Gigging in Australia: Project-based Learning via Kickstarter

Full disclosure – my son, Emilio, launched (with my help) a Kickstarter campaign to raise money so he can participate in his jazz band’s trip to Australia in March 2014. You can learn about the project and donate by clicking, Gigging in Australia.

Kickstarter and Project-based learning

The idea of building a Kickstarter project was suggested by two band parents during a meeting about the planned trip to Australia. “What a novel idea” I thought. Instead of simply (painfully and often with great angst) writing checks for our kids to participate in enrichment activities, why not let the event be child led? Of course, given my work as an educator and consultant, I view this as an opportunity to help my son develop skills as an entrepreneur. I got excited about the learning experience. Here’s just some of what he’d have to do:

  • Build the project by selecting and organizing content; meeting Kickstarter specifications; designing his project “story”
  • Use social media and technology in a professional manner to develop and promote his message strategically
  • Engage with fans and supporters
  • Create a Rewards system – deliverables based on varying levels of support

That said, I knew I’d have to guide various elements of the project. For starters, you have to be 18 to launch a project. Also, this is his first time coordinating various skills in such a way for such a purpose. So, we’ve had lots of “teaching” moments about how to create a compelling story, crowd funding, the strategic use of social media, etc.

There’ve been a lot of educational “delights” for me regarding Emilio’s process. First, we spend a good deal of one-on-one time together, talking about the project. I can hear how he thinks, what parts of the discussion he is/is not following, and advance or readjust my delivery accordingly. For example, discussing crowd funding was easy. Emilio is a musician trained in jazz. Explaining crowd funding via a discussion of Second Lines was a simple matter: the crowd comes together for a specific event, builds/participates, and disperses. Using social media, however, was tricky. Emilio figures he “already knows” how to use social media. So, the conversation shifted from technical know-how to strategic know-how. “What you say to your friends and how you say it” may differ from what you might say to a potential supporter (client, investor, etc). “How does the message differ?” and “What’s important for you to share?” Also, “At what point – is there such a point – when the types of messages converge?”

Several skills already in use in school.

Students are accustomed to Rubrics. On Kickstarter the project specifications that must be met in order to gain approval are the “rubric.” Given the specifics, Emilio was able to assemble content – videos, stories, images – he wanted to use. Project acceptance meant that he successfully met the criteria. Explaining the trip required creating a narrative from the planned itinerary. Taking an uninteresting, data filled-numbers, time and location heavy document and creating an interesting storyline is like technical writing. Emilio also had to decide on the types of Rewards to offer at various levels of support. Of course, the Rewards require more work. He’ll be recording 1-2 songs in a professional recording studio and sharing the music with some supporters. He will also compose original music influenced by his trip for a quintet and share the electronic file with supporters (skills: music writing, arranging, and technology in transferring the file to electronic form). Emilio is a visual artist too and will provide original artwork for t-shirts he’ll design. I showed Emilio HootSuite, how it works and what it does. We discussed timing messages to be released according to time zone; how to identify and contact key recipients; and how to track successful dissemination.

Digital Divide?

One unexpected topic has come up often during our Kickstarter process and has led to more great discussions with Emilio. Many “would-be” supporters who are well-educated and successful working professionals want to write paper checks or offer cash as support. This is most curious to me. In this experience, we’ve noticed the people who want to write checks do not live near major metropolitan areas; and while they happen to be very well-educated and successful professionally, they do not directly use technology in a professional manner (staffers use the technology). They have expressed great discomfort with donating online. On the other hand, some who want to offer cash do so because they can give immediately, hand-to-hand. Emilio has had to explain how Kickstarter works; the value of a crowd in crowd funding; and the problems of tracking donations and returning money if the funding goal is not reached. We’ve also been wondering about a Digital Divide in the United States and where it might exist, specifically:

  • To what extent do medical professionals and/or members of higher socio-economic classes use social media and technology for professional purposes (as opposed to staffers or other designees)?
  • In what ways does the professional use of social media and technology by medical professionals and/or members of higher socio-economic classes change as we move away from urban centers?
  • Also, to what’s the relationship between cash donations and employment or credit status?

That said, I’ve been delighted to find social media and technology use high in New York City across all age groups. One 70 year-old user and supporter of Gigging in Australia, described the project to me, identified the funding goal ($6,250 USD) and deadline (February 2, 2014, at 11:32AM ET); and offered suggestions for a push during the last week of the drive. Wow, just wow.

Being an Entrepreneur

Is hard and often frustrating. Failure is a constant foe. Emilio has invested a lot of time, energy, and thought in a project that may fall sort of the funding goal. So, there is the very real possibility Emilio will not join his band mates in the March trip to Australia. This has been a good discussion to have. Emilio is no stranger to such anxiety-ridden experiences. He performs regularly for audiences that can be as enthusiastic as they are ambivalent. No matter, he must get on stage each time and bring the fullness of his talent and ability to each song. What’s more, he might tank in a solo by not knowing the rhythm changes or having a “brain freeze” and not being able to translate his ideas into sound when he’s called upon to solo. Emilio also plays soccer and the angst of losing a game even when you did your very best, is al too real. Losing never feels good but it’s a fact of life. Musicians (and athletes) live in a world where “no” means recalibrate and try again.

So, Gigging in Australia has been a lot of fun and has been a great learning experience for many reasons. If we are fortunate, we’ll meet our funding goal; if not, we’ll recalibrate and try some other project, some other time. Of course, we’d appreciate your support of Gigging in Australia and you can DONATE NOW by clicking, Gigging in Australia.

Advertisements

Cultivating Creativity in Classroom, Jazz & in Business

Creativity is not a skill but cultivating it is. As an educator, I facilitate the student’s learning process; identifying, bringing out, and pairing the student’s creativity with whatever “lesson” needs to be mastered. This journey begins with hearing the student’s voice, forming a rapport and developing trust so that the environment is one in which the student can share information and ideas freely. Master Drummer Michael Carvin shared his approach with me in a discussion on Trading Fours. He noted, “I allow [my students] to be free.”

Freedom don’t come easy.

Freedom to deviate from the rules of play must be earned. How do educators figure out how much “freedom’ to give students? By actively engaging students and conducting real-time assessments that let the educator learn what the student brings to the classroom and then determine what needs to be done to move the student in the direction of mastering a given lesson. The educator’s role is to prepare the student for self-guided learning, for self-sufficiency, self-reliance. The assessment process is ongoing, it’s a continuous feedback loop and requires the educator to guide — not dictate — the process. This also means students cannot be passive receivers of information transmitted by the educator. Instead, students and educators are participants in the process of co-creating the learning environment and so owners of the content discovered. The educator’s role is to keep the process on track.

Carvin at the drum set

Pedagogy

Michael Carvin’s pedagogical practices are instructive. He says, “As a teacher, you have to lead that student. As a bandleader you have to lead the guys in the band. The way I decide whose going to be in my band is to ask them to call and song and play it. That way when you hear my band play, you can hear the urgency” of co-creation. Dictating to the student is a signal of the educator’s inadequacy for the task at hand. Carvin notes, “If I have to show you, then I’m not fit to teach you. Then I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s not about me doing it; it’s about you doing it.” In this way, educators develop self-reliant and self-guided learners and simultaneously refine their own pedagogical skills. Carvin’s humorous take on this drives home this point. “You’d be outta your mind to pay some drum teacher to play an hour in a lesson. You’re paying him to practice. What are you learning? Do you go to a restaurant and order steak and have the chef eat it?” He notes, “Some may argue that some people need to be shown. No they don’t. The only time they have to be shown is when you [the educator] can’t articulate it.”

The assumption here is that students enter the learning process, not as beginners, but at an advanced stage. Michael Carvin does not train beginners. This is important to note because the novice must learn the basics, the rules of play, before s/he can articulate, explore, and develop an individual voice. The novice has limited freedom; rules are for beginners or as Jazz Code Founder Carl Stormer notes, “control is for beginners” — and that applies to both the student and educator.

It also applies to businesses

I could replace the word “educator” above with “business leader.” If we demand creativity of our workers and want them to innovate (because we realize this has a direct impact on revenue); then, we must create environments where creativity can flourish. Business Model innovator Karl Burrow of Tokyo-based Karllestone Capital noticed that when he played jazz in his workshops, the energy in the room changed. He explained, “When we were going through the design session, the [clients] picked up the speed, the speed really increased… it really turned the workshop around.” He noticed, “When I put on the music… it really [got] the creative juices flowing and [clients] could really grasp the content.”

Karllestone_image

No surprises here

People like jazz and like talking about the music. Sharing experiences of concerts attended, music collections, and such helps establish a rapport between colleagues, breeding familiarity, and developing trust (in musical taste and judgment, at least). The velocity of work increases, as Karl notes, because the speed picks up; and the ideas shift direction, becoming a complex amalgamation of project or task-specific “work” and creative interplay with music, associated commentary and perhaps some finger snapping, head bopping and foot patting along the way. Work begins to feel like jazz and if the creativity is really flowing, work — like jazz — will swing.

Communication styles can prohibit creativity. Call-and-response isn’t just a necessary component of the blues and foundational element of jazz; it’s a requirement for creativity. Hierarchy and deference can stifle creativity by keeping workers from voicing their ideas. This means, of course, leaders can’t hear new ideas and that cross-pollination of ideas with coworkers cannot occur. Karl Burrow notes that in emerging market economies there is great enthusiasm for workshops on innovation. This is true even in established companies in emerging market economies where Karl notes, the “audience jumps right in at the start” exuding “eagerness, enthusiasm and drive.”

This means a couple of things, including:

  • Hiring competent people who already know the “rules” of play
  • Actively engaging employees, encouraging them to share ideas, opinions, etc.
  • Guiding, not dictating, project completion
  • Fewer rules

Greg Satell’s recent article, “How Jazz Can Transform Business” is instructive. One of the most important takeaways, often hidden in discussions with musicians and business leaders is the need to “practice, practice, practice” because only through repetition can work look like play. While one workshop may lead to welcome breakthroughs, it won’t substantively change the culture any more than one practice session will create a master musician. When success looks easy, it’s because the hard work has become reflexive, rules are submerged, and the practitioner has learned to “play.”

Trading 4s with Michael Carvin 10/04 by TRADING 4s Drs Modeste and Wes | Education Podcasts

You Don’t Have to be a Musician to Swing

The response to the new Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp for Adults has been substantial. I am delighted so many of you want to incorporate a jazz sensibility into their way of engaging with students, clients, and customers. Be sure to follow us on Twitter @SatchmoSwings Together we’ll surely get the world to swing.

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.

 

The Gorilla & the Deep Blue (Ocean) Sea

This is a tumultuous time in the US. The Sanford, Florida, trial that let a murderer walk free reinforced various laws designed to protect assailants and insure the silence of targets of violence. In blatant opposition to public discourse, the judge in the case did not allow racial discussion to enter meaningfully into the proceedings. The outcome of the case has been contested in the media and public discontent stands in stark opposition to the court’s ruling indicating a most troubling disconnect between the public and the laws that govern our lives.

Part of a Larger Trend

This disconnect is part of a larger trend. Our human capital is our most valuable asset. We do ourselves a great disservice when we fail to recognize the potential of our diverse US population in bridging obvious gaps in the cultural capital we need to broker multinational deals in emerging market areas. The world is round, brown, young, rural and poor (by Western economic standards). Global access to the market economy is conduced largely via mobile transactions. This is why Facebook, Apple and Google have been in a push to open Internet access and sell cheaper versions of their devices in emerging market areas. It’s no surprise that multinationals see and appreciate this value; potential for new customers is an ocean that is vast and blue. Blue oceans represent continued growth for multinationals, longevity. However, so many of us don’t see similarly; we are not swimmers, we are afraid of the water and of the enormous gorilla sitting at the shore but more on that in a bit…

Population & Income

Neil Ungerleider notes, “tens of millions of American [US] Android and iPhone owners are struggling to make ends meet – and there are even more who are senior citizens, who live in rural areas, lack college or high school degrees…”

Income & Age
Income & Age

These people most closely resemble the billions of people in emerging market areas. Yet, the startup technology sector tends to preach to the choir – creating apps and opportunities for the “suburban/urban, and middle-to-upper class.” Neil insightfully notes, the “technology world is missing out on a lot of innovation” and tech companies are “missing out on potential profits.” Tech companies simply and unimaginatively create for each other and seem content investing in each other’s ideas; splashing around rather merrily in the backyard pool, they are oblivious to the big blue ocean.

The 800lb Gorilla

Diversity is a term that has become cliché and that’s unfortunate because we miss its nuances and so its value. The history of racial heritage bias in the US is so long and deep that it obliterates more complex discussions, such as the conflation of racial heritage and economics. We are left with relatively simplistic discussions of race that not only lack intellectual nuance but also that leave the structures of division unchallenged and so firmly in place, reinforcing socio-economic stagnation. These days and certainly with the re-election of the nation’s first President of African descent, discussions of race and racially realized power are considered outdated or irrelevant.

800lb gorilla

The 800lb gorilla blocking our access to sustained progress is race and its myriad combinations (gender, sexuality, power, etc.). Our efforts to ignore the gorilla are directly proportional to our delusions of grandeur. We simply cannot be effective players on the global stage if we refuse to engage matters of race in a brown world. So when an adult, whose father was a judge and served 10 years at the Pentagon, carries a concealed weapon and murders an unarmed teenager, the presiding judge’s decision to prohibit discussions of race from courtroom proceedings makes good sense – if you don’t think about it.

Youthful Future

In “Killing our Competitive Edge” I lamented the killing of our human capital. That our youth is our future is not simply a cliché; it’s a matter of fact; and, as the population expands, so does the growth of the nonwhite US sector. Likewise, the world’s population is growing steadily, particularly in emerging market regions. Internationally, growth is projected to be most robust in high-fertility countries such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Additionally, the populations of several African nations are expected to increase by at least five fold between 2013 and 2100. Young brown people, those under 25, comprise approximately 40 percent of today’s overall population and the number of people older than 60 is projected to triple by 2100. Despite this, technology companies create for the relatively few moneyed and well educated, seemingly blind to the existence and so the demands of the 800lb gorilla.

So What Gives?

We discuss diversity in terms that eliminate mention of race and so leave race and its related discussions void of complexity and nuance. We dance around the gorilla. In her well-meaning, thoughtful and even insightful article “Innovation Needs a Lingua Franca” (and by the way, that lingua franca? it’s called jazz) Whitney Johnson discusses the benefits of foreign language (Spanish in this case) and travel (to Uruguay) and describes how being on the “margin of culture” and “reaching out into unknown territory” were invaluable personal and professional experiences. Innovation, Johnson “discovers” happens when we put ourselves in “unpleasant” situations because it “opens a space for truly new ideas.”

Indeed, people of color no matter their socio-economic status live at the margins of culture everyday; and at least since W.E.B. DuBois articulated the notion of two-ness in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), we’ve had a language to describe and critique this allegedly newfound condition of being. When, like Whitney, we acknowledge and then disrupt our largely self-imposed segregated communities by daring to venture into realms unknown – like so many native-born, forced and willful immigrants who courageously integrate into “majority” societies the world over – we encourage creativity and position ourselves to “discover” all things anew. Through “two-ness” (three-ness, four-ness…), we discover the complexity that brings with it the benefit of helping us see more of the spectrum of human endeavor, behavior and desire. Through complexity, we build the confidence and the capacity to face the beast (otherwise known as the blues) and move beyond it into the vast blue oceans that await (knowing all the while there will be other predators to face).

Where Do We Go From Here?

When foreign travel and in-country language training become the recommended solutions for experiencing so-called diversity; when technology companies create apps, products and services for those within their own elite communities; when justices silence racial commentary from entering into legal discourse, we feed the gorilla while continuing to deny its existence and so reveal the breadth and depth of our delusions and essentially admit to the world our inability to partner effectively on matters of global consequence. We also perpetuate “otherness” and relegate diversity to a trendy “add-on” experience for the moneyed and well-educated and distance ourselves from the global reality of a growing youthful, brown and non-moneyed population. So when, as Mary Driscoll notes, we discover “major supply-chain disruption” in multinational corporations due to “unforeseen events” the problem is indeed blindness, cultural blindness to “many crucial strategic risks.” Ralph Ellison wrote eloquently on the dangers of these so-called “sleepwalkers” in his 1952 classic, The Invisible Man. Sleepwalkers are ill-prepared to contribute effectively to matters of global significance. I know it’s scary but it’s time to acknowledge the gorilla and call it by name — these are the first steps of change.

Killing our Competitive Edge

The outrage over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin is a reminder of the continued racial hostilities in the United States.

Trayvon Martin

Inequality and racism are toxins in the US that undermine every effort to build stronger communities, better schools, and prepare our populace to contribute effectively to the global economy. If we cannot right the wrongs in our midst, we lack the legitimacy to combat various humanitarian and political crises beyond our shores. We are ill-equipped partners in the global battles of women’s rights, human rights and justice in general if we cannot acknowledge the deep injustices in our own systems.

Circle of feet

The World is Brown

The world is not only round it is brown. Globalization is real. The next billion customers whose business is coveted by multinational corporations inhabit vast regions of the globe where the people are brown. The ethnic, religious, and national diversity inherent in the US populace and the – albeit, imperfect – framework we have in place to integrate all people into the functioning of the nation gives the US a unique advantage in having the skills necessary to effectively engage with the global community. Our diversity is our strength, it’s our competitive edge in all matters international. However domestic rising economic inequality and deeply imbedded racism unSchool childrendermine our progress in ways sure to leave us the outliers in global conversations of significance. Decisions of consequence – such as governance, education, and women’s rights – will be decided for us by a small faction, the globally proficient moneyed elite.

Education: the Miner’s Canary

The changes in education are instructive: the cost of tuition far outpacing median incomes; student loan debt surpassing credit card debt; students, teachers and schools “failing” to meet the standards necessary to ensure operations and funding; and the murder of pedagogy (and so creativity) in favor of an autocratic system designed to constrict learning to test taking.

Tuition v Income

A college education is considered mandatory for being competitive in the global economy. Yet when only the wealthy can afford higher education and we saddle the masses with massive student loan debt when they “buy-in” to the American dream, we undermine democracy, the likelihood of social mobility and contribute to greater income and asset inequality. What’s more, we create the conditions that cultivate the continued rise of a global elite, an oligarchy, separated – segregated – from the very masses that dominate the global economy.

Possibilities

MOOCs and community colleges offer practical alternatives for our domestic population and the global masses. However, these options are not recognized as viable replacements for brick-and-mortar or traditional four-year institutions. Furthermore, in their current iteration MOOCs have the eery appearance of “push” education, using a cookie-cutter approach to educational delivery, oblivious to differences in culture, learning styles, exposure,   and overall readiness to learn. The archaic system of educating lacks the agility necessary for educating broadly and is certainly incapable of educating billions around the world. Educational reform should concern itself with making education more egalitarian.

Youth: Leaders of Change

Our youth have always been the leaders of change, domestically and globally. When we allow an assailant’s bullet to kill our youth – such as in Chicago; Sanford, Florida; New York City or Oakland, California – we are killing our competitive edge, breeding hostility and distrust, and nourishing the status quo. Civil unrest in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America are not unlike struggles in the United States. Indeed, these global movements serve not only as powerful reminders of the consequences of cultivating inequality they undermine the legitimacy of our democracy, preview the bloody struggle necessary for justice, and align our struggles with the global masses. Globalization has come home.

SeminArts: cultural education

Cheating is a pervasive in our educational system; ok, yes, and in so many other areas of recent angst such as finance and banking/loans. But for now…

As the US tries to find new ways to emulate the Chinese system of educating, we’d do well to keep in mind the outcome of such efforts. When a sole test is the primary determinant for admission to college – which students are told is mandatory if they are to lead meaningful lives as middle-class citizens – then, we should expect a high incidence of cheating. Sal Bommarito’s suggestion that we teach ethics courses in school is just fine but is inadequate in combating the systemic problem of cheating. We have a cultural problem. Integrity is not learned in one class or even in a series of classes. It is cultivated over time and should be integrated into every aspect of learning, in the classroom and beyond its walls.

There is no way to “cheat” on a musical jury. There is no way to fake your way through an audition for acting, dance, or voice. There is simply no way to hide your inadequacies in sculpting, paining or design. Live performance requires authenticity. Our blind quest to mass produce education via standardized tests administered to swaths of students holed up in testing centers, leaves us ill prepared to identify the fakers in our midst. Artists practice integrity every day.

Matt Schiavenza notes that China’s educational system reflects “ancient Confucian principles” and “places an overwhelming emphasis on “memorization, recitation, and examination.” This makes sense because Confucius is so important in Chinese culture. Shouldn’t we value our own culture? The fierce independent spirit and innovation associated with being American should be at the core of our educational endeavors, impact pedagogy and guide policy decisions. Our obsessive and rather mindless obsession with testing illuminates the very worst parts of US culture; namely, our obsession with consumerism and this undermines our global legitimacy – it always has.

One reason jazz is so often associated with democracy is that the music is egalitarian. This means, anyone who desires to play jazz can participate. French horns, bassoons, saxophones, drums of any sort, Middle Eastern instruments, foot stomping, hand clapping, singing, humming and the like can all be used to perform jazz. The prerequisite for participation is a basic understanding of the instrument you choose to articulate your voice. It seems to me that our system of educating should also be egalitarian and reflect our democracy and culture of innovation.

So, here are some questions to consider: How do we honor our culture through education? Who is important in US culture and what aspects of their importance do we want to model? How might we transfer the best aspects of our culture into our pedagogy? How can we restructure, influence and so reshape our educational policies to be more in line with the richness of our culture? SeminArts and SeminArts LIVE!!! will explore these questions and more. Stay tuned…

Albert Murray at 97 — the Geography of a Mind

“Identity is best defined in terms of culture… American culture, even in the most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto.”

— Albert Murray (The Omni Americans, 22)

Of all the lessons I leaned from Murray, this nugget of truth – first imparted to the masses in his 1970 seminal text The Omni Americans – continues to resonate with immediacy. Simply stated, we are what we do; and if we are doing it in the same country, certainly in the same region, state, city or municipality, we are more similar than dissimilar despite efforts to accentuate the contrary.

But wait, aren’t Americans known for individuality? Don’t efforts to describe our culture as homogenous not only defy our national identity as historically articulated but also undermine today’s push to articulate our onlyness and to differentiate our unique qualities amidst global competition?  Well, yes, and no…

An Air Force officer trained along with the famous Tuskegee Airmen, Murray was well-traveled and lived overseas during various stints of military service. His hunger for exploration, however, was cultivated as a child living in a port city just outside of Mobile, Alabama. Ships from various parts of the world arrived in Mobile, sailors would disembark, and cultural integration and discovery began anew with each docking. This curiosity, inherent in childhood, was cultivated daily. Murray describes the wanderlust inspired by geography and topography through the voice of his protagonist, Scooter:

“You couldn’t see the L&N Bridge from the skiff boat landing where we were standing then, but we knew where it was because it was also the gateway through which the Chickasabogue, which was really a tributary, flowed out into the Mobile River which led down into Mobile Bay which spread out into the Gulf of Mexico which was a part of the old Spanish Main which was the beginning of the Seven Seas” which of course, could take you anywhere in the world.

– Albert Murray, Train Whistle Guitar, 40 (1974)

President Benjamin Payton (Tuskegee U) & Jackie Modeste
President Benjamin Payton (Tuskegee U) & Jackie Modeste

Murray also credits his English teachers for making him cognizant of the personal and social responsibility to travel. Morteza Drexel Sprague at Tuskegee and Mr. Baker at the Mobile County Training School considered racial progress (remember, this is the 1920s – 30s Jim Crow US Deep South) synonymous with “epical exploits” such as “penetrating frontiers and thereby expanding [a] people’s horizons of aspirations.” In other words, Murray owed it to his people to penetrate borders and to integrate himself into as wide an array of possibilities as possible because in so doing, he led others to push past borders of every type, both real and imagined. (Albert Murray, South to a Very Old Place, 132: 1970) Certainly this has particular resonance in domestic communities of color and the historically marginalized the world over. Yet when considered broadly, this notion moves us into enlightened discussions of immigration, global population shifts, and the associated political and legal requirements of facilitating such mobility. Cultivating citizen diplomats who know their place in the world — literally and figuratively — is a matter of education and is necessary for both the kindergartener who learns “A” is for Afghanistan and the executive in a multinational corporation.

One of my favorite quotes is Murray’s definition of the break. He writes, “Nor is the break just another mechanical structural device. It is of its very nature, as dancers never forget, what the basic message comes down to: 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.”

   — Albert Murray, The Blue Devils of Nada, 95: 1996

As we wonder how to “come back” after the devastating financial crisis and how to position ourselves given the pending crisis in education, we’d do well to learn resilience from the creative arts where asserting individuality and making a comeback are routine. “For what is ultimately at stake 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.” (Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues, 10: 1976)

Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, George Wein
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, George Wein

In 2001, as if reminding us to stay focused on collective progress, Murray offered a few words on protest. He wrote, “Protest is something that you must always be extremely careful about, because it can degenerate so easily into the self-righteousness of those who regard themselves as victims rather than people of potential and thus become more emotional than insightful and corrective.” Murray wanted “smart” conversation about our shared direction and he was clear, “Military rhetoric is not enough. And besides, it doesn’t require the high grade point average that the truly qualified leader must earn.”

 — Albert Murray, From the Briarpatch File, 20: 2001

I think about our political discourse and Frank Bruni’s recent article lamenting our uninformed citizenry and know the continued relevance of Murray’s wisdom.

Jackie Modeste, Albert Murray
Jackie Modeste, Albert Murray

Albert Murray outlived his two closest friends, Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden or “Romy” as Murray called him. Murray turned 97 on May 12th and he doesn’t always recognize me these days. We’ve passed the point where he can carry on the intellectually rigorous conversations of the past but Murray is as feisty as ever and though his speech is compromised, he still enunciates some very “choice” phrases that mark the privilege of the aged and wise. He comes to life when he hears music; his momentary lucidity makes for some truly wondrous moments. Albert Murray is a man of ideas and his landmark contributions to cultural history and to the blues and jazz in particular, form the foundation for much of the debate on these subjects today. Yet because the blues and jazz are inextricable parts of US identity, the study of these fields offers insight beyond the stage. Indeed, Murray’s writing provides us with gems of wisdom that can help us build institutions and systems that more closely align with our national identity and steady us as we push ever onward towards being a more perfect union.