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'Tis the season...the election season, of course. That's's almost that time again where we enter the polling booth to either affirm what a swell job our elected officials have been doing, or we pull the lever to "kick-the-bums-out!" In either case, our choice employs our representatives for the next term, where they get to decide how to divvy up the money and figure out how best to use the people's tool, also known as our government. This is the one time where it's easiest for us citizens to get involved with designing and organizing our communities—to exert our freedom to influence things. Unfortunately, far too few of us (less than 50%) actually go out and vote, let alone commit time and energy to a cause. Subsequently, our representative democracy, which demands participation in order to work properly, suffers from this lack of involvement.

What does participatory democracy have to do with jazz music you ask? Well, I comment on this very topic in the liner notes to my new CD, Awake:

When We Fall Asleep, Democracy Suffers

Jazz music, America's true art form, has always been about pursuing freedom through individual participation in a group setting. Within a shared framework, ideas made of sounds flow from one musician to another in a conversation that serves the greater good of the music, creating an atmosphere where the participants are free to express. But this freedom is only possible when each musician is committed to the democratic ideal, where the give and take among disparate voices makes the music blend. In this way, jazz is a direct by-product of the American ideal—founded upon individual expression and freedom, yet devoted through participation to the greater good.

Participation...choice...action...different voices coming together for the greater good. That sounds like jazz music to me! It also sounds like a prescription for changing society. Although voting is an essential form of citizen expression, in fact, there are many things we can do throughout the year to help shape the direction of our communities. From calling and writing our representatives urging them to vote a certain way on a particular issue, to volunteering for a cause in which we believe, to even running for office, there are many ways to get involved with the dialogue of our time. Remember, our society is organized this way only because previous generations made certain choices. Humans made it as it is today and humans can make changes now—but only if we enter the mix and exert some influence.

In fact, this music and the musicians who have devoted their lives to it have created the perfect template for how our society could operate. Each musician expresses his or her view within the group setting and is aware of the role it plays within the shared framework. Constant improvising seeks to propel the music into something that grows and improves, becoming better and better with time. Jazz is participatory music that only works when each musician is intensely involved (and includes the listener's participation, too!). Just as clearly, American society can only function when its citizens are involved—intensely involved.

I devote another section of my liner notes to our most "American" of poets, Walt Whitman:


The great "Poet of Democracy," Walt Whitman, was in many ways the first jazz poet. He spent most of the last half of the 19th century riffing on the outrageous and active splendor of an American population teeming with vitality. He was in awe of the incredible diversity he witnessed, and he was convinced that a participatory democracy was the only path that could realize an egalitarian society. Yet, that world Whitman described in Leaves of Grass appears obscured here in the 21st century. Indeed, it's all too easy these days to forget Whitman's world of focus, vitality, and enthusiasm, and to believe that we can't make a difference. I wonder if we've fallen asleep and forgotten what it means to participate in the music of our society, of our communities, of our own lives.

Lastly, and most importantly, to me, is that participation in any endeavor leads to the essential essence of jazz music—freedom. As Thelonious Monk once remarked, "Jazz is freedom—you think about that." I believe that we jazz musicians are deeply devoted to that concept, striving to incorporate freedom into every aspect of this music...and of our lives. We love to make it up as we go; cringe at being told what to do; hate being boxed in; always strive to express ourselves; savor the lifestyle. Freedom is what we live for, as I remark in the last section of my liner notes:



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Vinson Valega

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Long & Wrong

Vinson Valega

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