Jazz and Democracy
Yesterday evening on stage at that absolutely exceptional musical venue, Koerner Hall, Marcus Roberts, after he introduced the outstanding members of his band, The Modern Jazz Generation, and his planned program of the evening celebrating New Orleans and the jazz greats from that amazing city, turned toward his piano and seemed about to play. Then he turned back to the audience. He said that, although he had blabbered on long enough and should begin playing, he wanted to ask the audience a question. Perhaps they had heard there was an election going on south of them. He wondered whether there were any supporters of Donald Trump in the audience.
To my surprise, there were a considerable number as indicated by the applause and the favourable shouts. I thought Marcus Roberts would get up and walk out. Instead he asked, “And who supports Hillary Clinton?” The applause and cheers made the response for Trump seem miniscule in comparison. Then he asked, “Who supports Bernie Sanders?” It was hard to tell who received more applause, Hillary or Bernie. In the din and chatter that followed, before he turned back to play, I thought (or imagined) he mumbled, “Well I guess I can stay for the evening and play.
Though there were a scattered few young people in the audience, mostly musicians I guessed, the overwhelming majority were long in the tooth like myself. Our teenage years were spent in an age of crooners, in an Al Jolson revival, and with doo-wap and then folk music dominating the air waves before the early rockabilly of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis took over as rock-and-roll, Elvis Presley and the British Beatles invasion displaced jazz as the musical beat of the young. I still remember listening to Bo Didley at the Chicken Deli on the west side of Mount Pleasant below Eglinton, when rock made rhythm and blues a musical medium for fogies in their late twenties, thirties and forties.
After all, when I started university, Blackboard Jungle was playing in the movie theatres and the sound track featured Bill Haley and His Comets performing, “We’re Going to Rock Around the Clock.” I loved the movie but found it hard to listen to what I considered raucous noise. In my faulty and confused memory, I initially thought that Sidney Poitier starred as the WWII vet and frustrated and forbearing English teacher in a tough inner-city American school, but as I replayed parts of the movie in my mind, Sydney Poitier was the leader of the hard-nosed gang and Glenn Ford was the teacher. I had superimposed a movie forty years later, “To Sir, with Love” onto 1955.
Long in the tooth indeed! I decided my memory had been ruined by loud music. After all, everyone needs a scapegoat. By the time I completed graduate school and began my career teaching philosophy, I left a concert by Bob Dylan at Massey Hall at the beginning of the second half because Dylan had switched from acoustic to an electric guitar; the din gave me an instant headache. Indeed, The Times They Were a-Changing and I could not keep up to the speed.
So I attend the jazz series concerts at Koerner Hall that combine rhythm and melody. Yesterday evening, I listened to the virtuoso drumming of Jason Marsalis. He is truly a genius and makes playing percussion much more than keeping the beat. He not only has mastered all the skills, but has turned drumming into a versatile medium of self-expression as Marcus Roberts sometimes boogy-woogied and other times wildly improvised on the ivories along with all the other jazz greats, young as well as old, who join him and without exception are virtuoso performers. At times it appeared that Roberts used a device on his lap which I guessed must have been a Braille reader that perhaps reminded him of the itinerary for the evening. But that is just a guess and I could not figure out why there seemed to be a bit of confusion in transitioning from one number to another in the second half.
Rodney Jordan was brilliant as the bassist and never seemed to even glance at the music on his stand. He was both the least ostentatious and modest musician of the bunch while always seeming to respond, as if on cue, to whatever music he heard around him – until he played his own solo. Wow! In the back tier of the jazz ensemble sat the incomparable Randall Haywood playing trumpet along with Alphonso Horne. The two were absolutely brilliant. Horne plays with a lot of swagger while Haywood is both bold and retiring at one and the same time. Corey Wilcox dominated the middle tier, not simply because he is a very big man, but his tuba seems enormous and then he switches to trumpet and even the horn. What a versatile and virtuoso performer! Surprisingly, Caleb Mason on trombone almost kept up. Joe Goldberg on clarinet (and sometimes alto sax), whom Marcus Roberts introduced as a former physics major, centred the front tier. Tissa Khosla, who evidently cooks the band remarkable Indian food, played a baritone (and sometimes tenor) sax on his left (our right). Ricardo Pascal was on Goldberg’s right playing on the tenor and soprano sax.
We heard a lot of diamond-toothed Jelly Roll Morton who predated my maturing ear. (The band played “Doctor Jazz” and “The Pearls” – Roberts said that the latter had been written by Morton for a girl he fell for in Europe). Louis Armstrong also dominated in the repertoire.
I walk away from an evening of such brilliant jazz feeling inspired and blessing the luck of almost eight decades of life. How can you listen to Duke Ellington’s music without being buoyed up! Marcus Roberts said last night that jazz lies at the soul of America and is always new and renewable. I think it is the most democratic music for it allows each individual musician to play “his own horn” while working in an ensemble and playing off as well as with the others. Everyone is given a voice. That is why it is the music of equal opportunity and brashness in the face of adversity. It is also a music of stable rhythms and clarity in the sound. You can hear every note, especially from the sax players.
As yesterday proved, the old can be new again, for democracy has a built-in reverence for tradition and the rule of law, but not as a set of prison bars, but as standard setting and discipline, as a framework within which individuals can grow and thrive. Democracy is NOT populism. Democracy depends on a depth of knowledge of one’s tradition and one’s contemporary environment. If it is great jazz, it is never superficial where mouthing what first comes into your mind can be mistaken for “telling it as it is.” Jazz is not postmodernist where everything is said to be of equal value. Democracy is built on standards and a dedication to protecting and enhancing those standards and allowing each individual to realize his or her full potential.
When I return in subsequent blogs to dissecting the internal and external dynamics of so-called “democracy” in Iran, please keep this in mind. Does the democracy deliver tambour and constantly renew itself by providing a decorative interlacing dialectic between the society and the supporting columns and foundations that raise that society up as well as hold it together? Do the rhythms and counter-rhythms play off one another and with one another, or does one side of the tension turn into a disloyal opposition intent on serving as a spoiler rather than a creative counter? Is the repetition and dominant rhythm one of a military band that ensures that everyone marches to the same tune, or is the beat there to ensure a constitutional core that facilitates spontaneity and creativity? Is the conversation one of call and response or does it display deaf ears that turn away from the language of the other? Does the political system cultivate listening or deafen us to the voices of others? In other words, as the miasma bubbles up in a volcanic changing environment, do we experience flight in the face of real or imagined fears, away from freedom, or does the prospect of change and renewal inspire a move towards freedom?
I do not mean to put down the mambo and the samba, rhumba or calypso, but jazz is the soul of America, as Marcus Roberts declared, because it and it alone reveres riffing and improvisation. America par excellence is the country of discovery, of invention. Are we promoting multiplicity or insisting upon uniformity? Are we revering dynamism or stasis? Are we insisting upon strict and confining boundaries or a realm which challenges and alters those boundaries? Do we revere blackness, the revelations of the dark side, or does that just scare the bejeebies out of us? And then do we wear hoods over our heads and white robes in the elusive and eternally unsuccessful, indeed absolutely stupid pursuit of absolute purity, terrific and necessary for the lab but irrelevant to the brutal confusions and chaos of everyday life? Do we understand that democracy has far more to do with the experience of Black Americans, as much as we owe to the white founders, some of whom owned slaves, who read David Hume, John Locke and Adam Smith and were children of the Scottish enlightenment? For though jazz is about invention and improvisation, that creativity requires standards of excellence, mastery of foundations. That is why Marcus Roberts is so dedicated to the preservation and renewal of the greats who founded the jazz tradition. Are those who inspire us – Gershwin and Stravinsky, Matisse and Picasso – ones who loved jazz? Is the political music open-ended or does it lead us to a dead end? Do we build by mastering a legacy or turning that heritage into idolatry?
Is our language of discourse one about frontiers or about closed and walled-off spaces? Is it about cross-fertilization of differences or about the restrictive boundaries? I, of course, in writing about Iran, will also be writing about Canada and the U.S.