Singing Halloween songs with preschoolers today, I couldn’t help but think about how superior they are to us adults. We did a song in which they had to make different faces— surprise, scared, scary, silly, happy, zombie, etc. and I defy adult short of Marcel Marceau to match them. Their capacity to show emotion on their faces and in their bodies is so delightfully (and sometimes less delightfully) transparent, whereas we adults are such experts at masking what’s going on. I feel so at home with three year olds. Their sense of humor is often better than adults, their delight more delightful, their quirky minds more quirky. For someone like me trying to live at the center of an expressive art form, these little ones have everything but technique and fully realized conceptual forms. So why are we in a hurry to have them grow up? Seems like the journey to adulthood is one loss after another— wonder, curiosity, innocence, compassion. And don’t get me started on the last third of life.
So here’s the question. Are we getting better or worse? In all sorts of ways. I went to a jazz jam session on Monday and listened to tune after tune mostly written in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. The same repertoire I’m choosing from in my concert tomorrow. And I couldn’t help but think “Dang, these are great tunes! Memorable and singable melodies, exquisite harmonies, swingin’ rhythms and the invitation for a good jazz player to take each of them out further.” And pretty good lyrics as well— clever rhyme, metaphor, nuance, a sense of poetic craft. I defy anyone to find a song on pop radio today that can go toe-to-toe with Gershwin, Porter, Jerome Kern or Harold Arlen.
In the 50’s and 60’s, there were also great jazz tunes written without lyrics by such greats as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Horace Silver, later Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard and beyond. You’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of tunes in any contemporary fakebook that has been written in the last thirty years.
I’m not trying to be a nostalgic old curmudgeon here, but is it my imagination that the level of intelligent discourse in say, the Republican debates, is giant steps lower than Nixon’s time? That the Facebook grammar test I just took called me a genius for getting a perfect score on a quiz that seemed to be just baseline understanding of the English language is cause for concern? Are we truly evolving as a culture or backsliding toward Neanderthal times?
Ever an optimist, I do believe that the long arc of the Universe bends towards evolution. Despite much evidence to the contrary in the daily news, the advances in women’s rights, gay marriage, legal marijuana and such (and yes, racial issues, but hard to feel good about that at the moment with what’s happened in the last year) is real and signs of an evolution unimaginable a mere 100 years ago.
Okay, I see I unleashed too big a question here. What’s the punchline? Best I can do is quote Gary Snyder, “There is no progress in art or religion.” But there is social progress, even if it be a few steps forward and one step back. And kids do have to grow up into adults, but they don’t have to grow up into boring, repressed adults— they can keep their kid nature alive each step of the way.
And that’s why I’ll be trick-or-treating this weekend. Yay! Candy!!!
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