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.

Skills Shortage on the Global Stage

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and THIS is the world in which we live.

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

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

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

Elephant Sperm Banks — Good Idea for Business & for Jazz

“Inbreeding presents real problems… [and it] isn’t just a problem for captive elephants” – it’s a problem for businesses and is an often-sited critique of jazz. Scott Anthony delves into his discussion of “innovation inbreeding” by using the example of Jackson, a Pittsburg area elephant who has sired so many calves in the US there is concern that the gene pool is homogenous and the species is at risk. Scientists want to create a sperm bank so as to diversify the gene pool in the creation of future calves. You see, whether in elephant sperm or in business, homogeneity (across sectors, within divisions, in the talent pool, etc.) is a bad thing. In business “inbreeding” occurs – when “innovation efforts are consistently led by the same group of people who have lived their life within the company.” In jazz, so the critique goes, “inbreeding” takes the form of musical stagnation and institutionalization.

Inbred businesses

Businesses seeking to retain or initiate their presence in established or emerging markets face a problem of integration. People stick to what’s familiar, it’s a herding mentality that provides psychological comfort through homogeneity. Valerie Gauthier notes managers in today’s globally interconnected businesses “feel a constant tension between the need for agility… and the quest for purpose, direction, and meaning.” They flounder, sensing the need to do something different but are unsure about just what to do and how. Their angst, she notes, “leads to irrational and erratic behaviors.” Yet it is this very tension that encourages the innovation necessary for business success, especially in the midst of ever-changing conditions. Managers not accustomed to hybridity in the workplace “gene pool” develop symptoms of neurosis and are indicators of systemic damage or worse, financial extinction. They need cultural coping mechanisms.

Hybridity in business

In “Learning How To Grow Globally” Christopher Bingham and Jason Davis use a “Soloing vs. Seeding” analogy to illuminate the differences between homogeneity and hybridity. Soloing and seeding represent direct and indirect approaches to learning respectively. Businesses need both. The soloing arm tends to realize financial success faster; while seeding yields slower growth initially but performs better long-term. Blending these approaches to create a hybrid seed (see, we’re back to elephant sperm) would seem to strengthen the company overall while also maximizing the talent pool. Moreover, a combination approach allows both a full-scale unified effort as well as a small group concentrated effort, a nimble arm to meet specific demands. In botany as with elephant sperm, the cross-pollination of ideas creates hybrid seeds that are resilient; they are better able to handle shifts in the (financial) environment such as wind gusts (wild market swings), tsunamis (depressions and recessions), and earthquakes. Growing globally will require adaptability to changing conditions.

Stagnant Jazz?

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestraand its institutional home come under regular attack for being unimaginative and restricted in their programming – homogenous. Eric Porter’s, What is This Thing Called Jazz??, offers a thorough overview of various critiques noting, the organization and its music “became a lightening rod for conflict, stemming from the attempt to craft a jazz cannon, from personnel decisions made regarding the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and from personality conflicts between major players at Lincoln Center and the jazz press.” As the Artistic Director of the JLCO Wynton Marsalis has often been condemned for “cultural gatekeeping” and espousing the “ideologies of social and cultural conservatism and neoliberalism”; and likewise, his music has been critiqued for being dated.

The charges are not without merit. You see, when cultural osmosis (like cellular osmosis) is thorough, the entity loses its apparent “two-ness” and becomes a singular new entity. So, as the ensemble performs in its characteristic swing style; tightly woven instrumental sections move convincingly through the score with locomotive power, difference gives way to the riveting dynamics, and the steady rhythm suggests automation. However, we must remember, the score is likely to have been arranged specifically for the performance; meaning, it is already a departure from the original. Also, solos are always current on the night they are performed; they are not written down and so cannot be repeated verbatim from night to night. Innovation is inherent within these conditions and the response to changing conditions is reflexive.

Change, Grow & Be Stronger…

Jackson’s efforts notwithstanding, the scientists in Pittsburg, businesses and jazz musicians know – hybridity is a good thing. Enduring long-term means coalescing disparate parts and making a whole, new thing. Call it what you will – cultural osmosis, hybridity, integration, diversity – when we are made to move beyond our comfort zones, we adapt, change and grow.

Collective Improvisation

The clip I’m attaching to this post is an example of collective improvisation (listen closely for this beginning at 2:45s); everyone is playing a different take on the melody at the same time – sonic hybridity.