Jazz and Politics

Douglas Groothuis By

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The birth of jazz in shady parts of New Orleans damns the music. Bad lives give birth to bad music, which must be condemned by a conservative thinker. But this is false. First, the geographic origins of jazz are irrelevant to its form and development. To think otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy—the origin of something completely determines its character. A classic case harks back to the Gospels. Philip, a follower of Jesus, told Nathanael that "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." To which Nathanael replied "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Philip said, "Come and see." Nazareth's bad reputation prejudiced Nathanael's initial judgment.

If the vices of alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, and other crimes were just intrinsic to jazz as a reed is intrinsic to a saxophone, then Weaver would be vindicated. Jazz musicians have been junkies. Louis Armstrong performed in a brothel and his first wife was a prostitute. Lester Young drank himself to death. But some junkies, like John Coltrane, left drugs behind. Others, like Dave Brubeck, were model citizens their entire careers. Brubeck even wrote Christian hymns. Jazz does not encourage vice any more than any other kind of music. (One could argue that the very nature death metal and violent rap encourage vice, however.)

The frenetic and complex nature of some jazz, particularly bebop, requires skill and discipline. Weaver may not have been able to follow a bebop trumpet, piano, or saxophone solo, or appreciate the structure of bebop tunes, but that says nothing about bebop's nature, structure, and form. Jazz improvisation, at its best, is not sheer expression or exhibitionism. Coltrane could solo for extended periods of time, but no one in the know could accuse him of showing off. He showed up to reach up and to find out what was there to play. This was a drama, not a farce.

Jazz is not only innocent of Weaver's accusations; jazz harmonizes with Weaver's conservative philosophy in several ways. Like conservative philosophy, jazz reveres tradition and demands that its musicians learn the standards and venerates their elders. In The Jazz Standards, Ted Goia explores the meaning of the jazz repertory. Jazz critic, Stanley Crouch wrote that he could hear the entire history of the jazz saxophone in the playing of Charles Lloyd. Moreover, the attentive ear can hear stride piano in Duke Ellington's playing; and—if you listen long and carefully enough—you can hear Duke Ellington's style in Thelonious Monk's playing. No one but God starts from nothing.

Conservative philosophy opposes collectivism and promotes individualism within the framework of just laws and noble traditions. The individual should be entitled to own property, speak her mind, and plan her future—all without excessive state codes, rules, and requirements. The cream should be allowed to rise to the top, without breaking laws and without assistance by officialdom. Jazz is not jazz if it is compressed into a faceless and soulless conformity. Musicians consent to a meritocracy of talent. Success is not guaranteed. Safety nets are absent. The musician plays on a high wire before fickle fans. Individual musicians are free to innovate within a tradition, to find their own voice. Chops are what counts—not skin color, age, creed, or gender. There is no affirmative action and no quotas. Talent, savvy, and hard work are the only currencies with clout in jazz.

Jazz is essentially apolitical. The art form itself takes no sides on matters of political philosophy or social policy. Some jazz musicians have associated their music, either openly or subtly, to social causes, such as civil rights for blacks in the 1960s.

However, the sensibilities and virtues of jazz—such as individualism within respect for tradition and meritocracy—chime in well with the conservative philosophy espoused by Richard Weaver. Those who follow his insights have nothing to fear from jazz. The hip cats can swing into conservativism without contradiction and with perfect consistency. Fussy, misguided conservatives can loosen up and get into the groove with jazz as well. Let the party begin.
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