstract in, Trains of Thought) Thanks Chris…

John Szwed is the current Director of the CJS and has helped me in ways he doesn’t know. When writing my dissertation, John gave me references and put me in direct contact with people whose work helped me transcend an intellectual blockade, move human mountains, and complete my writing. He helped me know the power of community in building ideas.

So, back to Brent and these archives, collecting music, taking notes and cataloguing and such… it will soon be time to transcribe the many hours of recorded sessions I’ve had with Albert Murray. When I was writing my dissertation I’d visit New York often and sit with Murray for 6-8 hours each time; listening as he relayed various tales, had me pull books from his shelves and laugh at some pretty raucous jokes. I’d take notes to capture what I might miss during playback and I also knew when to turn off the recording device. Some of the best conversations were with Mrs. Murray and Michele, Murray’s wife and daughter, who “adopted” me and filled in the details of their lives that took them from the Deep South to far away places like Morocco, Rome, Paris, California and finally to New York City. We shared recipes, stories, pictures, laughs, tears and hugs. I owe it to them to tell the story of our interactions well; replete with words and silences, images and voids, in order to capture the dynamics of the rich lives they’ve lived and the rich life they have given me. So, Brent’s ideas on archiving will be really helpful when I’m ready to delve into my own stash of archival-worthy material. I’m sure Brent will have a book out on the subject, look for it — I will!

Last night’s All Star line up was a journey down memory lane for me. Strong communities certainly endure but they also enrich their surroundings in ways they may never realize.

Pragmatism and the Blues

In the Introduction of his Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Traiditon, James T. Kloppenbeg writes, “Pragmatism is a philosophy for skeptics, a philosophy for those committed to democratic debate and the critical assessment of the results of political decisions, not for true believers convinced they know the right course of action in advance of inquiry and experimentation. Pragmatism stands for open-mindedness and ongoing debate. The flexibility of pragmatist philosophy, which helps explain Obama’s intellectual acuity and suppleness, may paradoxically undercut his ability to inspire and persuade the American electorate and the United States Congress at a time when strident rhetoric and unyielding partisanship have displaced reasoned deliberation and a commitment to problem solving.” (xiii)

Albert Murray describes the, “fully orchestrated blues statement” as “a strategy for acknowledging the fact that life is a lowdown dirty shame and for improvising or riffing on the exigencies of the predicament. What is that all about if not continuity in the face of adversity? Which brings us all to the matter of heroic action…” (The Blue Devils of Nada , 14)

Acknowledging life is a “lowdown dirty shame” is nothing if not pragmatic and “improvising or riffing on the exigencies” of a situation certainly requires open-mindedness and flexibility. Obama’s “intellectual acuity and suppleness” can be understood, culturally through the blues. When I think of the intractable US Congress and those who, as in the NYT article I recently cited, are reluctant to own up to their use of government subsidies; I think of the poverty in the area of US cultural intelligence. The delusions to which so many cling as noted by Todd Gitlin who ponders whether or not Americans can have an honest debate on government indicate a lack of cultural intelligence (at best). Staying away from the hard questions doesn’t make them go away.

The anxiety, the self-protection, that goes into a conscious denial and then reluctant justification of receiving government subsidies is deeply troubling. First, failing to acknowledge reality renders one incapable of contributing to improving a given situation.  Second, the inflexible ranting about the evils of government subsidies moves the topic into an ideological corner from which advancement is unlikely because it is populated — happily, due to delusions — by those who believe they know “the right course of action.” Third, progress and democracy stall when active engagement is withheld because we don’t reach full participation and only a relatively small portion of, say the electorate, is involved in the decision-making process. This undercuts democracy in really important ways because the “representative” majority lacks diversity in thought.

Ok… so for today… business leaders deal with this type of thing and they stay tuned into grumblings in “ideological corners” and move those people to the center of discussion as a matter of sound business practice. Was reading Scott Anthony’s HBR blog today on “Negotiating Innovation and Control” and was glad to see so many ideas flowing about how to develop innovation strategies. This type of flexibility, openness to ideas and pragmatic confrontation with hard truths is common in business and is necessary in a democracy.

How do we get there? Cultural education — blues-based jazz, swing — is my preferred method… what’s yours?

The Blues… honestly

Brainstorm is a blog on Ideas and Culture that I find really thought provoking. In his February 12, 2012, entry, Todd Gitlin asks, “Is it Possible for Americans to have an Honest Discussion About Government?” My cynicism has not yet eclipsed my hopefulness and so my answer is, “Yes, it is possible. Si, se puede!” But how and what do we gain/lose by engaging in honest debate?

Gitlin’s entry is a contemplation on a New York Times article on critics of government safety nets who also depend on these daily.  So, various commentators have been “brainstorming” (great blog name BTW) about this. As indicated in the NYT article, people who firmly believe the government is too involved in the lives of the people are also loathe to admit their own dependence on government subsidies. When the hard truth is brought to light and an admission seems unavoidable, said recipients lament the fact and indicate they’d  rather do without the assistance. Good, good but not productive.

I was fascinated in reading this because the emotional and psychological work required to recast reality seems substantial. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s must read essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” which deals with omissions of race in literature but these things are transferable, so bear with me… So, what work goes into denying the reality of receiving subsidies and what trickery is involved in simultaneously rejecting the notion of subsidies being necessary to conduct normal daily affairs (the NYT article sites allowing after school sports activities for children and paying for necessary medical operations). The article gave no answers but shed light on the issue… good, good.

In order to have an honest discussion about government we’d need to deal with the uncomfortable truths of our reality forthrightly. We’d need to, as a nation, look at hardship head on, meet it in the eye, and call it what it is in order to deal with it meaningfully. We’d have to own up to the blues, honestly. So, instead of repeating favorite feel-good political soundbites and calls for “smaller government, lower taxes” and requests to “privatize healthcare, social security, education” etc., we’d have to ask, “Why is it that I can work full-time and still not be able to pay for after school sports for my children?” or “How is it that I have worked 30+ years and can’t afford to have the operation my wife needs” or “Why can’t I afford for my child to go to a ‘good’ school?” — All variations on the theme, “My baby done left me, oh what am I going to do?”In The Omni Americans Albert Murray reminds his readers that the blues ballad, “almost always [relates] a story of frustration [but] could hardly be described as a device for avoiding the unpleasant facts… on the contrary, it is a very specific and highly effective vehicle… [for] acknowledg[ing] the essentially tenuous nature of all human existence.” (Murray, 57) Honest answers to hard questions are necessary in order to move political conversations from soundbite to real life. In this case, we need to illuminate the relationship between the private sector and government.

Gitlin notes, “We can legitimately debate which taxes are fairer, and which expenditures most necessary and just, but as long as up-by-the-bootstraps ideology runs rampant, realistic debate is crippled by dishonesty. Unacknowledged dependency on the whole social network—not just on government—makes for delusions about how easy it would be to dispense with the safety net.” Significantly, these delusions keep progress at bay.

One way to begin having an honest discussion about government is to move thoughtful conversation from the classroom into the living room via the airwaves. Why? Because educators are trained to dig beneath the surface of ideas and excavate the hidden treasures and because so many people get their “news” and political ideas from TV and radio. Discussion imageThose trained in subject-specific research are experts who have committed their professional lives to knowing a subject deeply. When we engage them in conversations and allow their voices to integrate the mainstream media and infiltrate households, we pollinate the populace with ideas, the seeds of critical thinking — this is a bold new move.

I am excited about Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show which airs on Saturdays and Sundays beginning February 18, 2012, but not just because she’s smart as all get-out, poised and balanced in her approach but because she represents a move to elevate political discussion. Harris-Perry will not avoid the hard truths of our reality, she will delve in with a brain trained to think critically and to engage. She will extract the nuggets of gold that will enrich us all.  She says, “Part of the way I end up here is, I think the ivory tower has a ton of brilliant information that doesn’t show up for ordinary people.” Chris Hayes, who also has a show on MSNBC talks about time. He says, “Sometimes it has taken five minutes… to get past the talking points that are familiar to any cable news viewer. But we have the luxury of time.” Yes, thinking takes time and delivers the opposite of soundbites and 30 second news clips.  Harris-Perry’s show airs a full two hours for two days in a row. Cynical me says this must be tied to some profit margin but intellectual me thinks this is the right thing to do. Thoughtful conversation takes time. Harris-Perry and Hayes are part of a movement to reinvest in the power of intellect and an acknowledgment — by the market no less — that thinking takes time and has long-term benefits.

The NYT article on Harris-Perry poses the question, “Is this a sign of the rise of the academic on TV? Professor imageThough cable news is still stereotyped by some as a 24-7 screaming match, there are now pockets of intellectual stimulation that did not exist a decade ago.” — the rise of academics on TV will cause a rise in the level of political discourse. Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC notes, “Today, our audience thrives on being smart.” Finally, the market has demanded more intelligent TV.

This leads me to the idea of job creation. Why? Because the market seems to finally be acknowledging what educators have always known — thinking is valuable. Harris-Perry and the like are not trained in math or science and according to the soundbite scenarios, “we need more math and science” in order to be competitive — perhaps. However, it seems to me that a better educated and more thoughtful public trained to think critically in all areas, increases national competitiveness long-term. Imagine the US nimble and flexible enough to change with changing global demands because its entire population was prepared to contribute thoughtful, informed options or responses to whatever obstacle we faced. Perhaps the US can become a nation of thought leaders who collaborate with thought leaders in every region of the world to coordinate efforts to combat any number of global ills, including: climate change, poverty, healthcare, etc. Imagine the industries associated with this growth in thought leadership.Critical thinking image

By engaging honest debate we stand to lose the comforts of delusion and these are many. We would have to take responsibility for our contributions to the fracturing our systems of governance, healthcare, education, etc., painfully engage the unknown and have the courage to create something new. We would gain integrity and be offended that the current negative political campaigns and mudslinging avoid engaging hard questions and supply only soundbite answers instead.  We would gain an engaged and better informed populace invested in creating new systems rather than simply and unimaginatively destroying what we have. We would move towards solutions and not run from the hardship of our many problems. We need the blues, honestly.

“The Intimacy of the Blues”

Stripped down and bare, at least when we consider the textures of Duke Ellington’s big band, “Intimacy of the Blues” (1967) is sensuous. The reeds — alto, tenor and baritone sax — create a richness in the texture on top of the rhythmic foundation of the piano, bass and drums. Tightly woven, the octet that recorded Duke’s original score allowed the sound to be “tried out… so that the leader could hear how they sounded and consider the possibility of their translation upwards into the full band.” (Stanley Dance, original liner notes, Intimacy of the Blues).

“Translation upwards into the full band…” got me thinking about how a central idea can be made more complex. When we think about the blues and its plaintive sound; the way its form is recognizable, and its call-and-response patterns repeated as if to encourage incantation, I think about the challenges that arise when this elemental sound or form is translated “upwards” into more complex renderings. How is its essence retained and not diffused into an unrecognizable form when faced with instrumental variety? What compositional compromises or adjustments are made in order to retain the distinct sound of the blues and prevent it from becoming something else? Is this a “social contract” in musical form; do artists give up some of their creativity in order to play the blues in an ensemble? What is lost, what is gained?

Sure, you’re wondering why I’d even consider such specifics outside the realm of arts. Well, here’s the thing: the blues is culturally significant (read Albert Murray’s, The Hero and the Blues and his seminal text, The Omni Americans for some background) and so influences American culture in the US in ways not consciously recognized, save for those of us trained in culture. Here, Bob O’Meally’s informative compilation, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture is also useful. Bob’s book delineates the ways in which jazz (and the blues) serves as an identifying feature  of US culture; he shows us who we are as a nation, culturally. I accept this and support fully the view that the US is best identified in terms of its cultural heritage, not its capitalistic desires. It is this view — a national identification through cultural heritage — that endows the US brand (yes, brand, as if we are selling ourselves to ourselves and the world) with integrity and is the preferred strategy for both self (national) identification and engagement with foreign actors.

Ok, back to my fascination with “upward translation.” Here are my assumptions: the blues is an identifying feature of US identity; Duke Ellington played blues-based jazz; meaning, he self consciously integrated the blues form into his compositions. Because the blues is an identifying feature of US identity and since jazz permeates US culture, its pervasiveness is wide ranging and impacts or influences even those sectors of society not typically identified as having a relationship with the arts. So, as Duke integrated the relatively simple form of the blues into his instrumentally and musically complex compositions; so too does blues-based jazz inform complex systems of organization and governance beyond the bandstand. (For an overview of this, read my forthcoming article in Spectrum: the Journal of Global Studies, Spring 2012)

Governments seeking to engage one another in the interconnected 21st century world face challenges similar to those of Duke as he worked to “translate upward” his blues composition in “The Intimacy of the Blues”  and move it from a score for an eight-piece band to a full ensemble while retaining the singularity of the blues form and its identifying features — “e pluribus unum” in sound.

The jazz ensemble functions multilaterally — as do today’s nations or regions — and conversations (not two-way dialogues) between instrumental sections with disparate and distinctly identifiable sounds engage one another around the common theme or score. Here, think of the score as world peace and the distinctly identifiable sounds as each state’s interest in self preservation as a sovereign entity. Globally, we are committed to playing this score to the very end.

When a jazz ensemble commits to swing, it commits to achieving and sustaining equilibrium or a rhythmic tension between the bass, piano and drums, that moves the score forward while advancing and illuminating the talents of various sections. When a jazz ensemble commits to integrating the blues into this formulation, it weds itself to a couple of things: honoring the traditions of African Americans in the US who codified the form; a call-and-response pattern and repetition inherent to the style; and an emotional intensity that conjures intense feeling. Integration is key. Bands can swing without the blues and  jazz is not necessary for the blues; the two are mutually exclusive. Integration is a conscious choice.

Back to matters of global governance… Various state actors must collaborate, like a jazz ensemble, to achieve equilibrium in force or power; the “sound” of which is sustained peace. If we think of emerging states or democracies as representing the volatility of the blues; then more established actors, like well-organized instrumental sections in an ensemble, must strive to sustain equilibrium despite or in spite of unpredictable assertions — the blues — interjected into the operational efficiency. Gone are the days of ideological stand-offs between two Superpowers; those metaphorical dialogues were unproductive. Gone are the days of lone Superpower privilege such as that enjoyed by the US in the Post-Cold War era; those days of conducting the ensemble from a position of hierarchal superiority have passed. Instead, the multilateral conversations exemplified in a jazz ensemble that swings the blues are instructive in managing the current moment of relative uncertainty. By emphasizing culture over capitalist desires, the US can manage its revised role in global affairs more efficiently and maintain its national integrity.

Duke’s band was known for its rich textures in sound, instrumental variety, excellence in musicianship, and long-term committed personnel. Surely there is something to be learned from Duke.

Thoughts on the new “Super Office” and Diplomacy

“J: the New Super Office” blog by Stewart M. Patrick, Council on Foreign Relations

In his discussion of the new “Super Office” or the Undersecretariat for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (led by Undersecretary of State Maria Otero), Stewart M. Patrick states, a “leitmotif of Obama foreign policy has been the need to cultivate “smart power,” which is essentially that foreign policy goals can be better achieved by civilian efforts rather than the U.S. military. Last week, the administration launched a new “super office” in the State Department—the Undersecretariat for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights—which is charged with “elevating and integrating civilian security in U.S. foreign policy.”

True to his word, Obama is continuing his shift in strategy from hard power to soft power; a move that significantly, included the leadership swap of Leon Panetta and David Petraeus. Panetta’s expertise in intelligence and his preference for drone strikes is a telling result of the strategic move to smart power. His financial savvy in budgeting can also make a difference in the allocation of resources. As outlined in his National Security Strategy, Obama sees an important place for public diplomacy as part of a long-term vision of peacekeeping and alliance building that can help the nation return to the smart diplomacy of previous eras. (see Brittany Gleixner Hayat’s concerns, “the Hardening of Soft Power”).

“[The] Obama administration has placed the oft-maligned concept of human security at the core of U.S. foreign policy. Self-styled “realists” may scoff, but there are pragmatic reasons for this conceptual shift. International security and regional stability increasingly depend on whether civilians enjoy peace, dignity, and fundamental freedoms. When they do not, as last year’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) pointed out, the proven results are escalating violence, mass atrocities, violent extremism, and humanitarian disasters.” — Protecting civilians against multiple forms of violence is key to stability worldwide. Diplomatic action and active engagement must precede any military interaction. The creation of the new office is definitely a move in the right direction. “What’s old” (diplomacy) is “new again” — and it is about time.

The overall Obama strategy seems to privilege people over institutions. This is good because the voices or desires of people become diffused in vertical power arrangements. The Obama strategy engages and so empowers the masses, and neutralizes hierarchy. As any one of the current examples of unrest in the Arab world indicates, civilian power must be acknowledged and these voices must be integrated into governing systems. Several questions remain about the new office, including:

  1. Will bureaucracy undermine the efficiency of the new Office?
  2. Can the culture of Washington abide the notion of civilian engagement?
  3. Can bi-patisan support be rallied for the new Office?
  4. Will Americans who are so focused on domestic matters support this strategy that requires the long-term investment of human and financial capital in lieu of quick and decisive military action or a retreat into isolationist behavior?