We're all bracing for the worst in 2009 as the world's economies slide into uncertainty, and violence seems to be the only renewable resource that is being developed. As you read this, I hope you haven't lost your job or your retirement funds or a loved one. It's happening all around us, yet we're still being bombarded with messages that don't seem to reflect the real conditions on the ground. The most significant and historic presidential election since George Washington happened only five weeks ago. Yet, we've been freshly demoralized by more Wall Street felonies, allegations of corrupt governorships selling Senate seats, auto industry executives crying "no fair," and another horrific international terrorist incident. As an antidote to our current situation, here is a reason to be elated, inspired, relieved and thankful during this holiday season: Jazz music is saving the world.
Since Jazz music has become so marginalized in today's media and culture, I'm not surprised to have noticed a glaring lack of commentary referring to its undeniable and significant contributions to this historic moment. Of course, the contributions to which I refer include championing social equality and tearing up the roots of racism, but the method of this social revolution is what I'm more preoccupied with. Jazz music's thesis would indicate that this election is not so much a momentary triumph of justice over injustice as it is the long-awaited arrival at an inevitable destination.
Several years ago I participated in a concert and lecture series called "The Jazz Age In Paris." I must confess that until I was under deadline to submit a written proposal I hadn't done much scholarly research on this era. The Wikipedia entry, while lacking in many respects, can provide the gist of what some scholars say concerning this topic. By definition, it was the first time in history that the rest of the world, in a mainstream sense, was introduced to American Jazz.
People were in a state of shock after WWI. The aftermath of a new, 20th century-style mechanization of mass slaughter (i.e., land mines, chemical warfare, tanks, and air assaults) following a seemingly isolated terrorist incident had shaken many people's belief in humanity and had laid waste to the romantic aesthetics of the last century: enter Schoenberg, Ives, Ernst, Picasso, Stein, Joyce, etc. While the old-world racism, sexism, and homophobia of European and American culture were very much in full effect, there was also a palpable sense that "what once was, is no longer." Seem familiar?
It is easy to cast aspersions on the world's fascination with the "exoticism (code word)" of American Jazz, but regardless of unrighteous motivations, Jazz also became the dominant "pop culture" theme around the world. People were responding to a new social openness that wasn't welcomed at the opera, museum, university, or church. People were also responding to a new musical style that combined the well-known with the unknown; both rebellious and nostalgic.
Since then, Jazz has been in everyone's lives, woven into the fabric of American (and international) culture, actively and indiscriminately assimilating every other form of music that it encounters. It has provided a universal context for its practitioners and enthusiasts to work together, relate to one another, and to express things with one another that go beyond one's individual background. Jazz is an antidote to beliefs that assert an intrinsic superiority as their claim to power, and it is a paragon of cultural inclusion.
I am in no way implying that people practicing and admiring Jazz were somehow sheltered from the ills of society or that, within the jazz community itself, people have existed in an egalitarian, multi-cultural utopia. It's too easy to conjure the images of Miles Davis holding a handkerchief to his bloodied head after being assaulted by a cop outside one of his own gigs, or to recall the domestic terrorism that set the precedent for John Coltrane's "Alabama," or, years earlier, the sickening reality conveyed by the lyrics of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit."
What I am saying is that the "Jazz method" of reconstituting other forms of music to suit its own ideals has been mirrored by our society. Jazz music, in fact, is the artistic embodiment of our society. The election of Barack Obama confirms a human trend towards improving and evolving beyond the limits of the past and is a much-needed reminder that we may aspire to our ideals. I hope, in the face of everything to come in 2009, that we can remember the inspired things of which we are capable. The Jazz Age may have dawned in 1918, but it just broke the horizon in 2008, and there is much music to be made.