Follow the Music

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

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

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

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

But why jazz?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

 

 

 

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.

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.