Jazz and Democracy

Jazz and Democracy

by

Howard Adelman

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.

Life versus Desire – August: Osage County

Life versus Desire – August: Osage County

by

Howard Adelman

Last night, August: Osage County did not win a single Golden Globe Award. Though Meryl Streep was nominated for an award for the best performance by an actress in a motion picture – comedy or musical, Amy Adams won for her excellent performance in American Hustle. And although Julia Roberts was nominated for best performance by an actress in a supporting role in a motion picture, Jennifer Lawrence won for her exceptional and quite unique part in American Hustle. Amy and Jennifer were both superb and gave outstanding performances. But they were just that, performance, brilliant improvisations and great exhibitions.

But they will not be remembered through the years. Because playing Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) had none of the depth and profundity of the roles that Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts had to exhibit in August: Osage County which I saw yesterday late afternoon. (I actually forgot we were going to see that movie and mistakenly thought we were going to see Saving Mr Banks and I had been reflecting on the notion of sentiment in preparation for watching the film so I was totally unprepared for the dark troubled tale of August: Osage County.)

Before I discuss the film itself and their two performances, I am going to make my argument in a round about way, first by discussing, very briefly, the ethnic cleansing of the Shawnee tribe and then, hopefully even more briefly, one small but crucial section of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the one dealing with desire and life in the first section of self-consciousness.

In my scholarly work, I have written before about the American War of Independence as primarily a war against the British for the Indian territories and, after the Americans defeated the British and the thirteen colonies gained their independence, the Americans returned their focus to ethnic cleansing of the Indian tribes in Ohio and westward. After the American Revolution, the Northwest Indian War took place between the Americans and the Shawnee in alliance with the Miami. The latter were finally defeated in the Battle of Timbers in 1794 and the Shawnee were coerced into signing the Treaty of Greenville ceding most of their territory in Ohio to the new United States of America and were forced to move further west largely into Missouri.

In 1811, Tecumseh wrote: “Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun … Sleep not longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws … Will not the bones of our dead be plowed up, and their graves turned into plowed fields?” Tecumseh saw not just ethnic cleansing but genocide. The War of 1812 on the American side of the border was centred on Tecumseh, who led the Indians who refused to sign even further treaties of concession in 1809 ceding a further 3 million acres to the United States of America (Treaty of Fort Wayne). Tecumseh joined with Joseph Brant leader of the Mohawks in fighting the Americans after Tecumseh lost the initial battle at Prophetstown in 1811. In May 1813, Tecumseh won the battle at FortMeigis in northern Ohio but could not consolidate his victory and had to retreat to Canada. He was subsequently killed in the Battle of the Thames in Upper Canada in October of 1813.  Henceforth, the Absentee Shawnee, as the portion of the Shawnee were called because they were not initially part of the original treaty of settlement, went south first to Kansas and then largely to Oklahoma but also Texas as part of the forced resettlement known as the Trail of Tears.

The movie is set in OsageCounty. Osage are a Shawnee people who speak the Siouan language, akin to the language of the Algonquin Indians who are descendents of the Paleo-Indians of the American midwest, hunter gatherers in the Pleistocene Age that ended in 11,700 BC with the coming of the last Ice Age. Meryl Streep as Violet Weston is at the opposite pole from any shrinking violet and ruthlessly derides the new servant hired by her husband Beverly at the very beginning of the film. Beverly was once a male name that meant a a beaver stream that fowed with creativity and energy but it was usurped for women as the poet became damned up with the vituperative wrath of his wife. Violet asks belligerently, “Are you Cherokee?” Johnna Monevata played by Misty Upham stands her ground against what is clearly an oppressive and overbearing new boss and replies, “I am Shawnee.”  (In the play, I believe she was Cheyenne.) This conversation all takes place “in a dim room, the blinds grimly endure the dead light, protecting the machined air, as the watchers watch the old lady die.” (Howard Starks)

Later there will be an early confrontation between Violet and her daughter Barbara played by Julia Roberts who insists that the servant be referred to as a native American and not an Indian because that is the name they prefer. Throughout the play, and in some revelations, it is clear that what Violet most wants is a reconciliation with her daughter but she will never risk trying for one and instead relies on barbiturates or barbs rather than Barbara. Violet replies to Barbara’s challenge, “I am as native as she is.” The reply is ironic both in Violet’s total ignorance of native American history in her overt racism, but also because Violet in her reduction of all of life to bare survival is, in another sense of the term, more native than anyone in the movie meaning not just indigenous to an area but identified with an area, in this case, with the heat, with the emptiness, with the deep overriding sense of desperation of the place, with all the ghosts that haunt the landscape of Oklahoma, both historical and family shadows. Oklahoma is not doing fine and is not A-OK. Those shadows include Letts’ own family; his grandmother was an addict who abused all her children.

This is not the happy singing Ooook-lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain and the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain. There is no rain in sight in this movie. And no wind either. What we feel is the interminable heat and deadness in the air of a very opposite Oklahoma. As Howard Starks, the poet, wrote in the poem from which Letts openly stole his title, in “the heat thickened air, no rain in three weeks, no real breeze all day.” We are in the midwest version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  We are in the land of shadows where whole populations of people have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the ninety degree summer heat.

But more of that later. Readers may complain that I am reading too much into the film when I suggest that the movie is as much about Oklahoma, initially called the Indian territory, that  was in turn also stolen from the native Americans, as it is about a dysfunctional family. Since I now want to suggest so much more, I will hold my firepower for now and turn to Hegel.

Consciousness depicts what our minds do when we look at things (including people often) as objects. Self-consciousness is when we look at ourselves as subjects and not just objects, as agents acting in the world and not just sensing, observing and understanding. As self-consciousness begins to develop, we become aware that other humans also regard themselves as subjects or agents. But at a more primitive stage, before engaging in the life and death struggle for recognition between selves, there is a battle within each self acted out in relationship to other selves between the need to survive as a physical being and the desire to overcome mere survival to become much more than simply someone out to survive, to become a fully self-conscious human being. This can only be done by connecting to and in relationship with an Other person. As Hegel writes, “self-consciousness is desire itself” that only attains satisfaction in another self-consciousness and you find peace with yourself only in another self-consciousness in the binding form of love. The characters in August: Osage County, with enough exceptions to prove the rule,  never find that peace and tear each other and mostly themselves to shreds because they never learn the first meaning of love.

But this opposition between its appearance and its truth has only the truth for its essence, namely, the unity of self-consciousness with itself.  This unity must become essential to self-consciousness, which is to say, self-consciousness is desire itself. (PofS 167)

Desire once fulfilled becomes the realization and expression of love. But that is not how it starts. The pathway begins in the fight to survive versus the desire to realize oneself. Violet, as she explicitly states as she reduces all the members of her family to quivering cowards in various ways using cutting comments thrust out by a razor-sharp tongue that shrewdly and cunningly probes the members of her family at their weakest points, tells them what it took for her to survive her own cruel mother who, knowing her daughter wanted riding boots to get recognition from a potential beau, in her mother’s wrapped present for her for Christmas and her black humour, gave her daughter Violet boots encrusted with mud and with holes in the soles. To survive a mother like that, one had to be strong, including the strength to devour your own children in turn and steal their inheritance to boot, which is precisely what Violet does at the family dinner. The story is about the hooks a parent puts into his or her own children, not out of love but out of blood greed. As the poet, Robert Penn  Warren wrote in All the King’s Men, “When you get born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a hame trying to get it back.” Survival demands eating your own children.

The movie is not just about a dysfunctional family – the Westons, that literally means a western town or settlement – though it is certainly that. Barbara Weston’s married name is Fordham, which combines ford and ham, transit across the waters to a home or founding a homestead. The name goes back to the tenth century and the Norman conquerors of the British Isles. This dysfunctional family are descendents on all sides of the homesteaders who took the lands of the native peoples but have never come to recognize their crimes. The unacknowledged past has rotted their souls. In the ruthless quest for survival and acquisition and appropriation of lands as they made their homesteads, they engaged in betrayal, theft, mass murder and expropriation.

There are exceptions in the family. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken, also performed brilliantly by Margo Martindale, is not one. She is as much in her own smiling way a castrating bitch as her sister Violet with her withering twists of her verbal knife at the weaknesses of each of her children, but in the end Mattie Fae’s husband, Charlie Aiken, played by Chris Cooper with total conviction, stands up to her and on behalf of his almost totally destroyed son by his own mother, resumes the meaning of his namesake, “Aiken”, an oak tree. He expresses un unqualified love for his son, little Charlie, played by Benedict Cumberbatch with equally exquisite precision, and finally declares war on his wife.

The centre of the drama of the movie is the struggle between Julie Robert’s character (Barbara) and her mother, Meryll Streep (Violet). Meryll Streep is one of the best actors in the world. Julia Roberts surprised me. Not only is the movie a struggle between a mother and daughter for supremacy, a struggle between life as the will to survive versus desire as the passion to realize oneself through and in the love of another, but Julia Roberts matches all the brilliant acting skills of Meryl Streep and proves herself an actor of the first order.

The movie was adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play that won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as five Jeff and five Tony Awards and three Outer Critics Awards and the New York Drama Critics Award for best play.  The play was three hours and the movie is only two hours. Since the movie also includes the many scenes outside of driving alone on the seemingly empty roads of Oklahoma, of necessity there had to be many excisions, including the reduction of roles such as that of the sheriff who was Barbara’s Weston’s love interest in high school, and, more importantly, the role of the Shawnee servant, Johnna with the feminized male name, who is hired at the very beginning of the movie as a cook and caregiver by Beverly Weston (Sam Sheppard) for his wife, Violet who is suffering from cancer of the mouth, aptly so given her poisonous cascade of words and her ingestion of barbiturates and other pills in inhuman quantities. The relationship between Barbara Weston’s daughter and Johnna was dropped. But the essence of the play is kept. Of course, the movie cannot lose all the concentration on one place of the play, but the passions that are so raw and are thrown with such rapidity with only the odd concession to comic relief carries us past the static quality. In fact, the static sense adds to the sense of a place frozen in a purgatory of the shadows of the past.

Beverly, a former once highly recognized poet who has given up to the bottle, when he hires Johnna, gives her a book of poetry by T.S. Eliot and says “Life is lived too long” to which he comments cynically that now we cannot utter such a truism because a famous poet used it and now we have to add the credit: T.S. Eliot. The sentiment is the exact opposite of  “Nothing lives long except the earth and the mountains,” taken from Letts’ friend, Carter Revar, and his poem “A Song That We Still Sing” about the displacement of the Cheyenne.

The quote both adumbrates what Beverly is about to do to himself, but also echoes the sentiments of T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Man”: “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act. falls the shadow. Between the conception and the creation, between the emotion and the response, falls the shadow. Between the desire and the spasm, between the potency and the existence, between the essence and the descent, falls the shadow” to answer his own question: “Where is the life we have lost in the living?”  It is lost when we descend into the shadow world before creation towards thoughts, before responses to raw emotions, towards spasm instead of desire, towards bare existence instead of potency, in descent instead of the realization of one’s essence. The movie is the world of shadow boxing in the struggle just to stay alive. And the film ends with Violet’s head in Johnna’s lap and alluding to another line and poem of T.S. Eliot’s, “This is the way the world ends”.

I won’t go through the plot. The movie simply bounces from one bang on the head to the next just when you begin to believe that surely in this shadow world there is not another bombshell to be released.  Suffice to say, Violet is not only one of the most castrating roles in fiction, but she also practices symbolic vaginal mutilation. Her greatest victim is not her middle daughter, Ivy (Julianna Nicholson) but her youngest daughter, Karen who has opted for empty clichés and an engagement to a “successful” real estate developer who we are led to believe belongs to the same class of skanks and scumbags as the heroes in The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle.  She is merely acting out the same self-destructive story. In doing so, she reveals the essence of the American murderers and thieves who stole Indian land. They were not courageous homesteaders pioneering in an empty land but used force and coercion to steal land and get the defeated peoples to concede more and more time and time again, just as Violet cuts deeper and deeper each time when you begin to believe things cannot get worse. She is a spiritual rapist. The whole movie is captured in one moment when Johnna bursts through her retiring and quiet demeanour to express her wrath on the world of rape  in the widest sense. That brief scene and the other with little Charlie at the bus station when he arrives late compete with the long family dinner scene for the most powerful moments in the film.

The movie ends as the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper but with a glimmer of hope for Barbara as she drives in her pickup in pajamas and a dressing gown back to Colorado, abandoning her mother. This is not a spoiler, just inevitable.