Friday, September 23, 2011

Music Alone Is Not Enough

Wednesday night I had the good fortune to hear the Branford Marsalis Quartet at Yoshi’s.
These days, the big names often play in symphonic venues and that's fine as far as it goes. But the intimate jazz club was and is just the right setting for this music. The power of it all was increased by the intimacy. And powerful it was. The level of communication and connection between the musicians was almost otherwordly, speaking the language of the gods in a complex rhythmic syntax and melodic eloquence the left us mere mortals in awe. The group did four tunes, two originals and two re-worked Monk tunes and then dipped back a century for the encore with The St. Louis Blues, home base for the average American listener, dipping deep into the gutbucket and soaring high.

I came home and looked again at a Youtube clip someone showed me recently with Branford talking about what he has learned from his students. Since this is a family Blog, I can’t repeat his sentiments here (got you curious?). But then on the side was an intriguing title about Marsalis on black culture’s attitude to women. He was on some interview show and he makes a point I’ve never heard articulated quite that way.

In short, he notes how after Columbine, all the kids who lived through that horrific trauma were given therapy to try to re-adjust both socially and emotionally. And yet slaves who endured some 400 years of ongoing horrific trauma were set “free” without any guidance or therapeutic assistance. (To put it mildly. For, of course, the trauma continued into lynching and Jim Crow and unemployment and ghetto housing and all the other consequences of racism.) His point was that families torn apart from slavery, enslaved black men having to witness slave-owners paying conjugal visits to their wives, was bound to produce some strange twists and turns in black culture without any help as to how to heal such wounds.

Never thought about it in quite that way. Currently writing a book about blues in the classroom, I keep coming back to the blues as the healing tonic for a people brutalized by racism and I still think that’s true—up to a point. That is, the blues became a survival mechanism and the higher it ascended into the jazz lexicon, the more it became a spiritual triumph as well, demanding the highest capacities of intellect, discipline, imaginative expression and group communion. But alone, simply singing or playing the blues is not powerful enough to turn around all the mistakes of our forefathers and move us all toward a life-affirming inclusive culture for all. 

And I thought once again after seeing the movie The Help that there is another group of people who needed healing from centuries of racism. The white folks. As the perpetrators of hatred and violence, 
I know it’s not a popular sentiment to see them as victims inheriting a twisted view of human relations. And of course, struggling to hold onto their privilege and power and continue to affirm their distorted sense of superiority, they themselves did not—and many still do not—ever dream of seeing it that way. But every so often it strikes me how sad it is to grow up with such a straight-jacketed narrow look, to miss the possibility of getting to know people of the caliber of Abilene and Minnie (see the movie or read the book), to be such a pitiful excuse for a human being blinded by prejudice passed down and unquestioned.

So yes, 150 years later, we are still far from recovering from the aftermath of this social institution that was born from greed, upheld and justified by preachers, politicians and scientists and ended with a law that was necessary, but alone impotent to give folks on both sides of the color line the kind of healing they needed. Law is necessary to control the damage and protect basic rights. Music is necessary to soothe and uplift the spirit, bring people together in a common cause. But neither alone is enough. We need to work on the constricted mind and the closed heart, start talking to each other and keep talking to each other. I read yesterday that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was finally overturned in the military and that is to be commended. But how long will it take before people stop dismissing others because of sexual preference? The real revolution is not a switch of leaders and laws, but a change in consciousness and culture.

And for me, it all comes back to one word—education. The tragedy of the last ten years is not just the suffering of innocent children reduced to fodder for the testing machines, but the loss of opportunity to teach them what really matters, to create communities where each feels valued and respected regardless of class, color, religion, gender, sexual preference, a community willing to look at and talk about the hard stuff they’ve inherited and commit to turning around the things that keep us apart and feeding the things that bring us together. Of course, music, art, drama, poetry, dance will be essential ingredients, the place where all the “isms” and inherited identities take a back seat to who we are in the moment and what new beauties we can create together.

But it will take more. A thorough knowledge of how these bad things went down in history to avoid repeating them, courageous conversations and time set aside to do it all. And it will require high skills in reading and writing and math, not to satisfy some distant test-makers, but to have the skills and knowledge and abilities to have a coherent conversation.  In fact, it is worth knowing that the literate tradition began as a way to keep track of slaves and count money. The new reason for reading and math is to blow open the possibilities of the human spirit and count the resources to be equitably divided for a just and sustainable future.

I guess that jazz concert at Yoshi’s turned out to be even more interesting than I thought! 

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