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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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.

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…

Train Whistle Diplomacy: Blues-Based Jazz & National Identity

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

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

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