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Saturday, November 5, 2005

Wynton Marsalis's jazz politics.

Jazz lovers will be especially interested in Wynton Marsalis's New Republic essay on rebuilding New Orleans, in which he introduces a political philosophy of swing:

Swing is a philosophy of steadfastness. It instructs us to maintain an equilibrium when external forces are conspiring to tear it apart. At the heart of swing, two extremely different instruments—the drum and the bass—must be played with absolutely the same intentions. The cymbal that is struck on every beat by the drummer is in the high high register, and the bass notes, also articulated on every beat, are in the way way low. In order to swing, these extremes must get together, and then they must stay together. If you think getting together is hard, then you probably know that staying together is practically impossible. Anyone can swing for a few measures—but swinging is a matter of endurance. It tests the limits of your ability to work with another person to create a mutual feeling.

That is what is required of the citizens of this country now: sustained engagement with the issues that have been raised by this tragedy.

Can Americans swing together — rather than, you know, at each other?

A lot of people are focused not on coming together or working together, but on driving people apart. Wedge politics, no matter how entertaining and effective in the short term, are morally appalling — and if liberals were even remotely powerful, I'd say something here about the wedge movements on the left. But I find it hard not to notice that the divisive national politics in the United States right now are being driven by the right and amplified by the partisanship of the G.O.P.

Does saying that make me a divider? I don't think so. But acknowledging that fact puts liberals like me in a awkward spot when we are also committed to dialogue, compromise, pragmatism, and the commonweal. If you're tempted to say that I'm a hypocrite for wanting dialogue when I'm also convinced that the conservative movement has deliberately adopted a politics of division in order to consolidate its power, I see what you're getting at — but the even bigger problem is what to do about conservatives who aren't interested in dialogue but are interested in power. Because, friends, dialogue and swing aren't the dominant motifs in America these days. I'm a liberal committed to moderatism, but who's playing that tune anymore?

For more on the political — and theological — implications of jazz, by the way, see my friend and colleague Tom Stites's essay "Improvisational Faith" (UU World, Sept-Oct 2003).

("Strength in Swing," Wynton Marsalis, New Republic 11.7.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 5 November 2005 at 11:18 AM

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Kevin McCulloch:

November 5, 2005 06:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

Oh, c'mon! Name a form of music that doesn't require "endurance" on the part of people working together to create "mutual feeling." Maybe what the country needs right now isn't swing but harmony, like in old-timey country music. Or maybe we could get our political discourse back on track if we all just settled into a warm, sunny, '70s style R&B groove. In fact, I'm certain the national mood would lift considerably if we piped progressive rock into the Senate chamber and inspired Harry Reid and Bill Frist to play air guitar together.

I love jazz. It's a tangled, messy music with a tangled, messy history, which is why I groan when I see it evoked as a feel-good metaphor. The classic small-group ensemble structure, wherein everyone takes a solo, looks sort of like democracy and dialogue until you consider that Louis Armstrong pushed his solos to the forefront not to give everyone their turn but, rather, to showcase how much better he played than everyone else. So why isn't jazz a metaphor for struggle and dominance? It's not as though the great jazz musicians lived particularly virtuous lives. They were insanely competitive and they played jazz to make a buck doing something they loved, not to express values we'd recognize as our own.

Jazz has a serious image problem. It has become respectable. (On this point Marsalis has much to answer for.) Such a shame!


November 5, 2005 07:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ooh, first-ever Philocritics Award for Philocriticism goes to my friend Kevin McCulloch!

But to escape from Marsalis's swing-centric view of the world for a minute, I'd still like to find examples of people engaging in civic dialogue and civic-minded partnerships across the political divide. Is this happening anywhere in your neck of the woods? Anyone have some good news to share?

P.S. I wish I had learned to play music in any kind of ensemble. The closest I've come is accompanying congregational hymn singing. Love those four-part harmonies, but I can't say I've ever been swinging...

Bill Baar:

November 6, 2005 12:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

I heard George Will on a talk show shortly after Trent Lott was booed at Sen Wellstones memorial service.

Will said the right sometimes went over board with a kind of religousity. The left with a belief that everything is political. What we witnessed at Wellstone's memorial was a moment when everything became political, even Lott's paying tribute to the man.

That Wellstone service was a turning point for me. I had friends there and when I suggested Lott wasn't treated very nicely, they really sloughed it off. Lott's a facists etc. I never get that kind of hostility from people with a more conservative bent.

The right compartmentalizes more. That's why Liberals will call them hypocrites, out gay republicans and so forth. It's a very different outlook on life.

Tom Stites:

November 6, 2005 05:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

For a a report on some civic dialogue across the political divide, check out Nicholas Kristof's op-ed column in today's New York Times, featuring Sam Brownback and Madeleine Albright:

judy b.:

November 7, 2005 12:51 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm a jazz vocalist originally trained in classical piano and raised listening to all the music of the '30s and '40s. I write tunes and improvise live.

Standard four-part harmony comes naturally to the average Amer-Euro ear; The structure is so engrained in most people, they rock naturally.

Swing is different. Swing is a departure from the hard beats, and not everyone gets it, even people who like it. I've never met an opera singer who could swing. They have great pitch, but no rhythm. They're stuck.

Jazz is smart music - especially hard bop and everythng since; it's very mathematical - but you have to feel it to play it. It's easier to pass playing pop, rock, classical, just about anything else, without feeling it in your bones. With jazz, you have to mean it.

And that's what Wynton Marsalis is saying: Do we want to restore this city, are we going to play the song for real or are we just going to phone it in?

judy b.:

November 7, 2005 02:23 AM | Permalink for this comment


I don't mean to imply that only jazz music is mathematical; all music is. But most western music is straight math: 1,2,3,4. Swing is all about everything in between; it's about dancing around the hard beats, especially avoiding the 1 and the 3, which is what most western music emphasizes.

Also, I did not mean to suggest that classical musicians *can't* swing - Marsalis himself is a master of both styles. But such bilingualism is rare.

Bill Baar:

November 7, 2005 07:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

My kid plays in a jazz band at school...the jazz concerts are long... jazz goes on and on and on... and sometimes it makes me snooze.

Kevin McCulloch:

November 7, 2005 10:32 AM | Permalink for this comment

Judy's right; it's notorously hard to swing. But there's more to art than virtuosity. The back catalogs are full of unremarkable jazz sessions that swing just fine, whereas there's lots of unsophisticated music that's sublime. To borrow an analogy from painting, it's much easier to fake abstract expressionism than photo-realism, but this fact is of limited help when debating the relative merits of great artists like Jackson Pollock and Norman Rockwell.

While we're dancing around the conversation that Chris wants us to have, Bill's first post reminded me of this enjoyable piece that ran in Slate last year before the election. The author walked around L.A. wearing Kerry campaign gear in solidly Republican areas and Bush campaign gear in solidly Democratic areas to see how people would react. The results support Bill's observation about compartmentalization: people in conservative areas responded mostly with tight-lipped tolerance, wheras the response in the liberal areas was much more animated, both pro and con.

That said, be careful not to tar us liberals with too wide a brush, Bill. Whatever my politics, I would never heckle someone at a funeral. Momma raised me better than that.

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