'Tis the season...the election season, of course. That's right...it'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 communitiesto 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 idealfounded 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 nowbut 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 involvedintensely 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 musicfreedom. As Thelonious Monk once remarked, "Jazz is freedomyou 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:
Just as this music is only made possible through the intense participation of each musician, our society is only able to function when its citizens become involvedactively involved. I used to think that my voice was too meek to make an impact in my community, but I have found that by speaking up and engaging in the "push-back," I have been able to effect change, if only on a small scale. If we don't get involved, someone or some entity will, and that person or company very likely will not have our best interests in mind. In fact, I would go so far as to ask: if you're not participating, and someone else is determining your future, how free are you?
In the 20th century and before, America really was looked upon by the rest of the world as a beacon of freedom. One of the reasons this country has been loved by so many in the past is that its citizens have been free to express (you can practically run naked down the streets and folks won't bat an eyelash at you!). Jazz music could only have come forth from this experiment called America, since the two were founded upon the concept of freedom. They are synonymous and interwoven. Has that been changing over the past few decades? Participation by us
the citizensis the only thing that will ensure our freedom, that's for sure.
When we fall asleep, our democracy suffers.
Or as Monk put it, "You think about that."
Vinson Valega is a composer, drummer and the leader of the Vinson Valega Group. His latest release Awake features Terell Stafford on trumpet, Anton Denner on alto sax, flute and piccolo, Chris Bacas on tenor and soprano saxophones and clarinet, Jon Cowherd on piano, and Josh Ginsburg on bass.