Jazz originated long ago in a soulful look inward, as an outward expression of anxiety, isolation, pain, suffering, and seeking calm, a release, in blue and bent notes, in clubs at night, with instruments that gave flight to the spirit, pushing back against the offending spaces that were America, in obeisance to jazz’s melodic musical parentage – the blues and ragtime.
Jazz is free, smooth, wobbly, looped, and loved.
It’s Duke Ellington perfect, distinctive, improvised, unique, revealing, harmonic, healing, binding one who can hear and feel to the sound of beat, bass, brass and a Miles Davis’ trumpet.
The heart strikes with its rhythm, breaths inspire and conspire with its cadence, the foot taps, to this easy swaying sound.
It should be the music of our divided day – as it suits the times – and its musical themes are those we should all share and many do.
Of course, there are others who resist the message of jazz, of collective inclusion, of diversity, recoiling even at the soft brush on a cymbal or a snare drum.
Is the beauty of jazz inaccessible to some because it was first the song of slaves?
Louie Armstrong once sang, “My only skin is my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue?”
Billie Holiday sang a song in later years how “southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.”
Benny Goodman, who was white, resisted the notion that an all-white band could make jazz and added vibraphonist Lionel Hampton to his ensemble.
Charles Mingus, crafted a song, the “fables of faubus,” and he sang, “Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us! … Oh, Lord no more swastikas! Oh, Lord, no more Klu Klux Klan!”
Mingus could sing his song today.
It was my distinct honor to serve as Special Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, to advise Congressman John Conyers of Detroit, the Committee’s ranking member, and to become accustomed to fine jazz.
John’s office is strewn with jazz memorabilia and frequent visits from the jazz greats, many from Detroit, and John fought for a resolution, designating jazz as “an American National Treasure,” and Congress passed his resolution, recognizing that jazz was “a uniquely American musical synthesis and culture through the African-American experience” and that it was “a unifying force, bridging cultural, religious, ethnic and age differences in our diverse society.”
Thus it was resolved that jazz was and remains “a true music of the people, finding its inspiration in the cultures and most personal experiences of the diverse peoples that constitute our nation.”
Socrates thought that music found its way “into the inward places of the soul” and made “the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful…”
John shared that view and thought the young should be educated to the sound of jazz.
Unfortunately, perhaps not enough folk are listening to the right music, or people, because, this nation has lost its grace notes and is struggling, but not hard enough, to recover its original unfinished promise of unity and tolerance, among “we,” the people.
Plato added to Socrates’ teaching that “every heart sings a song that is incomplete until another heart whispers back.”
Past Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been listening to the discordant songs of the day and found it necessary to push back but not with any whisper.
“Bigotry seems emboldened,” said former President, George W. Bush, “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
“You can send a message to the country,” said President Barack Obama, “and you will send a message to the world that we are rejecting a politics of division. We are rejecting a politics of fear.”
Jazz is both music and metaphor that can synthesize the opposites of white and black, of Europe and Africa, of dominance and equality, of control and opportunity, an art form begun in desperation and rebellion, quite understandable given the experience of blacks who were slaves, rather than men and women and equals.
Of course, whether you find jazz as a way I suggest, we must agree that we can no longer accept the division emerging in our society, increasingly normalized, no longer shocking in word or conduct.
If not the music itself, embrace its expression, that we are in this together, that that’s what makes us Americans, is our unity in diversity.
Whisper, then shout in song or prose, that you will not stand for the politics of hate and division and the lying explanations by which our so-called leaders dodge responsibility for their bigotry, speak up in your private life, and when you go into the polling place in the days ahead, pull the lever to elect only those candidates who will bring us together.