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Megaphone

Jazz Is Obama

By Published: December 6, 2008

Democracy is founded on debate. Jazz improvisation's roots stretch back to 'talking drums'--a conversation.

The musicians I am drawn to are players who "open up." They carry the torch for the freedom of infinite possibility. They have unbounded imagination. They see a musical chart as a map into unknown territory. Not unlike healthy law, the form of a jazz vocal chart can make or break the democracy of an improvisation. It can liberate a community dialogue with firm, clear, yet spacious structure or it can lock everyone in the band into pre-meditated isolation. The chart can shove the singer "out front" like a blow-up doll singing notated Talking Points. Hey, you betcha. Farewell to music dressed up in hairdo and make up. Farewell to vicious sound bites. A chart can return us to the wars it has already fought, to the sorrows it has already suffered and trap us in the desire to return there to "win" the same samsara song, with a vengeance.

I don't want to work with charts that ask me to play some placating conservative party line. I want progressive sounds. So the chart has to embody a notation that reflects that aesthetic. I am drawn to a chart that allows improvised music to be about honesty and change. "I will always tell you the truth," said Barack Obama when he accepted the role of band leader for our nation. "There will be false starts," he acknowledged. What he was saying is, democracy is improvisation. It's time to count it off people and improvise as a national collective.

When I go into a performance I want heated sonic debate. Democracy is founded on debate. Jazz improvisation's roots stretch back to 'talking drums'—a conversation. The chart can make or break the flow of the exchange in the dialogue. For my aesthetic, the chart has to communicate that there is a bipartisan welcome to dissonance. All are invited into the mix. "I welcome your voices," said Obama to his adversaries, If we can't welcome the dissonance it's just not vigorous enough improvisation to my musical ear; we are not exerting our rights and we will never stretch or grow beyond our known horizons.

Here are my most influential chart writing mentors to whom I owe gratitude—what they're really teaching me is how to write charters for jazz communication: Michael Jefry Stevens, Frank Kimbrough and one of Frank's amazing students, Landon Knoblock. These same chart writers are also my band members, who fully invest in the music, who bring us together on equal ground and take full responsibility for the ownership of the music as they play it. These guys, along with the other musicians who I play and record with regularly—Joe Fonda, Harvey Sorgen, Jeff Lederer and Matt Wilson—are concerned citizens. They walk the walk. They have fervency and dare to bring it to the dinner table.

At Sammy's Noodles before a gig we are all slurping down soup, telling stories from our lives and from the road and joking, ranting and debating about public schools, poverty, evil and the merits of diplomacy. And if we are playing a 'classic' jazz standard, these upstanding citizens allow the chart to be a living document, not unlike the American Constitution. If you read the Amendments you will notice they are as alive today as they were when they were written over two centuries ago. Free speech. The right to protest. Autumn Leaves fall again and again and again, yet—have you noticed—when the improvisation is good, the leaves are falling for the first time? You know what I'm saying here? I am saying Yes, jazz IS political.

Jazz is Lennie Tristano. Jazz is Sarah Vaughan. Jazz is anti-establishment. Jazz is a candle-lit dinner. Jazz is war. Jazz is diplomacy. Jazz is red velvet. Jazz is woven cloth. Jazz is rant. Jazz is the burning bra. Jazz is soup. Jazz is socialist. Jazz is democracy. Jazz is culture. Jazz is poetry. Jazz is Shakespeare. Jazz is a whirling dervish. Jazz is a wild horse. Jazz is a magnificent painting, alive and living, purple, red, gold, indigo, like the one my biological mother painted about the landscape of a sun.

Jazz is nurturing and healing. "Anything is possible, anything, anything, anything, anything....," wept Travis. I turned all my NYU/Atlantic Studio voice classes over to the undergrad students on Nov. 5th. We sat in a circle and they spoke. Travis is about 19 years old, from a Brooklyn neighborhood where, as he grew up and even now, he says, "You're in danger at all time." But today, on this day, he says," It's, it's, it's, it's sinking in—I can be anything! ANYTHING! I can do anything!" Yes you can Travis. Because you're writing the charts too. "I will ask you for service," said Obama. We have good charts and we will write new ones and we are making it up together as we go along. That's what Barack is saying.


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