Jazz & the State

Mark S. Weiner was our guest on the March 7, 2014, episode of Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. Mark’s most recent book, The Rule of the Clan, is a really smart read; insightful, and filled with the intellectual provocations suggested by his title via the word “clan” and the idea that its ability to “rule” itself (and perhaps us?) is something we should think about carefully.

The idea is that in the presence of a weak State, extended kinship groups (clans) provide necessary protections, resources, and assistance for its people. The role of the State, then, is to integrate into these groups — via laws, enforcement, myriad resources, opportunities, and assistance — in such a way as to present an attractive alternative to clan rule. In liberal societies, the goal is to “liberate” or remove barriers to individual self-expression. So, the laws, resources, etc., are ideally intended to facilitate the process by which individuality is realized, actualized.

This is what jazz does. What you see on the bandstand, what you hear when you listen to jazz, is the process of granting individual self-expression via improvisation within a group. So, liberal society requires diverse voices and structures that enable the freedom of self-expression.

The agreement amongst musicians, the social contract, if you will, is that each person has decided to enable the freedom of self-expression — “we will help each other and won’t get in each other’s way” — is the unstated mantra of the jazz band.

During the Cold War, jazz was viewed as a stealth weapon precisely because if its ability to entice people with the possibilities inherent in the freedom of self-expression. Jazz music represented democracy, literally and metaphorically; and during the ideological standoff between communism and its foe, jazz musicians and their fans were considered threats to a more orderly way of life. Makes sense, jazz and democracy are messy. When everyone has a voice that is deemed valid for meaningful participation on the bandstand and/or in civic, judicial, political, and executive processes; then, decision-making is complicated and can be slow, tedious, and costly. Authoritarian regimes can seem utopian by contrast.

Jazz is Hard. Democracy is hard. Integration is hard.
Clans offer comfort and security, until they don’t. Deep loyalties can mask abuses of every kind, limit or obscure opportunities, and otherwise veil potential. When the State is weak, corruption reigns, and abuses of every kind are rampant. Deregulation is a great idea, until it isn’t. Sure, liberating markets is great but when the effort feeds on itself; we can easily revert to closeted activities — nepotism, sexism, racism, etc., — that erode progress and undermine not only the economy but the strength of liberal society. Integration encourages transparency, revealing activities that might otherwise remain hidden. This inherent checks & balances system makes democracy hard all over again. A strong State promotes and protects individuality. Dr. Wes said it best on Friday’s show, [Duke Ellington would], “enable members of his band to be their best selves—and as a result, by the way, very few people wanted to leave his band.” Where jazz goes; so, too, goes democracy. Let’s swing.

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Albert Murray’s Influence Beyond the Blues

Albert Murray was 97 when he passed away in his Harlem apartment on Sunday, August 18, 2013, at 7:30PM. It was a moment those of us closest to him had been expecting and when the moment finally came, the foot soldiers in his command knew just what to do. A series of calls, emails, and text alerts signaled to all — the time had come. Some of us convened in his home to offer comfort to the family; hear his long-time caretaker’s stories of his final moments, watch a VHS of his 50th wedding anniversary, toast the magnitude of the man, and contact the media.

Albert Murray, Jackie Modeste
Albert Murray, Jackie Modeste

 

In the days that followed, there have been many tributes to Murray. I have remained silent; the articles written – when combined – offer a fair assessment of Murray and his work. Fellow Murrayite Paul Devlin shared an article written by Daniel Matlin that motivated me to join the discussion. Matlin gets off to a good start, quoting Henry Louis Gates Jr. in describing Murray as a “militant integrationist” Ahhh yes; that line of thinking will move us in a direction we’ve not yet ventured in re-membering Murray. In his seminal text, The Omni Americans, Murray famously defined American culture as “incontestably mulatto.” (22) Matlin’s historical timeline — his delineation of the riots, their impact, and the shifting discourse from the civil rights issues of the South to the urban blight in the North — is insightful. His deft positioning of the intellectual and philosophical divide between those who laid bare the urban blight of Northern cities and those who celebrated the “creativity and agency of the black poor” is instructive. As Matlin asserts, Murray’s writings often countered “pathologism by adopting a diametrically opposed position that was no less partial and exaggerated, and that tended toward a troubling romanticization of the lives of the black urban poor.”

Indeed. So, let’s begin THAT discussion….

The integrationist ideology advanced in Murray’s nonfiction and depicted fictionally in his Scooter series lacked the overt edginess and violence of the Jim Crow era, the tumultuous Civil Rights era, and subsequent racial strife. As Matlin suggests, Murray’s writing seemed out of touch. This criticism is not without merit. However, there are two aspects about Murray you should know: Albert Murray was an Air Force officer and a man who believed, unwaveringly, in the power of educational excellence. As such, Murray saw a world beyond localized conflict. Instead of harnessing the energy of legitimate resentment or anger towards social and economic injustice and transforming these emotions into more of the same in a “boots-on-the-ground” effort to effect change; Murray employed a strategy that had the potential to change the governing structure of society.

In the culture of so-called black Americans, Murray found the arsenal for revolutionary change — the creative transformation of the blues and the harmonious collaboration of jazz in the form of swing. In the trenches of civil unrest words, ideas, and bodies could become casualties of sectarian fighting. So from his Spyglass tree – the eighth floor of his Harlem apartment – Murray looked down on the rooftops and streets, considered the vast expanse of human endeavor and possibility, and developed a strategy – a cultural coping mechanism – for combating injustice, long term and worldwide.

The Necessity of heroes 

The Scooter Murray created was a storybook hero, an archetype, whose exploits were meant to instruct the masses. If Scooter’s do-good nature seemed to belie the very real dangers of Jim Crow, it was because he saw a world of possibility in spite of the perpetual threats to his mind, body and spirit. Indeed, Scooter was Murray’s “(local) personification of the hope… of mankind.” (Hero and the Blues, 92) Armed with a rich culture, solid education, an inquisitive nature, and steel-rugged determination, Scooter was a “prediction and even a promise” a “warning as well as an inspiration” of the meaningful change to come. (Hero, 92) Those, who like Scooter, wielded razor-sharp intellect and demonstrated intellectual and emotional agility could be central players in societal transformation – not in the streets – but on the level of policy; an effort that required deep integration into new and more complicated environments and the “high grade point average” Murray wrote about so often. (Briarpatch, 20)

JALC Wall: Emilio, Jose, Albert Murray

 

Education & revolutionary change

Murray noted, “Many confuse revolution with rebellion.” (Briarpatch, 18) Murray reminded his readers that the “rebellion part, as rugged as it may get to be from time to time, is only incidental. It is the revolutionary change that counts” and in Murray’s estimation, education would be the key. So, at the 1978 Honors Convocation at Howard University, Murray advised his audience to be “outstanding students.” “What” he asked “could be more subversive in the United States!” (18) Indeed, in light of the privatization of education, the frenzied high-stakes testing, the rising cost of higher education, etc. – Murray’s insights are as timely as ever.

From the particular to the universal 

The dichotomy Matlin creates – castigating or celebrating black American life – is not sufficient for studying Murray. Murray’s writing on the hybrid nature of the blues and jazz and their rightful place in discussions of US identity are key to understanding the vast influence of his thinking. The blues and swing represent the relationship between the particular and universal. For Murray, “the intellectual’s very first step should represent an effort to approach life in universal terms…. To become as cosmopolitan as possible.” Further, he advised, “you reach the universal or the cosmopolitan through the particular.” (Briarpatch, 18)

So what does this mean?

It means by recognizing the individuality expressed through the blues we gain insight into larger group dynamics. The blues with its deep emotion, inherent call-and-response pattern, and ultimate catharsis, acknowledges and affirms humanity. The human desire to connect is revealed through the blues as is the potential to transform, endure and perhaps thrive amidst even the most inhumane circumstances or conditions. Jazz with its polyrhythms, multi instrumentation, and varied configurations represents the complexity of group dynamics. The blues is the common denominator, connecting individuals emotionally. When individuals recognize their shared emotion — when they listen to one another – they can develop empathy for each other. When jazz musicians bend their instrumental sounds to the fragility of the human voice, the wailing, moaning, and longing so often associated with the blues; they acknowledge, integrate, and emulate human emotion and make it part of the group’s consciousness and forward movement. When this is part of swing, it is the ultimate form of cooperation or collaboration because it indicates we’re listening to one another and moving in the same direction.

Writ large, the relationship between the blues and jazz offers insight into community formation, organizational structure, and the possibilities of large-scale collaboration. Championing the blues as a necessary component of jazz acknowledges the myriad contributions of Americans of African descent in the creation of the broader US national identity. It is also a mechanism by which to acknowledge and integrate the historically marginalized and disenfranchised into the broader fabric of American life. By transference, this is a template that can be applied across geopolitical borders because every region, every country has its own blues. Swing represents a coordinated effort. Make no mistake, spreading jazz – especially in the form of swing – whether by musical tours, educational programming, online streaming, etc., is an inherently radical act because it makes people aware of their individual voices and their collective power. This is the connection between jazz and democracy. One need look no further than to the Arab Spring to understand the transformative power of people acknowledging individual suffering, collaborating, and effecting meaningful change. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen insightfully noted, “jazz consistently represented a stealth weapon” during the Cold War – the same is true today. (Satchmo, 28)

 

Beyond the Blues…

And there’s more… When multinational corporations enter into established or emerging market areas, their activities are not unlike that of the musician playing blues-based jazz. The corporate behemoth must bend its “ear” to the streets in order to better know the desires of potential consumers. To better understand the dynamics of crowds? Look no further than a Second Line parade or a jam session. To integrate innovation into business models or company culture? Look to the jazz musician soloing, improvising collectively, or in a small group. Hierarchical organizations in general – corporations, governments, and higher education institutions – pose particular challenges to progress and innovation, the blues and jazz studied as related processes offer insight into how and where to make necessary improvements. Through his writing, Murray projected an “image of man (and of human possibility) that is intrinsically revolutionary. Such an image… is automatically at radical odds with the status quo.” (Hero, 81)

Do Murray’s methods of combat belie the grittiness of the struggle for socio-economic justice? Hardly. Like the military man he was, Murray formulated strategy above the fray (an Air Force officer would) that would take care of us individually but that could serve the cause of socio-economic injustice globally.

My mentor Albert Murray will be memorialized tomorrow, September 10, 2013, at 1PM in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, an organization built in large part on his intellectual framework. We do ourselves a great disservice if we think of Murray as a man who presented simple dichotomies such as – black v. white or “misery and social breakdown” v. “joyful and carefree.” Not only do we miss the breadth and depth of Murray’s thinking and reveal ourselves as poor students of culture with only a tangential understanding of his voluminous writings; we simplify the struggle for socio-economic justice and so become consumed with distractions at the margins of the debates. Honoring Albert Murray requires intellectual integration, moving our thinking from margin to center; being “incontestably mulatto.” After all, we are Omni-Americans.

 

Skills Shortage on the Global Stage

In one of my favorite Foreign Affairs articles, Secretary of State (former) Hilary Rodham Clinton sounds very much like the head of a multinational corporation with an ear bent towards listening to diverse constituents and reaching the geopolitical frontline. Acknowledging the changing global terrain, Clinton emphasizes interconnectedness and the changes necessary in diplomatic skills sets. She notes, “increasing global interconnectedness now necessitates reaching beyond governments to citizens directly…”. She continues, today’s ambassadors are, “responsible not only for managing civilians from the State Department and USAID but also for operating as the CEO of a multiagency mission.”[1]

How do we cultivate the skill of knowing how to communicate with civilians directly when prior experience required expertise in dealing only in elite circles and spheres of influence? 

In a really insightful TED talk, Paddy Ashdown identifies three major shifts in power. Watch Paddy’s talk below:

 

One thing that most intrigued me was the way Paddy correlated the growth of multinational corporations with international criminality, globalization means they share the same space. We get both the “good” and the “bad” at once. This mandates the rule of law but one that goes beyond our traditional nation-state thinking into the realm of global governance (not government). He notes “treaty based agreements” such as the G-20 and Kyoto as efforts in this direction. Paddy goes onto talk about our “multipolar world,” or a “European concert of balance, a five-sided balance” and “counter balance” and of course that got me to thinking about music….

I’ve written here about Global Swing and also about coordinating information from disparate sources in such a way that we not only hear the distinct “voices” but create a synthesis of meaning — harmony — in our heads (see “Six-Part Harmony.”) I’ve also written an article on the ways in which the cultural footprint of the blues and swing can be discerned in sectors as different as education, healthcare, business and governance. So, this stuff is heavy on my mind.

Today, I’m thinking about the relationship between diplomacy, multinational corporations, and swing as a model of governance. It seems to me that the skill set Clinton identifies as being necessary in our cadre of diplomats is the same skill set that leaders in multinational corporations need – the ability to communicate effectively, and even confidently, across and through sectors, with particular emphasis on those that seem unfamiliar.

In moving towards a system of global governance, we’ll need to listen to not only the most vociferous, those that have traditionally held the reigns of power, but those that have been historically and geopolitically marginalized. Paddy says, “We must reach beyond the cozy circle of our Western friends.” Clinton advocates for “civilian power” and says we must reach “beyond governments to citizens directly.” New players on the global stage, MOOCs and US universities with an international bricks-and-mortar presence face similar challenges as they negotiate the realm of diplomacy and global governance through the entry-point of education. Employees at every level of the university – along with diplomats and multinational corporate leaders – must acquire new skills to be effective. There’s a lot of work in retraining to do!

Paddy informs us that the cultural model of a “European concert of balance” worked in an earlier historical period. Learning how to integrate globally is a central challenge for today’s players on the global stage and so I am convinced that cultural models hold the most promise. I’m placing my bet on swing. Let’s consider the two forms…

Fugues articulate distinct scripted voices that come together in a pleasing blend of sounds creating a unity that is both complex and simplistic. There is a beauty in fugues that soothes the soul. A fugue’s parts are transcribed and are to be performed in strict accordance with notations with very little room, if any, for improvisation. Fugues can be emotionally rich but deviations from the score are not encouraged, anticipated or desired.

Jazz is the music of active participation and it is jarring – or, at least, it can be. Collective improvisation – a la Jelly Roll Morton – comes first to mind. Jelly Roll’s music brings together a cacophony of instrumental voices in a highly textured, tightly woven musical statement where everyone’s voice is prominent, recognizably audible. Somehow, the “mess” of the music has synthesis. Part of this mess is in the unstructured articulation of voices at unexpected times. Everyone is gathered to play the same song but there’s really no way to predict how an individual musician will decide to play along. Uncertainty is inherent in jazz.

…and THIS is the world in which we live.

Swing is about coordinating the perceived cacophony and creating a musical flow – governance, if you will. Finding a way to integrate the seemingly disparate parts in such a way as to advance the score. A steady rhythm is important in swing because it drives the momentum. Henry Ford needed a reliable pace for his workers. Dancers need reliable beats to ensure well-articulated and well-placed steps. The work of cooperating with various global constituents – some of whom will seem unfamiliar and whose values systems will seem at odds with our own – will be messy. We must keep the “mess” and swing. We need people trained in coalescing eclectic parts and creating a cooperative flow.

Skills needed include: listening, collaboration, leadership, resilience, and the ability to exude grace under pressure


[1] Foreign Affairs, Volume 89, No. 6, “Leading through Civilian Power” 14 -15

Call-and-Response: the US, Qatar & Current TV

In a move that exemplifies his ability to identify and form strategic partnerships – not to mention his business acumen – Al Gore sold Current TV to the Qatari owned Al Jazeera for a handsome $500M. In quick response, Time Warner Cable (TWC) dropped Al Jazeera English (AJE) from its cable line up eliminating access to education in international affairs and world news to millions of viewers.

This is a bad thing…sadface3

AJE is not without its critics. In a delightfully biased article, John Nolte takes the New York Times to task for criticizing TWC’s right to cut ties with Current TV given the sale to AJE. Lambasting the “elite journalist overlords” who “apparently consider this openly anti-American, anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist cable news network” worthwhile, Nolte asserts “it’s no secret that Islamists subjugate women, fight for a theocracy, and despise gays.” And since protecting the freedom of speech is important in the US, it’s also “no secret” that the right-leaning in the US have a robust reputation for doing the same, but for now…

Praised by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator John McCain for its coverage of the Arab Spring, AJE is more than the incendiary news source its critics claim it is. Rather, it’s an educational platform that allows average people – not field professionals, such as journalists, politicians, diplomats, scholars, etc – to better understand and weigh in on discussions regarding international affairs. AJE could help create a better informed US populace, particularly if people don’t agree with the range or tenor of topics being covered because through ideological dissent, clarity of one’s own views can emerge.

As in jazz, call and response (CNR) are intricately connected actions. The repetition of calls and responses forms a conversation or swing and sustaining these conditions is no simple thing! Watch this short clip of Reggie Thomas and Alvin Atkinson.

When AJE puts out a “call” regarding world affairs, the US populace returns a “response” based on what is heard and understood. Eliminating the “call” means either the “response” doesn’t exist or it is disconnected; in which case, the populace remains “ignorant” literally – “destitute of knowledge or education.” Encouraging conversation — not perpetuating ignorance — should be our goal.

In severing ties with Current TV, TWC abdicates its responsibility to help educate. In an act that reinforces corporatism, TWC seeks to maintain the status quo and so the dim glow of already lackluster intelligence by hiding behind the excuse of low ratings and the legal right to terminate the agreement.

Creating a more engaged populace requires collaboration, conversation. CNR is a necessary part of building understanding and improving listening; it’s also a central tenet of the blues and jazz. Given Qatar’s increasing involvement in world affairs, its acquisition of Current TV makes sense. Qatar is also home to Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha and like it’s NYC counterpart, JALC Doha privileges swing jazz. Why? Because swing requires engagement, active involvement. Qatar is sending out a global “call” and the opportunity — the responsibility — to respond is ours.

Train Whistle Diplomacy: Blues-Based Jazz & National Identity

Train Whistle Diplomacy: Blues-Based Jazz and National Identity (47 – 67)

  • Blues and swing, 48 – 51
  • Blues-Based jazz, 51 – 53
  • Business strategy and corporate culture, 54 – 56
  • Government and Governance, 57 – 58
  • The President, 59 – 60
  • The Significance of Culture, 60  – 61
  • Spain: 61 – 62
  • Mexico: 62 – 64

Thanks to the Editorial Board and the Advisory Board for your helpful comments and suggestions in brining this article to print.

The Necessity of Global Swing

Swing is a matter of coordination – finding and sustaining equilibrium – a rhythmic flow. The recent G-20 meeting in Mexico was an example of the shifting global terrain. The ebbing of Western dominance must be balanced with nations not historically integrated into the global power structure. This year, BRIC nations asserted their voices globally by contributing 75% of the International Monetary Fund’s firewall. Similar articulations resonate in the healthcare sector where India, for example, has had a major impact on reducing the price of HIV/AIDS treatments and essentially eliminating its country’s polio epidemic.
Swing

The need to compete

Getting the world to swing will require coordination across and through regions. As with a jazz ensemble, each section or region has its own sound, its own expertise. Mutual respect within sections and between them informs the performance of the chart. Divided into chairs or individual roles within the section, each musician – like each geographic region – has a role to play that can be noncompetitive within the section/region and certainly across instrumental divisions in the same way that Taiwan will differentiate itself (market segment, military, cultural offerings and consumer preferences, etc.) from South Korea and from Hong Kong. Likewise, a first-chair saxophonist cannot compete with a second chair; they play different parts. A saxophone and trombone are, of course functionally different and play in different keys though both are needed in an ensemble.

When the virtuosity of one instrumentalist challenges that of another within his section; increasing the number of chair positions can accommodate the internal or sectional differentiation. The more chair positions (think globally here and think diversity) the greater the ability to capture nuances of sound, to recognize individuality. Geographically, when the virtuosity or expertise of one region is articulated, it differentiates itself from other regions.

Blind & Deaf

Superpowers no longer rule the world. Today’s construct is not a dialogue but a conversation disrupted by a multiplicity of voices. BRIC nations, African countries, and Latin American nations have integrated into and diversified the global dialogue, and have created a polyrhythmic global conversation that requires more nuanced hearing, different listening, and more complex and attuned responding. Nicholas Kristof’s NYT article on Africa and its promise is instructive. As he notes, the media typically covers the famine or genocide dichotomy all too familiar when reporting on African nations. This “black or white” divide is all too common in US political, legal and economic history. When these polarities guide discussions, they mask underlying potential of people and individual nations; turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to nations and entire continents where talent and vast resources are left unrealized. By seeing and hearing differently the US might – like the Asian countries Kristof mentions – build mutually beneficial relationships in Africa.

Jazz as a conversation

Conversations enriched by multiple points of view can – like jazz – create the conditions for new ideas to emerge and innovations to occur. Each new bit of information integrated into a conversation, each new instrumental voice incorporated into a jazz score increases the differentiation. Each new disruption requires us to seek balance again by acknowledging and responding to the disruptive force. For example, the common 4/4 time signature is disrupted each time the blues weaves its way into the sonic efficiency. Improvisations also challenge equilibrium. Culturally this is the process by which we integrate diverse national, religious, gendered, etc., voices into conversations ranging from global governance and multinational management strategies to local politics and school board elections.

Artful impact

Seeing and hearing differently increases our consciousness and can change our perspective. Take, for example, Scott Shane’s NYT article “as Islamists Gain Influence, Washington Reassesses Who Its Friends Are.” The author correctly assumes that Americans don’t see clearly or listen carefully. Why should anyone be surprised when a nation of Muslims elects an Islamist government? Yet, those accustomed to binary opposition are suspicious of the gray area regarding inquiries by the newly elected President into the release of an Egyptian sheik. On this point Representative Peter T. King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee asserts, this is “the kind of talk you hear on the street – not from the president of the country.” Well, yes, Peter and that’s actually the point. Learning to listen to the crowds and not simply voices emanating from the elite sectors of government (or the C-Suites in business) gives us vital information that could be instructive. (Think Jamie Dimon).

Middle East experts like Michele Dunne, however, are attuned to nuances. In her view it should not be assumed that the “rise in Islamists puts the United States in greater danger from terrorists.” In fact, she thinks the opposite may be true. “Major Egyptian terrorists” she notes, “were shaped by their rage against the [Hosni] Mubarak dictatorship” – a secular Western-leaning leader.  “The movement of Islamists into mainstream politics should reduce the terrorism threat.” Thinking musically, this makes sense to me because when the voices of the people are integrated into the policies that govern their lives – the score – the policies are consistent with their views. When strategy reaches the frontline, productivity increases due to large-scale “buy-in.” The integration of voices into and across sectors disrupts the one-way flow of information. But there’s more – when multiple voices are integrated into the flow of information the dichotomy is disrupted and an enriched conversation occurs.

Is this hard to manage? Of course! Short term, dictatorial styles are highly efficient but if you’re committed to democratic formation or long-term business viability and relevance, it’s wise to be slow and steady. Coordinated efforts increase engagement and dissention but they also diffuse tension over time and create the conditions for sustained organizational flow, or swing. Michele Dunne’s advice is instructive, “If Islamic groups like the Brotherhood lose faith in democracy” — when your citizens or employees think their voices are not being heard — “that’s when there could be consequences.”

Get ready to swing…

What’s this mean for you? Get more art in your life. Art is disruptive; it forces us to emote, to demonstrate our humanity. Moreover, art gives us examples we can use to deepen our understanding of the world.

Disruption anyone?

Consider the following clip: Alan Gilbert directs a masterful program, the “Philharmonic 360” a spatial performance that features three separately situated orchestras in New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Philharmonic 360This ain’t no concert hall. The Armory is the size of a US football field with an 80 ft (24m) vaulted ceiling. Think about the three separately situated orchestras as geographic regions and consider their efforts to perform their very best rendition of a chart, the way in which their sounds diffuse into the air, and are received by audience members. Now consider the challenges of conducting or governing these disparate regions, each with its own identity, personality, strengths and weaknesses, etc. Now consider the importance of trust and having your strategy/chart reach the “frontline.”

Classical changes

Disrupting organizational structure is unsettling. Coordinating seemingly disparate voices is an anxiety-ridden endeavor and the outcomes are not assured (though Gilbert’s program was brilliant). Gilbert’s program was exceptional in the classical realm. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s largest venue, Frederick P. Rose Hall, features a stage where part of the audience sits behind the orchestra.

JALC Rose Theatre

 You see, jazz is about mobility and integration and so in the concert hall designed specifically for its performance, audience engagement was a key factor. In Gilbert’s program and in the Ode to Joy Flash Mob, classical music is seen doing what art always does – disrupting our sensibilities. Jazz does this all the time but classical? Indeed, the tectonic plates are shifting. Let’s find our footing and swing.

The Inverted Front Line: Listening to Polyrhythms

Essentially Ellington is an annual international high school jazz band competition sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) shared the stage with high school students at various points and also performed charts for the upcoming season’s competition. The JLCO’s performance of Duke Ellington’s “Second Line” was compelling […]

Practice What You Preach

I am no fan of Sarah Palin. So I was irritated by the TODAY show’s decision to use her as a guest host today. I admire Palin’s outdoorsy ruggedness and her athleticism. I am intrigued that she is from Alaska, a state I’ve always wanted to visit. My disconnect hails from the moment Palin entered the national spotlight as John McCain’s choice for VP running mate in 2008. What a smack in the face for women, I thought. How could such an unintelligent, disconnected, ill-informed person advance the interests of anyone? How could she represent the nation? Surely thinking people of all stripes and women in particular would see though John McCain’s offensive attempt to secure the female vote by choosing a running mate whose only commonality with women broadly is physiology. So, today I was determined to opt-out of watching TODAY in protest.

… and then my twelve-year old said to me, “You have to watch TODAY because you say we can’t just listen to people we agree with.” Grrrr! So, I watched the show and I’m glad. Not only because I demonstrated by my own example that “Mommy stands by her word” but because watching the show was instructive. My opinion of Palin has not changed; in fact, I’m more convinced than before that she is ill-informed on a variety of issues and intellectually weak. I am also more convinced than ever that responsible journalism is a thing of the past, at least on morning TV.

My twelve-year old’s reminder reminded me of my recent blog posts, “Six-part Harmony” and “No Rhythm, No Rhyme” where I lamented the lack of listening by elected officials, professionals in a variety of fields, and the resulting lack of meaningful engagement and productive conversation. Our problem in finding answers to the innumerable problems we face as a nation and as global citizens, is not a lack of intelligence but a lack of engaged conversation. When we only listen to like-minded people, we stagnate; we flat line and effectively stop growing and learning. Innovation does not/cannot happen.

I am reminded of a musical collaboration between Wynton Marsalis and Yacub Addy, a Ghanaian master percussionist. The two agreed to work on a joint project due to their mutual respect for one another and the often-sited commonalities between West African music and jazz. Musically, however, these two forms just didn’t gel; they were too different. Wynton explained,  “In performance, we discovered things about balance, orchestration, and the beat – our two musics are very different. We realized that a collaboration showing both groups at their best might not be possible.” Well, if two world-class musicians can’t find a way through “dissent” what hope is there for the rest of us?!

Short answer, there’s a lot of hope for us. Here’s the thing: musicians spend a lot of time in rehearsal. Rehearsal is where they test their musicianship, artistry, and their ability to collaborate. SWOT is exposed in rehearsal. Wynton and Yacub worked through their musical differences and found commonalities that allowed the musical project to move forward. They engaged their differences, struggled through the learning process and created an outstanding piece of music, Congo Square.

Here’s a clip from Wynton’s first trip to Africa. This clip might be my favorite. He is listening to a group of South African children sing a traditional song. He’s never heard the song and doesn’t speak the language but when the children are finished, Wynton “sings” the song back to them through his trumpet. This clip demonstrates humility, respect, and the subsequent and immediate result – learning.  

Musicians engage difference as a matter of professional necessity; do we? Imagine if we extended this to engaging difference in politics, education, business, diplomacy, and relationships of every kind. You know the “right” thing to do. So, go practice what you preach and make the world a better place.