“What can the jazz process tell us about life?” That’s the overriding theme of Trading Fours on Blog Talk Radio, hosted by Drs. Jackie Modeste and Wesley J. Watkins, IV.
I had a lively conversation about The Rule of the Clan on the show today, and in keeping with the spirit of Trading Fours—and trading fours—our discussion ranged widely. You can hear the full one-hour show through this media player (or by clicking on the link in the first paragraph):
In the course of our conversation, the three of us had a lively exchange about jazz and democracy I thought worth sharing. Among other things, it seemed like an American version of the discussion I had with Prof. Stefan Kirste about the relation between law and musical aesthetics:
Here’s an excerpt from the conversation, which in the audio file begins at about 33:00:
Me: What liberal government has to sell has to be better than what’s on offer from other social theories.
Me: And if liberal government is working, if it’s corrupt along any lines, certainly those of nepotism, if it’s ineffective, then liberal government deserves to lose. But I don’t think it should. And that’s why I think it’s important to defend central government, to defend modern liberal ideals of robust government capable of vindicating the public interest and thereby liberating individual energy.
Jackie: OK, yes. Yes! So what I’m thinking about is when we—
Me: Jackie, sorry to interrupt you. Something that Wes said … maybe we could play with this a little bit. I’m trying to draw connections to the jazz concerns that you have here on the show. Maybe government is like a band leader. And so if you’re thinking about Duke Ellington, right, and the kind of music that he was able to enable, if you don’t have a good band leader, then someone is going to steal that show and the swing is going to be undermined. I’m not sure if … is that the case in jazz?
Jackie: Wes, do you want to talk about that?
Wes: I think that might be a fair point. You used the word enabled. So, first of all, what makes Duke Ellington great among many, many things was his ability to write specifically for the personalities in his band and to write music that would showcase their strengths. So he would, yeah, as you put it, enable members of his band to be their best selves—and as a result, by the way, very few people wanted to leave his band.
Jackie: I know, isn’t that great?
Me: That’s great!
Jackie: So that takes a lot of listening. In order to write for your band members, you have to know—you have to hear them well enough—
Wes: And you actually have to want them to be free and to express their own voice.
Jackie: Yeah, yeah!
Wes: Right. So if you think about Duke Ellington as like … obviously a king doesn’t work if we’re trying to talk about democracy.. but if you had a king, or a government system that wanted people to have ultimate freedom. Now, some would say that maybe the combination of democracy and free market capitalism is that, is what we might call that. But I find that while jazz is a great metaphor for democracy I find that capitalism is not a good metaphor with jazz. I think that the capitalism aspect of American society rubs up against the more democratic sense that I try to connect my students to through jazz.
Me: Could you elaborate a little more? In what way does it rub up?
Wes: I’ll put it to you this way. I mean, the way that our current discourse in the country is coming from the conservative side, many of the things that jazz musicians say about their craft would be called socialist. Right? Because theirs was a grand concern for everyone. But the thing that makes jazz magical to me and maybe could make the best democracy equally magical is the ability of the jazz musician to balance individual freedom with what is best for the group. So jazz musicians—again if we’re thinking about the idea of swing—they don’t feel like when the music is really good, when it’s really swinging, jazz musicians don’t feel like they were in any way inhibited, or that they . . . allow[ed] anyone else to be inhibited either. So somehow we found a way for my best self, my highest intention to be free in this musical moment, while yours was equally free and we never got in each other’s way, and everything that we did was good for everyone. To me that’s one way I would describe the best moments in music. Now, if you kind of step back for a second, I’m sure any musician would say, “yeah, OK, I didn’t get the solo on that tune, but I didn’t care,” and sometimes you don’t care because that moment is one of multiple moments, and you know you’ll solo next time, right? So maybe it’s just not I have to have it all right now, so it’s the ebb and flow. You know, you could talk about swinging political powers or check and balances, you know, sometimes the executive branch seems to be wielding a bit more power than we might like. So maybe swing is this thing that we look at from a meta perspective on—well over time is this thing swinging? So there’s that.
Me: That is beautiful.
… Isn’t it, though?