Follow the Music

This is an excerpt of my remarks for the June 19, 2014, Jazz Diplomacy event sponsored by Natixis at the National Archives. 

Into a Black, Brown, and Beige World
Into a Black, brown and beige world went US Jazz Ambassadors, including: Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Leading with jazz and spreading democracy in sound, our finest musicians traveled to far-away places — Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe — collaborating and integrating with various people of the world for more than two decades, beginning in the mid 1950s.Middle East and Africa c 1955

Oh, they had been overseas before. Armstrong and Ellington had toured abroad in the early 1930s — just after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 — but this was different. These were no ordinary gigs. These musicians, who had established themselves as cultural icons at home, were now tasked with representing the nation abroad. Indeed, this integrated bunch whose home country was in the midst of an intense Civil Rights struggle, was being called upon to save the nation’s image, globally. They did that and so much more.

Ike Gets Dizzy
The idea of Jazz Ambassadors was a collaboration between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harlem Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., after the successful multi-year Cold War tour of Porgy and Bess. Dwight EisenhowerNew York City Councilman Adam Clayton PowellPowell, who was married to organist Hazel Scott, was able to secure Dizzy Gillespie for the first official tour (Middle East, 1956). In the midst of racial strife that seemed sure to tear the nation apart, Dizzy Gillespie was a bold and necessary choice for leading the new venture.

But why jazz?

Jazz had an established global audience, internationally recognized talent, and was an art form indigenous to the United States. Primarily an instrumental music, jazz did not require lyrics, understanding the English language was not required for participation or appreciation. A “stealth weapon” of the Cold War, jazz was a relatively new art form so exceptional, it could rival the centuries of excellence of ballet and classical music embedded in European cultures and the Soviet Union. (Satchmo, 28) What’s more, jazz musicians weren’t hung up on race or ethnicity; jazz culture was and is inherently integrated, musicians sought and seek the best sounds. Jazz is an inclusive form, welcoming as many instruments as can be played.Global face

Created by Americans of African descent living in the US, jazz could simultaneously combat racial strife at home and promote diversity abroad. Supporting jazz meant acknowledging the cultural value of its historically marginalized populace, an effort that was in direct opposition to the realities as witnessed in contemporary news accounts. Dizzy big bandSeen through the lens of jazz, the United States was not the racist, materialist society others deemed it to be; instead, the US was a leader, a modern, progressive nation unified though its diversity, a disruptive innovator in a world wedded to custom.

Prelude to Chaos
The 1950s were turbulent years in the US. Senator Joseph McCarthy was closely associated with the era known as the “Red Scare” and took the ideological divide between democracy and communism to levels that were positively surreal. He turned his glance inward, accusing fellow countrymen of betrayal; and widened the gulf between races by castigating the socially conscious of every hue. The US involvement in the Korean War (1950-53) divided that country along ideological lines.

Separate, however, was not equal; so said the Supreme Court in its 1954 decision in Brown v Board but society had other ideas. In the summer of 1955, a young boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, was murdered in cold blood because witnesses thought they heard him whistle at a white co-ed during a summer visit to Mississippi.

Emmett Till imageDespite their own damning testimony, his killers were acquitted. That December, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white patron on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus and so launched a dignified nonviolent economic attack that lasted more than 380 days.Rosa Parks on bus

Segregation has been US social custom. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas sent the National Guard to prohibit nine children from integrating public school. Charles Mingus 2The Little Rock Nine eventually received protection from President Eisenhower who sent troops to protect the students’ right to matriculate. The insidiousness of this violence and the complexities of justice — these blues — were written indelibly into our cultural history with “Fables of Faubus” by Jazz Ambassador Charles Mingus.

Jazz and Life
Jazz had various forms but each reflected life in a unique way. Bebop musicians such as — Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Roy Haynes, and JJ Johnson — brought forth a sound that illuminated virtuosity, was harmonically complex, and faaaaast! Bebop was rebellious, unsettling, and energetic. Domestically, it reflected the struggle for Civil Rights. Internationally, it appealed to youth and many overseas who struggled (psychologically, at least) and imagined life under a more liberal order.

The swing music of the big-band era with its steady, reliably placed beats, no longer seemed sufficient for capturing the velocity of social change. Incredulous, unnerving social contradictions, were expressed in bebop with sounds that were at once fiercely violent, emotionally dense, and cathartic. In one sense, musicians seemed to intellectualize the struggle; creatively processing its absurdities and indignities. Yet, swing privileged collaboration, promoted individuality through improvisation, and suggested social cohesion in ways bebop did not.

Innovation through Jazz
Legendary producer, NEA Jazz Master George Wein understood integration on a variety of levels. He knew we needed a variety of jazz forms and he wanted as many people as possible to engage the music. In 1954, when the United States seemed to be on the brink of social collapse, George began a series of annual outdoor jazz festivals in Newport, Rhode Island; and the rest, as they say, is history. George Wein & DukeThe idea of jazz festivals democratized the way we experience music. Through jazz festivals, George gave us a template for active engagement, audience growth and development, rotating leadership, and private/public partnership. Jazz reached through socio-economic barriers, dealt with the depths of emotional pain and injustice forthrightly, celebrated the triumph of the human spirit, and made even the most unlikely collaborations possible.

This was music to the State Department’s ears. George had a model that worked and a sizable, reliable network of musicians. The alliance between George Wein’s Festival Productions and the US Department of State was ideal. Musicians were able to expand the audience for their music and develop artistic alliances that would otherwise not be possible. The State Department was able to enter geopolitical spaces in black, brown and beige areas, bridge gaps in understanding, and forge meaningful alliances by bearing culture — not arms.

What’s more, jazz is self-regenerating. Whether swing, bebop, avant-garde, or cool — jazz adapts to change, embraces difference, and enables individuality through freedom of expression. Jazz is always modern and always relevant; it is agile. As Cultural Historian Albert Murray wrote, “The more any art form changes… the more it should be able to fulfill its original function.” (Hero, 72)

The tours of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were arguably the most successful. Musicians adapted to their ever-changing environments and audiences. EE Soviet map c1960They formed musical alliances, booked gigs and gave interviews in local markets. The music was sold bootleg and broadcast on the radio. Jazz became the sound of democracy and where jazz went, so too did commerce. Jazz had broad social appeal and reached the “man in the streets” not just those in elite circles of power. This was revolutionary — average citizens the world over had the chance to experience an art form that spoke to them directly and encouraged them to speak back. Jazz availed people of the possibilities inherent in individual self-expression.

*          *          *

The, now historic, Jazz Ambassador tours ended in the mid 1970s. The program left an indelible impact on all those involved; from diplomats whose jobs were made easier because of the way jazz commanded respect and made conversations flow, to musicians who hungered for the breadth of exposure to new sounds and interactions with new audiences, to average citizens who recognized their voice.

Follow the Music
Jazz tours continue today in modified form. Cultural presentation programs are now commonplace but it is no coincidence jazz was an early leader. As a response to economic disaster at home, musicians revealed themselves as entrepreneurs and expanded their networks of supporters and sponsors decades before terms like “social media” or “globalization” would enter into our collective vocabulary. Moreover, the blues — the deep feeling of contrasting emotions transmitted through sound, captured and sustained in jazz — is what connects people to the music and invites them into the shared creative, expressive, space and facilitates the formation of emotional communities. People from far and wide travel to be close to the music and what’s more, jazz musicians will travel to reach the people; they seek each other. As an inherently inclusive art form, jazz works because musicians absorb the sounds of local environments and through seamless collaboration, extend and enhance understanding.
Our efforts to engage the black, brown and beige of the world today — those in our own country and in emerging economies — will require lessons learned best through jazz: collaboration, listening, improvisation, and leading. Follow the music, it will teach you everything you need to know.

 

 

 

‘Mind the Gap’ — Develop Cultural Competence

The alleged “skills gap” dominates conversations about the relationship between education and work. Peter Smirniotopoulos and his co-author Natalie Pregibon offer an insightful analysis and some solid recommendations for how we might better prepare students for the demands of the workforce, today and tomorrow. One thing I really like about Peter’s approach is his uncompromising insistence on the value of creative thinking. Read Peter and Natalie’s series, Public Education and Job Readiness, here. Peter and Natalie were also recent guests on my radio show, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. You can listen to the show by clicking here.

Content is Crap (S/O to Greg Satell)

My classrooms are laboratories for engaged discussion and the development of new ideas. ConversationMy hope is that this will lead to an informed understanding of the content under scrutiny and also more meaningful and smarter work lives and civic engagement. I am passionate about educating. In my mind, the practical application of knowledge, can’t be beat. Over 20+ years of educating, I’ve put in the “deliberate practice” of 10,000 hours. What’s this mean? In part, it means the content I deliver doesn’t suck.

Why is THAT important?

In “Content is CrapGreg Satell tells the story of Ed Catmull who, as president of Pixar films, was committed to moving the films from “suck to not-suck.” This is important because Catmull wasn’t just looking for a gimmick to trick more people into seeing his films. As Greg notes, Catmull wasn’t merely seeking an audience” he wanted to “share something important with the world.” For all my love of content — American culture & jazz, ethnic studies  — “content” as Greg notes “is crap.”
But academics are genuinely delighted by content. We spend decades studying our fields of interest and by the time we reach the dissertation level, we have narrowed our chosen fields to an esoteric spot in the universe that no one else has considered in exactly the same way. Academics are the most blase entrepreneurs.

Here’s the thing — the content we find so fascinating sucks to most of the world. The way to salvage not just our egos but our beloved fields of inquiry from extinction, is to deliver the content is such a way tBoringhat connects us with the audience, that creates an emotional link between the content and something meaningful in their lives. We must create not just a new audience for our ideas but “share something meaningful with the world” which necessarily requires pushing beyond classroom walls. We must “mind the gap” between disciplinary specificity and the pragmatic demands of life outside the academy.

Education and Employers

A recent Guardian article lamented the state of economics education. Students and employers are struggling to see the relevance of skills honed in class because theoretical models fail to impress beyond the classroom. “Employers complain that recent economics graduates, while being technically proficient, know very little about the real world. Lacking knowledge about the historical backgrounds, institutional details and political idioms of real-world economies, they end up being idiot savants – they can manipulate most complicated mathematical models but cannot translate their insights into business strategies and economic policies in the real world.” — Ouch!

Disconnect

Here’s another biting critique: “When graduate economists do have something to say about the real-world economy, their advice is incomprehensible to noneconomists – and noneconomists make up almost all their audience.”

How do we Bridge the Gap?

First, educators must educate as if most students will not pursue PhDs (because most don’t). Second, academics must write for non academics. Since tenure is growing ever more elusive, this is practical because it’ll help academics secure jobs beyond the academy. Those scholars seeking to spread messages and educate the public broadly through MOOCs and/or social media (blogs, video blogs, Twitter, Facebook, radio programs, etc.) democratize education and include the global masses by using language that is easily understood. Third, seek professional viability beyond the academy — please.

You’re on your own!

According to the Guardian article, students in Norway were told by professors, their role was to offer “an analytical framework” for the material and students themselves would “have the rest of [their] lives to learn about current affairs.” This is such a cop-out. The aura of elitism is used to obscure poor pedagogy, lack of creativity, or just plain laziness. However, as hierarchies go — “‘pure’ research is more prestigious than applied or policy-relevant research, and research is more important than teaching. So, the more detached from the real world your work is, the higher up in the intellectual hierarchy you are.” Higher Ed is responsible for its own marginality, is doing its part in maintaining the status quo, and is abdicating its responsibility to prepare students for the future.

The Necessity of Mess  

This is no surprise. Our cultural quest for increased efficiencies (think Six Sigma), has led to hyper specialization, the mechanization of human beings, and the devaluation of emotional connections. We seek linear explanations and simple dichotomies to explain complex phenomena. Regarding education in economics, the Guardian writes, “In the past, economics was taught as a series of interrelated debates about competing theories and the different policy recommendations of those theories. Imprecise, even messy, but useful.”

In economics, the most popular reform proposal is “The introduction of mathematical models of complex nonlinear systems – the kinds of models which, at least with hindsight, might have predicted the 2008 financial crisis.” This is great but without practical application, this will be — yet another — theoretical model. Lively debate, interactive class assignments, collaborative projects that involve field work, and actively engaging social media to disseminate and test ideas are just some of the ways that will make the experience of learning economics (and all fields) meaningful and practical. Let’s transfer this pedagogical approach beyond the classroom to the workplace and boardroom.

The swing of things

John Coates wrote a really insightful NYT Sunday Review article, “The Biology of Risk.” In a nutshell, he likes the idea of uncertainty in markets because it teaches us — via practical experience — to be agile and creative. If our bodies are physiologically conditioned to respond to stress such as that caused by volatility; then, reducing change leads to a reduction in our ability to respond effectively to stress. The result? More and more devastating bubbles.

Coates explains, “Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash.” StressCompanies, however, have no coping mechanism. Fortunately, we have the blues and jazz — cultural coping mechanisms with built-in features like call and response, swing, and improvisation that endow practitioners to manage change confidently and even gracefully.

MurrayAccording to Cultural Historian Albert Murray, “what is ultimately at stake” in a moment of crisis “is morale, which is to say the will to persevere, the disposition to persist and perhaps prevail; and what must be avoided by all means is a failure of nerve.” (Stomping, 10) Seizing up is not an option. Coates notes, “risk aversion” [amongst traders and the like] “occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities…” Indeed, we need people who are agile, who can respond reflexively and creatively to changing conditions. Murray’s explanation of a musical break is relevant to, at least, those working in finance. On dealing with uncertainty, he writes: it’s a matter of “grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality which is to say entropy.” (Blue Devils, 95) But you can’t just read Murray’s writing, you have to apply his theories practically and develop a trained, reflexive, response to change. If you want your business to swing, develop cultural competence.

The similarity in thinking expressed in Coates’ 2014 NYT article and Murray’s 1974 nonfiction text belies the 40 year time difference. There’s been a gap between theory and practice for decades, at least. What’s more, the notorious racial segregation in the United States is compounded by the segregation of ideas — science and technology are necessarily divorced from music and culture — and this hurts us all. What we need is an integrated approach to educating; the practical application of Murray’s 40 year old ideas in realms beyond the art and humanities and in forums beyond the traditional classroom and stage. We must mind the gap between theory and practice, bridge it and (perchance) close the skills gap. Educate holistically and move from crash to swing.