Thursday, September 11, 2014

"No America, No Jazz": Some Reflections on the Place of Jazz in American Culture on the Anniversary of 9/11

Art Blakey summarized and resolved many historical and philosophical difficulties when uttering his compact assessment of the origins of jazz:

"Jazz is known all over the world 
as an American musical art form 
and that’s it. 
No America, no jazz."  

Though he was addressing specific issues within the jazz community at the time, his observation had long reaching implications. Jazz musicians are often viewed as a fringe of society, rather than central to it; as an anachronism rather than of contemporary relevance; as a protest to the established culture rather than culture itself. The central paradox is that the jazz musician, arguably more than any other artist in the nation's history, has developed the artform most inextricably linked to that history, yet not answering to the materialism and consumerism which most people assume (for better or for worse) are the substance of America. 

When commercialism pushes hedonism, jazz still sings about true love. When our musical mainstream glorifies violence (whether urban or militaristic), jazz reminds us of greater values than brute strength. When materialism denies a spiritual component to public discourse, jazz counters with Bechet, Ellington, Coltrane, contemporary works by Wynton Marsalis, Don Byron, Dave Douglas, and countless artists in between. 

Alexis de Tocqueville noted almost two centuries ago that the American myth was dependent, in part, upon a rhetoric of individuality masking a practice of rigid conformity. Jazz ignores and rejects that hypocrisy, demanding a fully developed, responsible individuality. 

America prefers huge corporate entities with elaborate hierarchies; Jazz remains purest when practiced in small groups of equally responsible members.

Finally, the ultimate paradox: Jazz is respected in many places globally more than its homeland. Big name jazz musicians more frequently play in Tokyo, London, or Paris than they do in many American cities.       

Considering this bleak and strange relationship, what is the jazz musician to think about patriotism? Is there a place for the jazz musician in the discussion of country? 

On this anniversary of 9/11, I look back and think about the roots of it all. Blakey was right: No America, no jazz. If we love jazz, we must in some very deep and often paradoxical ways love America. We must love that something beautiful, life-affirming, intensely creative, inexhaustible was brought out of the darkest of experiences of inhumanity here--that the oppressed and abused were given a place to sing, praise, and shout the complexities of redemptive suffering through the medium of sound. We must acknowledge that it grew here, that the soil was good enough for it, that there was indeed enough air, sunshine, and nutrition to bring it all about and sustain it.  

Jazz, this unique system which allows humanity that utterance of joy, even if we walk the Via Dolorosa, was born and raised here. That wasn't an accident. Sometimes, our consciences aren't appreciated--they seem to keep us from having fun, or getting what we think we want. And jazz can be like the conscience of America--it reminds us we're not perfect, that we don't always make the right decisions, that our sense of morality, progress, and self-congratulatory attitude is suspect. But at the same time, the conscience reminds us of the real things, the beautiful things, the eternal things. And jazz does that too. One moment, Coltrane is screaming, howling--the pain of injustice blazing through his horn. The next, he's soothing, comforting, praising with a Psalm. One moment Bechet is moaning in sorrow, giving voice to an existential weight; the next, he's lightening our load and our feet--reminding us, like Ellington, that if today is Friday, Sunday is on the way. Sonny Rollins, Artie Shaw, Charles Lloyd, Sidney Bechet, and countless others did the disappearing act at one time or another: dropping out of the commercial scene altogether for years at a time. They taught us how to prioritize the music and the soul first, for the truth it was supposed to contain, and to come back when ready--when it was good for themselves and America. 

Jazz reminds us of a place we've never been: a place we're supposed to be. Then it paradoxically whispers and shouts of an America that is always there, but overlooked, sometime trampled on. Jazz is freedom above ideology, love above violence, truth above mammon. It's true there is no Jazz without America, but it's also true that Jazz Happened Here--there is, in essence, No America (as we know it) without Jazz. 

America needs Jazz: needs a truth-teller, a reminder, an art challenging it to live up to its rhetoric. And Jazz musicians can never forget their humble roots in this American soil. So today, when we raise our horns to our lips, on whatever gig we're playing, or wherever we're shedding, I hope we're blowing out blessings on this people, this place that needs us, that we love, even when it doesn't recognize us, and even when it's hard for us to try.     

[ Prayers and Peace to all who lost loved ones on or after September 11, 2001].

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Some Thoughts on the Value of Musical Education and the Purpose of Music

Anyone deeply involved in the field of music is de facto interested in music education. We've all benefited from it (whether privately or publicly), are in some ways products of it, and should have a natural concern for the level of understanding of music in our society at large, as well as the transmission of that understanding to future generations.

The plight of music education has never been particularly good here in the USA. There are historical, cultural, social, and economic reasons--books and studies have been written as to why; theories promoted as to how things might be improved. The purpose of this post isn't to dig too deeply into these areas, but to present a few ideas that aren't mentioned in the public discussion, largely because of cultural hitches in the American system which make it difficult to reach the roots of meaning. What I mean, specifically, is that what might be called the Materialist Egalitarian Imperative of American education tends to diminish any spiritual basis of truth in education for fear of crossing a traditional Church/State line. That Church/State line can be explained historically, and I'm not commenting here on the relative wisdom of that line: only that it impedes a deeper discussion of music on a societal level.

In practical terms, the line means that the roots of music--whether dealing with Notre Dame Organum or the African American Spiritual--can never be presented as spiritual realities (as their composers would have understood them), but must always be couched in sociological, cultural, or even psychological terms, if they are mentioned at all. Despite the long and documented understanding of music as a spiritual discipline, with spiritual implications and often religious roots, we find ourselves repressed--unable to investigate or promote the art of music using the very understandings so many great composers (of all branches of music) have applied--those roots which nourished their art. It's like saying we shouldn't be allowed to analyze the physical sciences with mathematics, because there should be a Math/State line we're not allowed to cross. Such a line wouldn't stop us from learning certain things, but Science, as we know it, would shrivel, as we couldn't possibly divorce math from science without harming science itself.

To divorce the human spirit, and its reaching towards the divine, from music, would strike many of the greatest musicians in history as ludicrous. But since we can't talk of spiritual realities, we can't make progress. Music shrivels if we can't quote Sidney Bechet's understanding of the blues and spirituals,and their relation to God and reality--their importance to humanity. It shrivels when we can't suggest John Cage's purpose for music ("To still the mind and make it susceptible to divine influences.") It shrivels if we can't quote Vaughan Williams, when he asserted that music's purpose was to reach out to spiritual realities by means of ordered sound. It might very well be an unintended consequence of our political system, but it is a result nonetheless: any discussion concerning the ultimate purpose for music in relation to the human person are pretty much forbidden, in a public and educational sense.

In recent years, music educators have used research suggesting that the great value of musical study is its boost to cognitive skills helpful for math and science. Music, it is argued, will help us keep ahead in areas of technology, and therefore keep us wealthy and powerful. By this argument, music is an economic resource, subjugated to material concerns. But then what are we to make of the starving artists, the ones who didn't care about money--who scraped and struggled to do something more important than materialism? Were they insane, or were their lives meaningful? If the ultimate purpose and value for music is found in economic gain, then commercialism ought to be its highest expression. But it never is. Rarely in the history of the world have the greatest musicians--the greatest explorers and discoverers of music--been anywhere near the most wealthy for their art.

I don't suggest that the cognitive argument is invalid--if it's true that music helps develop the mind, and has a helpful effect on other necessary skills, I think it should be aggressively promoted by music educators--and I'm happy to see that it is. But there is much more that ought to be addressed.

A few years ago, an old friend asked me if she ought to invest in music lessons for her children. She had minimal musical talent herself (or so she claimed), and her husband was about the same. Why have her kids study if they would never amount to anything as musicians? My answers weren't composed as a music educator (I'm not one and I don't have any degrees in music education), but as a friend, and like the friend who asked the question, a practicing Catholic. What I discovered was that, in answering as a Catholic rather than as a professional teacher, or one with any vested interest in the educational system in general, I was able to talk more freely about what I believe music to be--what it is "for." Below is a lightly edited copy of my response to her question, summarizing many of these issues. It's my hope that this response, while not having direct application to everyone's beliefs or needs, might open up a different conversation about the importance of music--that music has a deeper function in the lives of human beings than as an aid to the Wealth of Nations.          


Dear [xxxxx],

Your question has raised all sorts of others, and I'll gladly give you my opinion...though it's grown to a type of essay. Here are some points to consider:

1. There have been cognitive studies done which strongly support the assertion that the study of music, which utilizes different parts of the brain than other disciplines, aids mental development specifically in relation to math and the sciences. If this is true, I shudder to think what my science grades would have been without music. This aside, I have little interest in this line of reasoning. It's used as the big argument for school music programs these days, and since it's all pretty strong research and seems entirely valid, I think music educators should keep pounding it. Having said that, I despise utilitarian arguments and have no personal use for them. If one is going to study music simply on hopes of becoming a brilliant mathematician, I think the point is being missed. This paragraph, therefore, is the last I have to say about it. 
2. I doubt you have zero innate musical talent. I've known people who were literally tone deaf--bellowing songs without knowing pitches at all. I don't ever remember hearing you sing, but if you can carry a tune, you're not a flat liner. I also don't remember much about our time in [High School] band together, but you played [xxxxx] at one point, didn't you? You never stuck out--which is what happens to people with no rhythm. Therefore, by deduction, you had at least decent rhythm. Believe me, this isn't insignificant. Be careful not to sell yourself short when thinking of your kids--perfectionism can end up selling their potential short as well. [...] But this is not the real topic either, so let's shove this line of reasoning aside. 
3. A final red herring debunker: Kids can possess talent their parents do not. [...]  Talent happens despite our extremely limited (and therefore often presumptuous) knowledge of genetics. But this is no reason to give your kids music lessons either, so away with it, and on to the real matter. 
4. My deepest belief is simply that God gave us music so that we might empty our souls to Him, unload our burdens, and carry our hearts to Him in ways that we can't find, even with words. Everyone needs to sing, just as everyone needs to shout when their too happy to hold it inside and groan when they're in profound pain. If you're looking for a monetary balance for your investment in music lessons, you'd do well to check the balance sheet on prayer and love as well.  

If we take this notion of the purpose for music seriously, it can lead us to some interesting observations. Let's look at the question from a radically different angle than most folks ever do. As Catholics, let's consider the Mass itself. 
At Mass, most people no longer do the very thing they too often define themselves as--their profession, that is--the thing that provides their income. Teachers don't teach at Mass, Doctors don't practice medicine, Lawyers don't litigate, Painters don't paint, even theologians are not properly engaged in the discipline of theology during mass! But the musician still makes music. Isn't that odd? The Church does not suggest that we all paint at mass, but regardless of our talent, She teaches us to SING! Why?
5. Music is powerful. It's been used since ancient times to recruit young men to war, to seduce women, to whip people into trance-like frenzies. It has been called a balm of souls, a vehicle of the devil, a religion in itself. Sickened and twisted versions of it produce terrible results both personally and socially. Yet used for the right purpose it can heal, reform, inspire, convert, soothe.  No one knows exactly what music is. It's mysterious. But even deaf people have been known to need it (there is a percussion virtuoso named Evelyn Glynnie who is deaf, yet has made her career from music. She says that the vibrations are felt physically, even if not heard. She's no novelty act, either, but a real musician who is seriously respected for her abilities).
6. I asked my kids at dinner if yours should take music lessons. Their response was yes. I asked them for their own reasons. Here are some:
"Because they might find joy in it." 
"Because they could give other people joy; because they might do something good in the world; and because they might do something difficult and prove it to themselves." 
"Because they might give joy to God by making music." 
7. Finally, a personal reason unrelated to these better arguments. When I was in High School, I had no interest in trying out for any sports team, or participating in any. My future, from the time I was 13, was clear: I was going to music school, and my fate would rest on how I played a thirty minute college audition. That was true enough. Unlike other majors, I didn't need to be well rounded, or have a varsity letter on my application: I needed to be able to play clarinet like mad, period. But some friends convinced me to go out for the track & field team. I never became a great shot putter or discus thrower, but I learned lessons in camaraderie that were irreplaceable. If talent, aptitude, or tangible return on my investment are the criteria for judging my time on the track team, it was a failure. But it wasn't. How much more so is a powerful, beautiful thing like music?
You guys undoubtedly have limited resources, both time and money. There are many, many ways you can go about addressing musical instruction--many different instruments, potential ensembles; the avenues are diverse. You don't have to make those decisions now--and there are ways you can let those decisions blossom, so that your kids will have a positive, encouraging experience of music in their lives. But it has nothing to do with money, and talent has almost nothing to do with it either. Even tone deaf folks who bellow out at mass are engaged in the important act of praising God musically--the pitches are as superficial as physical beauty is to the beauty of the soul--never let any snob tell you otherwise! Those who sing to praise God ALL sing beautifully. Check out the essays of Charles Ives for deeper information on that perspective!
There are few gifts you can give your kids that are more pure, if done in the proper spirit. And if you need any suggestions, or more music to listen to, let me know.