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Speaking to our better nature, jazz is good for democracy

Jeff Miers

Words matter.

So do notes.

And chords.

And the intention behind all of them.

At perhaps no other time in our country’s history has it been more glaringly apparent that music can and should do much more than simply entertain us. It is here for the purpose of our elevation, to be sure, but elevation does not always take the form of escapism. Sometimes it takes the form of a challenge to our preconceptions. And at its most striking, it can offer us a model for useful and productive human interaction.

This is why jazz is good for democracy. It reveals to us the good that can come from prepared and devoted individuals gathering together in service of something bigger than their individual egos. It speaks to our better natures. It is the polar opposite of present-day politics.

Why? And how?

Well, though nothing about jazz is truly simple, the answer is not particularly complicated. Jazz is a music that creates a democratic environment in real time. It requires listening as well as “speaking,” or playing. It demands that you respect your fellow musicians. It is, in a musical microcosm, a model for useful, positive interaction. And it expects you to be able to improvise, to take your knowledge and experience and employ them toward a positive end, on the fly.

It’s also music that keeps you honest. On the bandstand or in the studio, at a major gig or during a pickup jam, jazz demands that you know your stuff. Ego, posturing, grandstanding, bluffing, bullying, lying – they have no place in this in-the-moment society.  If you get up on stage and hang on a note that clashes with the prevailing harmony, no amount of spin in the world will mask the fact that you’re either unprepared or tone-deaf. You can’t bluff your way out of it, or fall back on standard clichéd licks and hope your audience won’t notice. (I went to private high schools with no music programs, and am a self-taught musician by necessity. Because of this, I gravitated, initially at least, toward music that was easier to learn by ear, rather than through applied theoretical knowledge. Translation: rock music.  I’m not an accomplished jazz musician, but consider myself an eternal student of the discipline. So I know a thing or two about attempting to “bluff your way out of it.”)

Jazz also demands a certain amount of intellectual investment and integrity on the part of the player.  If you haven’t done your homework, it shows.  This is a particularly interesting point, given the current tenor of anti-intellectualism gripping the country. Jazz has often been viewed by people who don’t understand it as a form of musical elitism. We can approach things we don’t understand in two ways. We can either look at the situation as an opportunity to learn something we don’t know, even if opening ourselves to it makes us uncomfortable and vulnerable. Or we can view it as the enemy, judge it harshly as if it’s talking down to us or thinks it’s better than us, and retreat back into our bubble. This applies to both musicians and listeners.

Jazz teaches us to be color blind, too. I recently visited the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass, and encountered musicians of every imaginable race, ethnicity and quite likely, religious persuasion. These people intermingled naturally and easily. Why? Because when you’re playing, all that matters is whether or not you can cut it. One might reasonably claim that this is the case in any artistic environment, but the emphasis on shared humanity and musicality above skin color is particularly underscored in jazz. (It should be noted, however, that jazz was most definitely birthed by African Americans.)

Why isn’t pop music as effective in the transcending of societal strictures? Generally speaking, pop music is a lowest common denominator affair.  It seeks to entertain in an unchallenging way. It asks nothing of its audience, more often than not, and demands little more of its creators. It venerates the ego. And its concerns are more financial than artistic. (There are exceptions, thankfully.)  Beyond the obvious allure of temporary escapism, what good is contemporary pop music doing us during a time when acknowledging our shared humanity is increasingly  seen as a weakness?  Not much.

Great music-making and active, informed, involved listening demand an equal amount of give and take. The jazz musician realizes it’s not all about him, that he is part of a larger organism with a bigger goal than mere personal gratification. If he fails to realize this, he doesn’t get called for gigs.

In jazz, no one wins unless everyone wins. And therein lies a lesson for all of us.

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