‘Mind the Gap’ — Develop Cultural Competence

The alleged “skills gap” dominates conversations about the relationship between education and work. Peter Smirniotopoulos and his co-author Natalie Pregibon offer an insightful analysis and some solid recommendations for how we might better prepare students for the demands of the workforce, today and tomorrow. One thing I really like about Peter’s approach is his uncompromising insistence on the value of creative thinking. Read Peter and Natalie’s series, Public Education and Job Readiness, here. Peter and Natalie were also recent guests on my radio show, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. You can listen to the show by clicking here.

Content is Crap (S/O to Greg Satell)

My classrooms are laboratories for engaged discussion and the development of new ideas. ConversationMy hope is that this will lead to an informed understanding of the content under scrutiny and also more meaningful and smarter work lives and civic engagement. I am passionate about educating. In my mind, the practical application of knowledge, can’t be beat. Over 20+ years of educating, I’ve put in the “deliberate practice” of 10,000 hours. What’s this mean? In part, it means the content I deliver doesn’t suck.

Why is THAT important?

In “Content is CrapGreg Satell tells the story of Ed Catmull who, as president of Pixar films, was committed to moving the films from “suck to not-suck.” This is important because Catmull wasn’t just looking for a gimmick to trick more people into seeing his films. As Greg notes, Catmull wasn’t merely seeking an audience” he wanted to “share something important with the world.” For all my love of content — American culture & jazz, ethnic studies  — “content” as Greg notes “is crap.”
But academics are genuinely delighted by content. We spend decades studying our fields of interest and by the time we reach the dissertation level, we have narrowed our chosen fields to an esoteric spot in the universe that no one else has considered in exactly the same way. Academics are the most blase entrepreneurs.

Here’s the thing — the content we find so fascinating sucks to most of the world. The way to salvage not just our egos but our beloved fields of inquiry from extinction, is to deliver the content is such a way tBoringhat connects us with the audience, that creates an emotional link between the content and something meaningful in their lives. We must create not just a new audience for our ideas but “share something meaningful with the world” which necessarily requires pushing beyond classroom walls. We must “mind the gap” between disciplinary specificity and the pragmatic demands of life outside the academy.

Education and Employers

A recent Guardian article lamented the state of economics education. Students and employers are struggling to see the relevance of skills honed in class because theoretical models fail to impress beyond the classroom. “Employers complain that recent economics graduates, while being technically proficient, know very little about the real world. Lacking knowledge about the historical backgrounds, institutional details and political idioms of real-world economies, they end up being idiot savants – they can manipulate most complicated mathematical models but cannot translate their insights into business strategies and economic policies in the real world.” — Ouch!

Disconnect

Here’s another biting critique: “When graduate economists do have something to say about the real-world economy, their advice is incomprehensible to noneconomists – and noneconomists make up almost all their audience.”

How do we Bridge the Gap?

First, educators must educate as if most students will not pursue PhDs (because most don’t). Second, academics must write for non academics. Since tenure is growing ever more elusive, this is practical because it’ll help academics secure jobs beyond the academy. Those scholars seeking to spread messages and educate the public broadly through MOOCs and/or social media (blogs, video blogs, Twitter, Facebook, radio programs, etc.) democratize education and include the global masses by using language that is easily understood. Third, seek professional viability beyond the academy — please.

You’re on your own!

According to the Guardian article, students in Norway were told by professors, their role was to offer “an analytical framework” for the material and students themselves would “have the rest of [their] lives to learn about current affairs.” This is such a cop-out. The aura of elitism is used to obscure poor pedagogy, lack of creativity, or just plain laziness. However, as hierarchies go — “‘pure’ research is more prestigious than applied or policy-relevant research, and research is more important than teaching. So, the more detached from the real world your work is, the higher up in the intellectual hierarchy you are.” Higher Ed is responsible for its own marginality, is doing its part in maintaining the status quo, and is abdicating its responsibility to prepare students for the future.

The Necessity of Mess  

This is no surprise. Our cultural quest for increased efficiencies (think Six Sigma), has led to hyper specialization, the mechanization of human beings, and the devaluation of emotional connections. We seek linear explanations and simple dichotomies to explain complex phenomena. Regarding education in economics, the Guardian writes, “In the past, economics was taught as a series of interrelated debates about competing theories and the different policy recommendations of those theories. Imprecise, even messy, but useful.”

In economics, the most popular reform proposal is “The introduction of mathematical models of complex nonlinear systems – the kinds of models which, at least with hindsight, might have predicted the 2008 financial crisis.” This is great but without practical application, this will be — yet another — theoretical model. Lively debate, interactive class assignments, collaborative projects that involve field work, and actively engaging social media to disseminate and test ideas are just some of the ways that will make the experience of learning economics (and all fields) meaningful and practical. Let’s transfer this pedagogical approach beyond the classroom to the workplace and boardroom.

The swing of things

John Coates wrote a really insightful NYT Sunday Review article, “The Biology of Risk.” In a nutshell, he likes the idea of uncertainty in markets because it teaches us — via practical experience — to be agile and creative. If our bodies are physiologically conditioned to respond to stress such as that caused by volatility; then, reducing change leads to a reduction in our ability to respond effectively to stress. The result? More and more devastating bubbles.

Coates explains, “Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash.” StressCompanies, however, have no coping mechanism. Fortunately, we have the blues and jazz — cultural coping mechanisms with built-in features like call and response, swing, and improvisation that endow practitioners to manage change confidently and even gracefully.

MurrayAccording to Cultural Historian Albert Murray, “what is ultimately at stake” in a moment of crisis “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.” (Stomping, 10) Seizing up is not an option. Coates notes, “risk aversion” [amongst traders and the like] “occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities…” Indeed, we need people who are agile, who can respond reflexively and creatively to changing conditions. Murray’s explanation of a musical break is relevant to, at least, those working in finance. On dealing with uncertainty, he writes: it’s a matter of “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.” (Blue Devils, 95) But you can’t just read Murray’s writing, you have to apply his theories practically and develop a trained, reflexive, response to change. If you want your business to swing, develop cultural competence.

The similarity in thinking expressed in Coates’ 2014 NYT article and Murray’s 1974 nonfiction text belies the 40 year time difference. There’s been a gap between theory and practice for decades, at least. What’s more, the notorious racial segregation in the United States is compounded by the segregation of ideas — science and technology are necessarily divorced from music and culture — and this hurts us all. What we need is an integrated approach to educating; the practical application of Murray’s 40 year old ideas in realms beyond the art and humanities and in forums beyond the traditional classroom and stage. We must mind the gap between theory and practice, bridge it and (perchance) close the skills gap. Educate holistically and move from crash 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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Streetcar and the Desire for Cultural Competence

A Streetcar Named DesireI was all geared up to write an article about corporate social responsibility today. What, with the $2B loss at JPMorgan Chase and the news that Jamie Dimon won’t have to split the duty of being both the bank’s CEO and Chairman, I had a lot to discuss! However, a recent and ill-informed write up of A Streetcar Named Desire came back to haunt me last night and I had to weigh in.

Ben Brantley is a noted theatre critic for the New York Times. I am no expert in the dramatic arts but see as many theatre productions as I possibly can. I especially like Shakespeare in the Park. In any case, I don’t “follow” reviews as such. So, when I read Ben Brantley’s review I first thought, “Wow, I don’t like how that feels” but I deferred to his expertise. What do I know? A trained writer, his review seems fair enough at first read but leaves the bitter aftertaste of having consumed bacteria-laden milk. However, once the Tony nominations came around and Streetcar was nominated for only one category, Best Costume, I had had enough and decided — it’s time to write a letter.

Now what you have to know about me is that, I appreciate human interaction. My second-grade teacher, Ms. Nathanson, inscribed my report card with the curious term “social butterfly” and in so doing, she branded me for life. So, I wrote a letter to Ben and sent it to him via email. I’m posting my “Response to Ben Brantley” letter here today because it’s actually on topic — social responsibility and cultural competence aren’t just for corporations, even those trained in the arts can suffer from cultural Glaucoma.

So, Ben… this one’s for you.

Dear Ben,

With all due respect to your acute theatrical insights, you missed the nuances of culture in the current multi-racial casting of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that would have likely enriched your review. Your assertion, “I wouldn’t care if all the performers were green” suggests that you accept the US as an “incontestably mulatto” nation (Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans, 1970) and that your interest lies only in the quality of the dramatic performance. Professional integrity notwithstanding, your timid nod to cultural history in noting the “easygoing ethnic eclecticism of the New Orleans quarter” was woefully insufficient. A deeper understanding of US cultural heritage might have led you into a more substantive analysis of the play.

Terence Blanchard’s original score shapes the play’s action. Through the intimacy of the blues (listen to Duke Ellington’s song of the same name) and the complexities of jazz, African American culture forms the foundation of the play. You notice “none of the spontaneity or urgency” of William’s version but also miss the subtleties in the current play. Your focus on Underwood and Parker’s good looks, the “many hours at the gym” you imagine he’s spent, Rubin-Vega’s “pin-up” girl sultriness and Wood’s “likable gangliness” is not only topical to the point of stereotyping but is amateurish. You allowed desire to mask your cultural ignorance and missed the edginess of the blues. Its lamentations contained within the complexities of jazz indicate the triumph of the spirit amidst life’s intricacies. The flashes and explosions of action you crave are culturally inaccurate; rather and instead, the actors meet life’s inevitabilities with grace, elegance, and inherent hopefulness – the very “stuff” of the blues. To be sure, historically marginalized people the world over have devised strategies for surviving and thriving in spite of the most inhumane circumstances. What you saw but missed on stage was the ability of talented, culturally sophisticated actors to relay a story of triumph despite rape, domestic violence, financial hardship and the like. Nicole Ari Parker’s masterful depiction of Blanche endows the role with the tragicomic consciousness of the blues. She may be down, but not for long. You offered a glimmer of insight in noting, “You don’t have to interpret Blanche’s fate as tragic.” Indeed, the nervous breakdown of previous iterations is a relic of a different time and place. So, too, is your review.

Ben, you let us down. From the pulpit of one of the world’s leading periodicals, you had the opportunity to demonstrate the global relevance and timelessness of art, cultural expertise and professional courage. Instead, you displayed professional timidity and the cultural ignorance of the most distant “outsider.” You shirked your responsibility to provide an informed review for your reading public. Ben, this was your “break” your moment of truth and you failed us miserably. As Albert Murray has written, this was your chance to “improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality” – and so you did.

Finally, your ill-informed write-up speaks to the need to diversify the talent pool of theatrical (at least) reviewers. We need writers who bring depth of perception and courage to the reviews they offer. This is a requirement of the global economy.

Respectfully,

Jacquelynne Modeste, PhD

Black Star News

* * *

Watch this clip

CAST: Blair Underwood (Stanley), Nicole Ari Parker (Blanche), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Stella), Wood Harris (Harold Mitchell), Amelia Campbell (Eunice), Matthew Saldívar (Steve), Rosa Evangelina Arredondo (Matron), Carmen de Lavallade (Mexican Woman/Neighbor), Aaron Clifton Moten (Young Collector), Jacinto Taras Riddick (Pablo) and Count Stovall (Doctor).