Thursday, September 20, 2018

Jazz and Democracy

                                 Journalist: “What do you think of Western civilization?”
                                 Mahatma Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

                                  Langston Hughes: “Oh, let America by America again,
                                         a land that has never been yet–
                                                                 and yet must be.”

                                 Wynton Marsalis: “Jazz is what America could be if it ever became itself.”

If we’re speaking of America as a democracy, we can’t say “Make America great again” because
it has yet to fulfill its promise. A government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” one that guarantees “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” one that promises “one nation…with liberty and justice for all” has never existed in our entire history. But step by step, it has been walking toward that promised land. And now the forces have gathered to send us reeling backward, the shameless folks in power doing everything in their power to shut down public education, repeal the ERA and gay rights, restore racism, shut down freedom of religion, keep Wall Street deregulated, serve the rich, disdain the poor, spend precious money on military parades, limit the free press. The sheer number of threats is staggering, many highlighted in Michael Moore’s new film Fahrenheit 11/9. Seeing that film gave new urgency and force to things I’ve been concerned about for decades But now the stakes are higher, the dangers more present, the need for action more pressing.

Ever hopeful that clearer thinking about what democracy is can help move us back toward sanity, I remembered a graduation speech I gave some 16 years ago. So I’m going to be my own guest blogger and revisit it here. It follows Wynton Marsalis’ quote above by using jazz as the model of what a healthy and functioning democracy might look like. I think it holds up. See if you agree.


This is my third graduation in three weeks—first my daughter from college, then my daughter from high school and now, these marvelous 8th graders. I've heard a lot of graduation speeches and most were very similar. People gave thanks to families, friends and teachers, they encouraged the graduates to pursue their dreams and be true to themselves and all those lovely ideas that have been spoken at countless graduations from time immemorial. But I had the nagging sense that one crucial thing was missing and I finally figured out what it was—a sense of a collective purpose, a common goal, a unified meaning.

As a music teacher, this is easiest for me to describe in musical terms. For if music is anything, it is the joining of strong individual voices in a collective and coherent whole, a whole greater than the mere sum of its parts. And this is what makes music unique. When two or more people are speaking at a time, the words clash and we can't make sense of them. If I give a direction like "take out your recorders" while Ted is asking "what time is recess?," the effect is disturbing. But if I put my direction into a rhythm and Ted puts his question in a counter-rhythm, not only can we understand both, but a third thing is created. That is the unique pleasure of musical conversation and musical thinking—not only can two or more people talk at the same time, they frequently must to create coherent music. Listen to a whole concert of just drums or just bass or just melody or just piano chords and you'll want your money back. But when the four are in conversation, each offering their point of view in service to the whole—well, that's music.

I think The San Francisco School has done a marvelous job recognizing the gifts and genius of each and every one of you and you have done a marvelous job working hard to learn all that we had to offer. Each of you is a finely tuned instrument with a special timbre, technique and even your own song. But what orchestra or band will you play in? What kind of music will you play?

In this year of September 11th, I'd like to suggest that the piece we should playing is called Democracy and all our practicing should lead towards fulfilling its promise. The right to "Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness" is a brilliant idea, but it has yet to be played well— too many instruments are left out, too many are playing out-of-tune, too many people are just reading the notes without really hearing the music, too many are just listening to their part and not hearing how it fits in, too many are cranking up their expensive powerful amps and drowning the rest out. Where we should be hearing a beautiful blend of contrasting parts, it's a formless cacophony out there. It's going to need you, the next generation, to figure out how to bring the music together and you're going to need some guidance.

Since you all are fresh from the jazz course, I want you to imagine democracy as a jazz ensemble. A good jazz ensemble—and by extension, democracy—requires eight things.

1) Every instrument must contribute. The rhythm of the drums, the harmonic outline of the bass, the piano chords and the saxophone melody are all needed for the music to be full. In the democracy yet to be, no voice can be left out.

2) Every instrument must come prepared to the rehearsal. To be a functioning jazz citizen, you have to do your homework before you have your say—learn your instrument, learn your parts, know your theory. In jazz parlance, you've got to pay your dues to earn the freedom to express yourself—and that means disciplined study.

3) A contribution in the background is as important as one in the foreground. Though each voice is equally important, some are more in the background in a supporting role and some in the lead. Both are equally honorable and necessary.

4) Every one gets a turn to solo.  The bass may not solo as much as the horn, but it will have its moment to speak alone. That means as democratic musicians, you can't simply read the notes or follow the conductor—you must develop a personal voice that says something that no one else can say in quite the same way.

5) Every one must support the soloist and listen and respond in every moment of the music. When you guys saw the Dave Brubeck group play, many of you commented on the interplay between the musicians. That's where the real pleasure and excitement lies—speaking for a common purpose that is unraveling as it goes along. Every moment in which the give and the take, the call and the response, click, the meaning is revealed.

6) The group should stay alert to the times and place and continue creating new music.
"Things Ain't What They Used to Be" says Ellington's tune and that means that every musician who plays it doesn't play it the way it used to be played, but makes it new, makes it now
 We need new solutions to old problems and that means keeping your minds fresh and alert.

7) No matter how wonderful the music, we need to share the stage with other groups.
Jazz musicians from the beginning didn't just listen to jazz—they opened their ears to every style of music that crossed their paths, enjoyed it for what it was and absorbed it into their own way of talking. Here at The SF School, you don't just learn jazz—you also come to know Mozart and Beethoven, gamelan, samba and Bulgarian bagpipe. Democracy shares the stage equally with all musics and keeps its ears open to what they might have to contribute.

8) The purpose of musical teamwork is to bring beauty to the world.
I chose a musical metaphor rather than a sports, corporation or engineering one because the group is not working to merely win the game, make the most money or build the most useful bridge—it aims to bring harmony to the discord that surrounds us, to bring healing to our afflicted souls. Democracy's new song will need to be practical, but it also must be beautiful.

We live in an age when people can buy multi-track synthesizers to make music with themselves, where bands can hire drum machines, where kids can sit at parties each plugged into their own Walkman, where three-year olds have their personal Website. On the last plane I rode, everyone had their own private screen with their personal choice of four movies.  We live in an age of excessive individualism at a time when we need common purpose. Democracy cannot work with everyone pursuing the own personal dreams and fantasies in isolation. Democracy cannot work when we depend upon machines to entertain us. Democracy cannot work when we only talk to the people we put on our speed-dial cell phone.

It's time to get back to what is tried-and-true— solitude in the woodshed getting your chops together, group experimentation in the after-hours club and communion on the bandstand, sharing the beauty with a world that needs to hear what you have to say.

8th graders, we send you out confident that you'll strengthen your voice through disciplined practice, speak out in every institution you enter with courage and conviction and use every opportunity to heal the world with beauty and love.  Go forth!  

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