JAZZ AND DEMOCRACY
JAZZ AND DEMOCRACY
America’s music, jazz reflects the best principles of our political system when it is working.
This is a presidential election year and my first choices for the office will be missing on the ballot. I have a long list of candidates who possess all the qualities I would be looking for. Some that come immediately to mind are bassist Rodney Whitaker, saxophonist Diego Rivera and drummer Sean Dobbins. I know a lot of men and women who play jazz who have the character traits that are necessary to bring a community together to produce a glorious result. This isn’t all that easy. Keeping a group focused on a common goal requires hard work, commitment, passion, compassion, the acknowledgement of mistakes and the ability to change course. All of these traits are essential to playing jazz and to maintaining a democracy.
WE ALL CAN LEARN FROM JAZZ
I have had the opportunity to be in the room when some of Detroit’s jazz musicians discussed the roles that the different instruments play in a jazz band. They were surrounded by wide eyed young people who listened intently to these important musical heroes as they demonstrated the importance democracy was to allow these different elements to coexist with and actually enhance one another.
The group included Diego Rivera, Sean Dobbins and was led by Rodney Whitaker. Wynton Marsalis had given Rodney the opportunity to bring the remarkable program LET FREEDOM SWING to Michigan and to Detroit’s school children where I saw them in action.
“Jazz is like a musical democracy; when you get on the bandstand to play, it doesn’t matter what color you are; what matters is if you can play—and anyone can speak that language.” RODNEY WHITAKER
LET FREEDOM SWING
Sandra Day O’Connor, a Republican and retired Supreme Court Justice, and Wynton Marsalis, an avowed Musician, joined together to create a children’s program called Let Freedom Swing. The program informs the kids about the structure and purpose of our political institutions and how a jazz band relies on the same principles.
Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and jazz composer, trumpeter, and educator Wynton Marsalis getting together is something that you would suspect in a functioning democracy and certainly in the jazz world. Their program asks students to think about how many voices from different places and different backgrounds become one. How do you strike a balance between the best interests of an individual and the best interests of the group, in both jazz and democracy?
Children in the program are asked to see the push and pull between individual rights and, the “greater good” in both democratic society and jazz performance. Activities and discussion questions center on the system of checks and balances in the Constitution, the importance of listening, and the importance of staying involved in society and music.
No other musical form allows you to learn so much about the person behind the instrument than jazz. Jazz is very personable and passionate, allowing for such incredible creativity of expression and style. With this comes the ability to form strong connections with its audiences.
THE JAZZ AND DEMOCRACY PROJECT
This program uses jazz as a metaphor to bring American democracy to life, enrich the study of U.S. History in elementary, middle, and high school, and inspire youth to become active, positive contributors to their community. Students explore the importance of Listening, Critical Thinking, Voice, Choice, Preparation, Participation, Cooperation, Peaceful Negotiation, and America’s Classical Music . . . Jazz.
Kabir Sehgal, who is a serious man wrote a book on jazz and democracy in which he pointed out:
“Sometimes a jam session includes trading fours, where each member of the band takes four measures to solo. If someone forgets to play his four, there is a flagrant void of sound. If you play one measure extra, you’re not respecting the form. In the 1950s, jazz musicians became the literal embodiment of American democracy. Through one of the largest ever funded cultural projects, premier jazz musicians traveled to places beyond the Iron Curtain, and throughout the Third World in an effort to promulgate ideals of democracy”.
MY TAKE ON JAZZ AND DEMOCRACY
I wrote this earlier in the year but it is still true.
I grew up without television which left our family with a lot of time to sit and stare at each other. We seldom did. We chose to listen to the news as dinner was prepared after which we sat down for our meal and discussed what we heard.
Following dinner we sat around the radio and listened to music. These were the best times. This is maybe why I prefer to listen to music than to the cacophony of the candidates talking about themselves.
All the candidates could learn something from listening to more jazz and less of the advice from their handlers. What they would hear in their local jazz joint would be a group dedicated to making joyous sounds together. Together they make the group sound its very best. Each artist will listento the other and make everyone better. This is democracy at work.
SOME OF MY CHOICES FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES ARE COMING THIS WEEK TO THE DIRTY DOG
DIEGO RIVERA will demonstrate democracy this week when he brings his band to the Dirty Dog Jazz Café. He generally has musicians who are also band leaders yet can set individual goals aside in the interest of the group. These leaders lead us into some great jazz.