624

Malachi Thompson: The Evolution of Jazz and the Survival of Our Democratic Society

AAJ Staff By

Sign in to view read count
Jazz at its best is democracy at its best.
By Malachi Thompson

I've written about jazz as a model for American democracy before, but only in passing. However, in light of voting rights issues that arose during the 2000 presidential election, the events surrounding the 9/11 attacks and what's most important - our government's response to those events - it dawned upon me that "Now's The Time" (Charlie Parker) for deeper reflection on the evolution of jazz as it mirrors the development of the American democratic process. Jazz forms, like our American constitution, are dynamic, living, evolving ideas that became cultural institutions. If jazz is truly a reflection of an ideal American democracy, jazz - like our constitution - must have the ability to evolve. The constitution has the capacity to be amended to meet the needs of the electorate as the society evolves toward its ideal. Likewise, jazz potentially has the ability to respond and adapt to changes in our culture. Jazz needs an environment where it can benefit economically from aesthetic and technological advances, yet maintain the spirit and character that makes the jazz ensemble the embodiment of freedom in a democratic society.

Jazz, the product of the African-American community, was created by the descendants of former slaves. "So What" (Miles Davis) could a former slave know about freedom, liberty and democracy? A state of being that is "So Near, So Far" (Miles Davis) for the African slave. Even in the most oppressive period of slavery, the principles of freedom were expressed in the music of the slaves. You hear it in the sorrow songs, the work songs, the spirituals and the blues as an ideal to strive for or as an expression of joy when that ideal is realized. After all, the idea of freedom can be reduced to a state of mind. In the musical pursuit of happiness, it was revealed that the slave was actually free in his mind and spirit. What the slave lacked was liberty and the civil and human rights to own, develop and benefit from his own creations.

Even though jazz was declared the music of America by an act of Congress (HR 57), some citizens may not fully understand the parallels between the principles that govern jazz and our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and liberties inherent in our democratic society. Here are the three principle lines of thought.

  1. Jazz requires that the performers be informed. To play jazz you must know and apply the theories that govern jazz. How can you "jam" on a tune if you don't know the "Changes" (Charles Mingus)? Likewise, the participants in a democratic society must be informed not only of their civil and human rights but of their responsibilities to the collective. If you don't know what your rights are, how can you insist upon them. Citizens in a democratic society must take the responsibility to learn, know and understand the components of important issues so that they can make informed decisions concerning self governance.

  2. Jazz sounds best when there is group cohesiveness. Each member must understand the role that the other members play in the group because the jazz group is only as strong as its weakest member. Each member is expected to make informed - even inspired - contributions to the group in stylistic context, within the musical form. Likewise, for a democratic society to survive and evolve, it takes the full participation of an educated, informed electorate contributing toward the common good of the body politic. The individual member must understand the role that each member plays. It's also important that citizens hold each other accountable to the process.

  3. Most jazz groups require that each member contribute as a soloist. This is the individual's opportunity for his/her voice to be heard. Members in a jazz ensemble are not required to blindly follow or back-up the soloist or leader. Your solo is your chance to lead and for others to listen and follow. Likewise a democratic society must require opportunities for individual voices and minorities to be heard and even lead when the message seeks to create the greatest good.

Tags

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read The Creative Music Studio Goes To College! Megaphone The Creative Music Studio Goes To College!
by Karl Berger
Published: September 10, 2015
Read Wein, June & Jazz Megaphone Wein, June & Jazz
by AAJ Staff
Published: June 13, 2010
Read Clean Feed Records: Looking Outwards Megaphone Clean Feed Records: Looking Outwards
by Pedro Costa
Published: May 16, 2010
Read Discoveries Along The Pitch Continuum Megaphone Discoveries Along The Pitch Continuum
by Amir ElSaffar
Published: April 11, 2010
Read Either/Or (No More) Megaphone Either/Or (No More)
by Darcy James Argue
Published: February 28, 2010
Read The Power in Music Megaphone The Power in Music
by Steve Colson
Published: February 3, 2010
Read "15 Italian Jazz Musicians You Need To Know About" Building a Jazz Library 15 Italian Jazz Musicians You Need To Know About
by Enrico Bettinello
Published: June 23, 2017
Read "Garana Jazz Festival 2017" In Pictures Garana Jazz Festival 2017
by Nedici Dragoslav
Published: September 19, 2017
Read "Live From Birmingham: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Erja Lyytinnen & The Impossible Gentlemen" Live Reviews Live From Birmingham: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Erja...
by Martin Longley
Published: November 2, 2016
Read "Buenos Aires Jazz Festival 2016" Live Reviews Buenos Aires Jazz Festival 2016
by Mark Holston
Published: January 9, 2017
Read "Dwight Sills: Creating His Own Space" Profiles Dwight Sills: Creating His Own Space
by Liz Goodwin
Published: January 14, 2017
Read "Daniel Bennett Group at Tomi Jazz" Live Reviews Daniel Bennett Group at Tomi Jazz
by Tyran Grillo
Published: August 24, 2017

Join the staff. Writers Wanted!

Develop a column, write album reviews, cover live shows, or conduct interviews.