The Jazz of James, Part III: Jazz as Pluralism

Previous entries of The Jazz of James: Part I and Part II.

Pragmatism is a form of pluralism. To accept the pragmatic account of truth-making is to recognize that different sensibilities working under different conditions are going to produce a plurality of truths. Here it’s important to note that pluralism is not the same as relativism. Truth is no more relative to an individual or a culture than physical health is. Pluralism is simply the view that there are multiple ways of getting healthy and multiple ways of getting the truth. James’s view of religious pluralism is particularly moving:

If an Emerson were forced to be a Welsey, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.

In this way, our prized religious liberty is deeply pragmatic. Not only does it work in the sense that it leads to greater social cohesion, it allows for various personalities to bond freely and powerfully with their beliefs.

Just as jazz is pragmatism in action, jazz is pluralism in action. Whereas we tend to think of a great orchestra as the ability to sound as one, we think of a great jazz combo as the ability to sound as many. A unity must still be made out of multiplicity, but the best jazz bands shine forth the ideal of individuals communing as individuals. Duke Ellington’s various orchestras, to take the supreme examples, were able to spell out multiple syllables of the divine message simultaneously; Carney, Hodges, Stewart, Webster, and company handsomely show how Emerson, Welsey, Moody, Whitman, and company can be champions of truth both in alternation and all together.

As Martin Williams ingeniously observes, jazz tells us that “not only is far greater individuality possible to man than he has so far allowed himself, but [. . .] such individuality, far from being a threat to a cooperative social structure, can actually enhance society.”

Finally, both jazz and pragmatism give up on finality while still maintaining a piety toward the vastness of reality. For the pragmatist, there are no big principles—religious, philosophical, scientific, or artistic—that couldn’t in principle be modified. Likewise, for the jazz musician, there is no such thing as a final performance nor a piece of music that exists outside of time. Jazz so fuses the composed piece with performance that sometimes the improvisations on a melody become more important than the original melody. Every new jazz performance is, to apply the words of Robert Frost, “a momentary stay against confusion.” Just as philosophers and religionists sometimes feel that Jamesian pragmatism robs them of their final truths, the questing momentariness of jazz sometimes puts off listeners who just want the melody once and for all. But James and the best jazz musicians aren’t deflating our ultimate ends: they’re remembering our struggling means. What Dizzy Gillespie says of jazz music fits James’s conception of the human culture to a tee: “Yes, sometimes the music comes first and the life-style reflects the music because music is some very strong stuff, though life in itself is bigger.” For the pragmatist, life in itself is always bigger than the music of our conceptions.

Part IV is here.

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4 Responses to The Jazz of James, Part III: Jazz as Pluralism

  1. Pingback: The Jazz of James, Part II: Jazz as Pragmatism | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

  2. Pingback: The Jazz of James, Part IV: The Gospel of Jazz | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

  3. Pingback: The Jazz of James, Part V: The Deepest Human Life | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

  4. Pingback: The Jazz of James, Part VI: The Solid Meaning of Life | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

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