The Power in Music


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Toward the end of last year, the National Endowment for the Arts published results of its study on Public Participation in the Arts. One finding is that over a six-year period, less than 8% of Americans attended jazz events. So annually, out of some 300 million Americans, less than 2,500,000 attend jazz clubs, concerts and festivals and even those numbers may be dwindling.

American popular culture has become primarily commercial, often putting the mind in a passive rather than active mode and while some advances in technology that might serve greater ends are taken up by games or violence, the mass production of mediocrity challenges more serious artists to break through. And some conditions that might benefit artists have met subversion. When certain websites allowed illegal downloading of intellectual properties not much was done to stop them and thousands of artists (musicians) had their copyrights trampled upon. I have been told that talented hackers would always be able to steal the songs and musical works inhabiting the computer world. But it seems to me that developers of these technologies could have made stronger efforts to safeguard our property, instead of allowing another way to exploit the musicians.

Unfortunately, lack of regard for arts is not new; Western European societies had little respect for their artists until the time of Beethoven, who insisted on it.

Pursuit of art is intellectual activity. Science proves that learning instruments such as the piano or violin increases transference between right and left hemispheres of the brain: this aids in making associations, comparisons, etc. Consider that mathematicians feel discernment is the tool most needed for solving advanced problems and math and music are related. In addition to intellectual support, early exposure to musical study helps motor skills such as those used by expert heart or brain surgeons.

People who experience arts at a young age tend to appreciate them more as they mature. With more general exposure to the youth, arts could flourish. If such benefits might result from more choral or instrumental music in the schools, why are we seeing less?

What all Americans should know is that the music (masters from Duke Ellington to Max Roach discouraged the term "jazz") developed out of real human experiences: it has roots in the Field Hollers, Shouts and Spirituals of African people who worked cotton fields and plantations of the southern United States but also comes from memories that occurred long before the time of slavery in America.

Contrary to many authors, African people did not need the American experience to develop their melodies or concepts of harmony. In Amiri Baraka's acclaimed Blues People, he cites Maude Cuny-Hare, who tells of a Bishop Fisher, traveling in Rhodesia, hearing what he thought was the original of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The Africans, offering a prayer for their deceased king, had sung their traditional music. At the 30th Anniversary of the famed Crossroads Theatre during the play Sheila's Day, Musical Director Thuli Dumakude recounted to the audience how Christian missionaries heard traditional singing of the Zulus well before the Zulus were familiar with Bach chorales or other European forms; yet it is commonly theorized that Zulus acquired harmony from Christian mentors. It's sort of like Columbus discovering America, although Native people had been here for 35,000 years.

The lyrical content of the blues is sometimes compared to Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. Its three-part form [AAB] has material from the 1st section repeated in the 2nd and a culminating round-off in the 3rd section. English or German music of the same period has no structural equivalent. Unfortunately, some history is unknown because it is not discussed. On the other hand, truth, like improvisation, sometimes demands courage and artistic creation can make even greater demands due to pressures of conformity.

Much of the Western tradition came from Greece via Rome and many Greeks studied in Egypt. Pythagoras was there for 22 years before leaving for Italy. His fundamental concept was that true beauty in the world expresses itself in the more perfect of numerical ratios. In Rome, the seven basic "liberal arts" were those that freed the "true" self from material aspects. Music was most prized of these arts because the ratios were actually experienced as vibrations that affected the listener as well as the musician. Conscientious use of vibration helped ascendance toward the higher self—the spiritual self—bringing people closer to the divine.

Modern philosophers see dysfunction and alienation due to repetitive jobs, video games, etc. "Loss of humanity" is exactly what music was to overcome. As musicians we should be helping people to reclaim their intellectual and emotional lives. This was originally a responsibility of the musician and certainly a goal of the true artist. Musicians who feel lack of opportunity has prevented them from playing their own music should observe those innovators who continue to put their creative integrity on the line and work to provide their own forums.

Paul Robeson, a most accomplished artist, was vilified for advocating the same principle as Martin Luther King, Jr.—the elevation of the human being. Have their trials dampened our efforts in that regard? I hope that in this new century more of us will inherit the courage of the early practitioners and seek elevation of the human spirit. "Jazz" asks us to find our own voice: let us not seek it in the external world of other people's licks but within the uniqueness of our own humanity and perhaps in sharing the discovery of who we are we can help change the world.

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