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

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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.

Let Freedom Swing...
Swing is the element of jazz that best reflects the principles of freedom. I don't mean swing as a type or style of jazz that became popular in the '30s, but "swing" being a transcendent goal to be reached or a level of awareness. Each individual in the ensemble is responsible for his own sense of swing. You can swing at any tempo. Any rhythmic pattern can swing. Swing creates a sense of joy and celebration that causes the body to move and dance, a kind of "Freedom Jazz Dance" (Eddie Harris). When a jazz band swings it reveals a hidden interconnectiveness between band members. In the best jazz groups this interconnectiveness approaches Extra Sensory Perception - "ESP" (Wayne Shorter). Within a swingin' jazz group, the relationship between time and space changes. Jazz that swings can put you in a relaxed or meditative state of mind or ignite the creative process in both the performer and listener. When listening to jazz, keep this in mind: "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" (Duke Ellington).

The energy that the individual contributes to the ensemble becomes multiplied, greater than the sum of the whole. Jazz at its best is democracy at its best. In great jazz there will always be an exchange of energy and information between the band members, between the band and the audience and even between audience members. The principals of freedom that governs the performance of jazz is at the heart of what makes jazz a universally loved art form. Jazz is performed and enjoyed across the planet by many ethnic groups. Jazz is perhaps America's best contribution to world culture while the jazz ensemble serves as a model of democracy for the world to experience. As Americans and jazz lovers, let's do our part to keep freedom swingin' here at home! The late Lester Bowie, when asked about solutions for the world's woes, he replied, "Play more jazz!"

Malachi Thompson
Malachi Thompson is a trumpeter, composer, bandleader, writer, jazz historian, and arts activist. Born in Princeton, Kentucky, his jazz career took root on Chicago's South Side in '68 when he joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). In '74 Thompson migrated to New York City, where in '78, during the city's prolific "Loft Jazz" era, he formed his Free-bop Band which played at Sweet Rhythm for two nights last month, featuring longtime collaborators, saxophonists Billy Harper and Oliver Lake. Thompson has played with Lester Bowie, Sam Rivers, Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean, David Murray, Archie Shepp and many others.

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