The Rebirth of America Out of the Spirit of Jazz

I’ve got the idea for a biggish project called something like The Rebirth of America Out of the Spirit of Jazz. Here’s the start of it all, quite literally the start, since I’m just getting going. I don’t really know where it’s headed. But I feel it’s going somewhere I need to get to, and that’s a form that fits my function.

You got to be in the sun to feel the sun.
– Sidney Bechet

There’s no point in proving what everybody knows: America is in decline. Every economic indicator points to the fact that we’re an empire on the downslope of our glory. Worse yet, we’ve come to rely on economic indicators to measure the essentials of who we are. When the government moves rightward, the left grumbles about reclaiming the values of America; when the government moves leftward, the right hollers about taking back the country. But in private don’t all of us Americans feel a sense of lostness, regardless of who’s in the saddle being ridden by things?

The solution–and I’m American enough to believe that there is a solution–isn’t going to be less or more taxes, or a bailout, or a new government program, or the cutting of government programs, or any other merely political solution. I’ve never liked how we’re disappointed when politicians don’t fix us, because I’ve never liked the idea that the responsibility for our betterment begins with them. Our hope lies in a spiritual revival of what politics, religion, money, freedom, justice, and humanity mean.

I believe that by tapping into jazz we can rediscover the American spirit of liberty and justice and and adventure and compassion and pluralism and joy, a spirit that still has a few things to show the world and, I should add, is hardly limited to the geographical boundaries of the United States. The spirit of jazz, as we’ve long realized, radiates what is best about us, and miraculously blends and unifies our rugged individuality with our community values, our wild freedom with our central planning, our on-the-fly improvisations with our buckle-down discipline, our optimism with our blues, our jungle sexuality with our urbane panache, our business savvy with our compassion, our privacy with our politics, our rights with our virtues, our secularism with our religiosity, our now with our eternity. I’m not so quixotic as to believe that simply by playing more jazz records our country will turn around. That said, it might be worth a shot: relearning to listen to individuality certainly wouldn’t hurt our democracy.

The longstanding philosophical criticism of democracy is that it’s leveling and ignoble, whereas aristocracy preserves a sense of human greatness and natural hierarchy. The old philosophical criticism of aristocracy is that it’s based upon the wicked exploitation of a whole class or race of people, whereas democracy is constituted on the inviolable dignity of everybody. Whether philosophers have ever conceptually reconciled the best of both systems is far from clear. But there’s no doubt in my mind that aristocracy and democracy, high art and popular music, have been aesthetically reconciled in definitive ways by any number of jazz musicians.

What we need to do is to recover the secret of that reconciliation, not just in our arts but in our thoughts and actions. The health of the body politic depends upon our purging the blended toxins of soured democracy and wishful aristocracy in order to have a genuinely noble democracy, just as jazz musicians completely purged themselves of racism and remembered themselves into the deepest part of their own humanity in order to make an artistically developed music for everybody.

The beauty of the American approach to life is putting ideology aside in order to get the job done. If religion parts ways with God, go with God. If the law gets in the way of justice, change the law. If truth appears to be going down another road than love, take love’s road, for that’s probably where truth will wind up in the end. Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal, socialist, originalist, capitalist, progressivist: there’s not much wine left in any of those bottles, but we’re still trying to get drunk on the labels. The only question that ought to matter is, “Does it swing?,” because it don’t mean a thing if it don’t. The term for this quintessential American philosophy is pragmatism, “a new name for some old ways of thinking”–though William James, the thinker who brought the new name to everybody’s attention, wished he’d called it humanism instead.

Now, maybe you think that music is just entertainment and not worth reflecting on, that the “Concerto for Cootie” has nothing important to say about politics and that “Heebie Jeebies” isn’t exactly a philosophical treatise. I would largely agree. To reduce music to politics or history or even religion, to forget the pure joy of music, much less the pure joy of jazz, is to commit a sin of mortal magnitude. “One O’Clock Jump” was made for dancing not analyzing! But after we’re done swinging, it’s worth remembering that it takes a psychologically interesting key to unlock the human spirit’s native desire to dance. Consider this: the greatest philosopher of the Western tradition and the greatest philosopher of the Eastern tradition, Plato and Confucius respectively, both spent a shockingly large portion of their lives reflecting on music. They understood that music expresses a total style of human existence, one which can be ennobling or degrading, glorious or wretched. They understood that music is deeper than philosophy, religion, and even language; and if our words and ways can’t tap into those depths, then they can’t sustain us. Believing that music is all about entertainment is like thinking that marriage is all about sex: true, perhaps even truer than is intended; but there’s a whole lot more to the story.

Or maybe you think that jazz was just the product of its time, an expressive concomitant to the varying historical conditions of America in the early and middle twentieth century. Maybe jazz was worth thinking about when it reflected its moment. But if any music is worth thinking about now, it’s hiphop, or our fractured, downloaded world of iTunes and American Idol, or whatever phenomenon is the most advanced mirror of who we’ve become. To reflect on jazz is to be stodgy, romantic, or hoity-toity–or some bizarre combination of all three. Here, too, I would agree in part, though admittedly a pretty small part. It’s true that all music–all human things, period, including our views about music–grow out of their times and places, and hence have their taproots in the soil of their moments. But I honestly don’t see how we can avoid thinking that great expressions of humanity miraculously flower forth permanent truths for us to reflect on, learn from, and deepen ourselves with. The best jazz, in my view, belongs to that class of absolute masterpieces. You can, and to some degree probably should, contextualize the works of William Shakespeare and John Coltrane in their respective histories; but as long as humanity lasts somebody somewhere will be reading Antony and Cleopatra or listening to A Love Supreme and establishing something other than a historicist’s connection.

The inspiration for the deep exploration of jazz has been with me ever since I was a sixteen-year-old kid blown away by Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars playing “Muskrat Ramble.” But the real drive to undertake it came recently. While listening to Ellington’s famous Blanton-Webster band, I was lightning-struck by a mystical realization that all our problems could be solved by a jazz consciousness. Confronted with a dilemma, Christians ask, “What would Jesus do?” While I was listening with a big smile on my face to “Conga Brava,” I began asking, “What would Duke Ellington’s music do?” and finding that answers to our moral and political quandaries slid into place with the sweet authority of a Ben Webster solo.

The economy? We need to get away from the weird marriage of corporate capitalism and state socialism and back to lively small businesses competing and expressing their unique individualities in great cutting sessions. Gay marriage? Forget the false choice between traditional marriage and anything-goes: we need the integrity of the marriage melody in the composition of our national life, and we should welcome a serious variation on it. Foreign policy? As a band we need play the music all the other bands want to get in on, keep our ears open to the best of what’s out there, and be open to letting in anybody with a commitment to our way of swinging. Constitutional interpretation? We need to see the Constitution as a “blues document,” in the words of Stanley Crouch, the spirit of which must always deeply inform our decision-making, and we must improvise it forward. Education? Our national genius lies not in top-down testing and training but in the high standards of individuality and ingenuity, which can be maintained only by teachers with a deep sense of their discipline and the freedom to improvise with their students. The soulful, floating, intelligent, playful, sweet Ellingtonian thunder seemed to know just how I should act as an individual and citizen; it crooked its finger at me and then whispered in my ear, “Every moment is holy.”

Like all mystical realizations, my intuition that jazz is the solution to all our problems contains a fair amount of danger mixed in with its truth-quotient. Music can indeed inspire philosophy and politics, but it can’t do the hard work of thinking and acting for us. I don’t want to outline a set of jazzy answers to the political issues facing us. After all, at best my opinions are just a few good solos in a much bigger band. My goal is to get into politics in the ancient sense of who we are and how we live together, and to recover as far as I can the spirit that has been shaping the world for good since time immemorial. And the closer I come to what jazz is all about, the more human I feel.

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3 Responses to The Rebirth of America Out of the Spirit of Jazz

  1. Chris Liebig says:

    Very interesting — but no musical accompaniment?

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