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].


Tilo, 73 aƱos said...

I'm writing from Argentina.
Do you know where it is? Argentina IS in South America. Yes. In the south there is also a certain kind of America. As there is another in the Central region of our continent.

What you call America is only ONE country in North America, for that sub-continental region also contains Mexico and Canada.

It would be very nice and healthful of you as well as millions of your fellow citizens to correct that false concept once and for all.

Oh! Your blog is really very interesting, for I, a southerner american, am very fond of jazz too.

Eric Seddon said...

Wow, man...

Yeah, I know where Argentina is. As a Catholic, I'm grateful for the land you're writing from, as our Pope is from that great South American nation. I also really dig a lot of the music written by Argentinians--especially Osvaldo Golijov, Alberto Ginastera, and Astor Piazzolla. I would love to visit your country someday.

As far as the use of the term "American", "America", etc...remember, we have a rather long and tedious name for our country: "The United States of America." That cumbersome name means we have to shorten it when we're talking and writing. Sometimes we say "USA", sometimes "US" and sometimes "America" for grammatical reasons (because it's part of the name--not because we're implying we're the only country here.) The title of the post you're commenting on comes directly from a quote of the great Art Blakey--and he wasn't trying to insult South and Central Americans when he said it...he was actually talking about (US) American history and jazz's place.

Think about it, would sound pretty stupid if we said "United Statesians" or "Statesists" or something like that. "Americans" works better. Doesn't mean we don't realize y'all are Americans too. Let's all be Americans!

Thanks for reading & keep swinging!