I think the lesson of the past four years is that the idea that we can choose to be apolitical is a luxury we can no longer afford—and perhaps never could. But how much of your thinking and feeling and activity is taken up with politics and what form your political involvement takes are worthy topics to consider. I have always folded in some form of enlarged political awareness in all my years of teaching kids and adults, but equally have brought myself and the students into the realms where politics can’t reach, some timeless land of great beauty and universal connection and just plain fun and joy. It helps that music has chosen me to be an ambassador of its gifts and it’s particularly in the jazz world where politics and pleasure have equally mixed.
So last night teaching my Jazz History Course, the focus was the popular songs of the 20’s through 60’s, the songs that often found their home in Musicals and became collectively known as The Great American Songbook. I began the class talking about the Singing Time at our school and how important it felt to teach these songs to the kids and how much they loved them when they did finally learn them. And then just found myself talking about the song itself as a carrier of needed information. Here are some of the points that emerged:
• Like “reductions” in cooking, a song is an efficient, condensed carrier of essential
information alive with taste and texture.
• Information is relayed and stored to the body via rhythm, to the heart via melody
and harmony, to the mind via the meaning of the words.
• With Alzheimer’s and dementia, abstract information, coherent conversation and
memory all decline, but the songs remain mostly untouched.
• Songs are the meeting of poetry and music, text and tones wedded together.
• Just listening to songs, especially sung by great singers, is enough, but singing the
songs oneself means awakening the vibrations of their essence in one’s own body.
• Singing with others amplifies the power of song yet further, forging a communal sense
of belonging and calling up the magical feeling in the room 10, 30, 50 years later.
• The known songs of an entire culture become the voice of its mythos, the anthems of
its spirit, the soundtrack to its history. Thus, in order to understand The United
States, the Great American Songbookcan be the textbook of our national character.
Not the only one, but the most inclusive one because of all the influences from diverse
groups that converged to create and sustain and extend these songs. Gershwin once
said: “Jazz is the result of the energy stored up in America.”
• These songs were rarely songs alone, but came to life in Broadway and Hollywood
musicals, joined with instrumental music, dance, drama, sets, film technique, a wholly
integrated art form. They grew yet more vibrant in the hands of jazz musicians re-
working them, improvising within them, bringing soul and rhythmic vitality to the
• Alongside all the collective knowledge, the community connection, the historical
information, the musical understanding and pleasure is what the songs awakens in
you, how it feeds your spirit and soothes your soul and helps you understand that you
yourself are a song. As Jerome Kern expressed in in his song (words slightly changed):
“I want to let you know the song your heart would sing,
That beautiful rhapsody of love and youth and Spring,
The music is sweet, the words are true,
The song is you!”