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John Ferguson on American Voices: Musical Diplomacy

By Published: July 24, 2007
AAJ: There's a precedent for jazz spreading to all parts of the world though. It has become quite international. It seems there is jazz almost everywhere you look, often tinged with its own cultural elements and traditions. But your work is taking it places where it is still unknown, to whole audiences that have no exposure. I think for jazz fans this is another opportunity for jazz's growth. Jazz has always been able to absorb new threads and sounds, and this means more new sounds and cultural connections.

JF: I think this is something important for your readers. I think there is a lot of despair in the West about, "Is jazz a living art form or is it on its way out?

AAJ: That is certainly a theme I'm tired of hearing.

JF: Exactly. And what's heartening to see, especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but also in places like Lebanon and Morocco and Tunisia, and Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, China. Jazz is starting to take off in those countries because they were only really freed in the '90s. So huge new audiences are being developed and have the potential to be developed. And good jazz, not the watered down, soft-pop version you hear on the radio in the United States almost everywhere. The opportunities are really abroad. And one thing that could infuse the jazz scene in the States is to bring back, like, the most interesting Lebanese players or Kazak jazz players, and show what the combination of jazz and world music can do.

AAJ: That's a very good point. I think that's something that jazz listeners recognize, that jazz has always been moved forward by new sounds and people bringing in those new cultural elements. Here's a question almost in reverse. The agenda of American Voices is cultural exchange, which must mean that you and the people you work with are constantly learning and evaluating American culture. What have you learned about American culture over the years?

JF: You learn a lot when you see your own culture through other people's eyes and ears. I think the thing you start to appreciate—as much as we all gripe about the United States—as much as I hear people griping, "It's becoming this, it's becoming that, it's becoming Fascist, it's becoming too conservative, or too liberal, or too amoral, I think the great thing about the United States is the freedom of inquiry that we have in our educational system. That's one thing. We grow up being encouraged to be ourselves. To look at the world in a different way, in our own unique way, and to develop ourselves and our own thinking about things. And that shows up not just in musicians' lives but in every American.

There's this individualism that makes our society a bit difficult at times, but for artists it's a great thing. And I see the kind of education people get in other countries—music education and academic education—it just shuts them down. The longer they are in school the more shut-down, closed-off, and uncreative they get. So I think that is one of the great things about the United States. We are trained to think outside of the box.

The other thing that I think is great about American culture, though I am not sure if it is as strong now as it was when I was a kid, is this belief in everything being possible. The American dream that you can make what you want of your life, that whole self-transformative attitude we take towards life. It's unique. You don't find that in many other places in the world.

For videos and recordings from American Voices performances, visit American Voices Sound and Video.

Photo Credit
Courtesy of American Voices

For more photos from American Voices, visit the AAJ Visual Arts Gallery and search for "American Voices."

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