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.

 

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.

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.

Crowds, Chaos, & the Competitive Edge

“Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate.”

— liberal Egyptian friend of Thomas L. Friedman

I’ve been fascinated by Facebook’s IPO and its skewed valuation. I’ve written here about its mission to connect people, its open platform, use as a diplomatic tool and how this correlates to jazz and its similar use. Today, I’m thinking about connecting, collaborating, and crowds. While jazz encourages collaboration, it’s alleged Facebook does not… but can it? What is the relationship between connecting and collaborating? Are crowds manageable and if so, to what extent, and what are the consequences?

The role of social media in transforming dictatorships is well documented. By raising awareness and creating a sense of urgency, Facebook users in the Arab world were able to voice collective opinions about their governance and effect change. Yet, the crowds that connected to topple dictatorships have been unable to answer the bigger more prescient question: What next? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army, relatively small groups, are well-organized and will likely make decisions on next steps. In the US, the Electoral College streamlines the power of the masses and usurps the popular vote to decide Presidential elections.

But aren’t crowds the essence of democracy? Don’t the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Army, and Electoral College create oligarchies by representing (or seeming to represent) the masses who fought and died for democracy?

Meritocracy

Chris Hayes has an interesting take on this. In a really smart discussion about meritocracy in education, Chris touts the benefits of selecting the “best and brightest” from the masses through a process that is open and transparent. Those deemed exceptional receive specialized training and are tracked for enhanced opportunities because they represent society’s best. Chris disrupts the notion of hierarchy based on merit by using several key examples and reveals how centralized power is born from an otherwise democratic process that essentially reinforces the status quo.

Do open systems and crowds naturally or logically lead us to centralized power and oligarchies?

Facebook & Jazz

Facebook’s dilemma seems two tiered: how to determine its valuation and how to monetize crowds. With more than 900 million users and room to grow globally, advertisers and investors have a difficult task at hand. The growth strategy needed seems to be one of moving from connecting to collaborating and here’s where jazz can be instructive.

Connecting to jazz can be as simple as passively listening to music on an iPod but collaborating is different. Active listening – engaging the music through foot tapping, finger snapping, head bopping and the like – integrates audience members/listeners into shared time with musicians. Physical response is a way of acknowledging and validating each other’s presence; it’s collaboration, the ultimate “buy in.” In second line parades, in particular, the energy of cooperation has both magnitude and direction; collaboration is compounded because random people from various points – crowds – convene, enter into, and act upon the acknowledged shared time in a coordinated way along a designated path. The crowd eventually disseminates, becomes random again, and moves onward to the next parade.

Music experienced in shared time reduces, momentarily, the chaos of crowds by coalescing, harnessing, and channeling the energy. Individual and collective movements become relatively predictable in and around the rhythm. Of course, this is why algorithms are important (but insufficient because humans are emotional beings – think of the disruptive nature of the blues — with no finite number of predictable responses) in data analysis. But for now…

Controlling the chaos of crowds is meaningful for jazz, Facebook, and democracy. Swing jazz with its mechanically efficient time signature, is an important step in ordering action. However, this is not the Pied Piper, leading his passive followers to doom. This is a Second Line parade, a dynamic ordering of people where participants are meaningfully and creatively engaged in shared time for a specific purpose. The band and audience members need each other to sustain the forward momentum.

Similarly, in Facebook, the power of the crowd lies in its differentiation realized collectively. Administrators of Facebook Pages create spaces where people can convene and actively and meaningfully engage one another around a common topic, event, goal, or activity. In democracy, the voices of the people must be integrated into the governing party lest questions of legitimacy arise. There should be active engagement, not merely representation, between members. In each case – jazz, Facebook, democracy –individuals have the power to disrupt order despite organized efficiency (think metronomic swing, timelines, status updates, “likes”, and Six Sigma).

The voices of the people are integrated into an ensemble (if the sound is smooth) or by way of collective improvisation (if it’s edgy) – no single entity or small group reigns. According to Mc Kinsey Quarterly, this type of interaction “requires a more direct, personal, and empathetic exchange than a traditional town hall meeting allows.” It’s team building or creating a band.

The Competitive Edge?

This emerges over time as a result of differentiated focused action. Get inside the crowd; integrate into the masses and change your vantage point and your steps accordingly. Crowds don’t walk in straight lines; they are nimble, agile, and ready for change. Beware of systems of efficiency because these do not take into consideration the volatility of humans. Structures that don’t bend, break (NOLA levees and Hurricane Katrina)