The Election, Jazz, and Discourse Across Lines

Since the 2016 election, a lot of folks are feeling a lot of different feelings. And expressing a lot of feelings. And feeling very strongly about the distinctions between their feelings and others’ feelings. And in some cases trying really hard to figure out how to find that balance whereby they are true to their beliefs and morals and yet remain able to engage genuine dialogue* with other decent humans who feel (and in some cases voted) differently. And with Thanksgiving coming up, some who aren’t ready to attempt that engagement on a broader societal level will be forced to figure out how to find common ground in their own families. OMIGOD, HOW DO WE DO THIS? Okay, take a breath. And another. The answer, of course, is thinking like a jazz musician. Just work with me for a minute.

* This post is intended for those who WANT to have constructive engagement, but question whether there is a method by which to do so, whether it’s worth the stress, and so on. I have decided at least for now that it is possible and desirable, a decision partly borne of the privilege attached to my status as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual man whose physical disability is relatively inconspicuous and who isn’t particularly Jewish, hand gestures and capacity to insert random Yiddish words aside. If you have decided for moral and/or strategic reasons that you will not engage with anyone at all complicit in something with such hateful and destructive consequences, then this blog post isn’t for you, unless you enjoy my jazz analogies, in which case read on.

Okay, back to jazz as the answer. You might expect this to be the point where I start talking about jazz as a transformative art form. Or a profound mechanism for collaboration. Or a practice that teaches us how to improvise deftly. Or a genre that provides a wonderful model for multiculturalism. All that’s true, but I’m actually looking at it from the far more mundane angle of trying to put forth something in which the statistical majority of people have no interest whatsoever, yet not closing that door.

I create jazz and it’s very important to me that it be authentic and that my peers and elders in the jazz community view it as such. In a very real sense, those are the ears I hoped to reach when I was in the dues-paying process, both for practical reasons (reaching those folks = gigs) and emotional ones (praise from musicians who I admire = the pinnacle of validation). But it has never been my goal for the notes I put forth to resonate only in the echo chamber of jazz musicians and fans. All the work I’ve done has been in service of trying to communicate universal truth in the most compelling way possible, so the more of that universe I can reach as I share those sounds, the better.

I also recognize that a statistical majority of people who aren’t already jazz fans will never be. Some people just reject all that it is and stands for, so I can’t get wrapped up in them. Some people actually like related forms of music or art and abstractly COULD like jazz but are too invested in whatever biases or self-identifications preclude that (“I’m a grown-up, and even if broccoli or jazz are delightful AND good for you, you can’t MAKE me consume either one!”). These folks aren’t hopeless (from a “getting through” standpoint), but trying to persuade them is generally not energy well invested. But then there are some folks who actually COULD get down with the music and haven’t yet been given that point of entry, whether it be exposure to compelling music in an unexpected setting, or interest stemming from a personal connection to a musician or a fan, or simply hearing the right song at the right time that makes the synapses connect in a new way.

This is the sub-population that guides my decisions about musical inclusiveness. To be clear, for me it is a given that diluting the music is unacceptable. If I hear F-sharp in my head and I know that it would make the music more accessible to play F-natural, you can be damn sure I’ll play F-sharp – not out of defiance, not to challenge, but simply because it’s my job to obey the emotional and spiritual “truth” of the music as I hear it. So if we accept that the sincerity of the music is the top priority, the question becomes how to frame what I do. Is “soulful and probing music for soulful and thoughtful people” a compromise compared to “music for jazz fans and not the closed-minded morons who don’t get it?” In a sense, the only real difference is in leaving open the possibility of letting those in who don’t yet “get it.” Some of that is a matter of how the music is framed. Some of it is our energy as musicians – this may be difficult to quantify, but if the music is a sincere outward reflection of an inner state, then I believe there is a difference between music made out of love for all present compared to music made with contempt for those who don’t get it.

Making music is an emotionally vulnerable thing, so it takes strength and discipline not to capitulate to frustration in that regard when people don’t respond as we want them to, but there are two important reasons to stay resolute. One is that transformation takes good-spirited persistence. Someone who doesn’t like jazz is unlikely to be completely converted in an instant, but every step in the right direction is progress. The other is that unless you’re the musical equivalent of a “private dancer,” every interaction can impact other people – even if a given person is frustratingly unresponsive, the response to that response will be noticed by everyone else present.

I’m remembering the first big CD release show I did on the little tour celebrating the “Ripples” album. As I introduced the tune “Ripples,” I began to explain the somber but hopefully inspiring story of my Aunt Margie’s passing and how her commitment to goodness impacted a wide swath of people, something that provided the emotional and conceptual basis for the whole album. And people were really getting it and were clearly moved . . . with the notable exception of one table that clearly had the disposable income to pay a substantial cover charge to drink, talk, laugh, and generally whoop it up, oblivious to what was going on. The whooping really started crescendoing as I was telling this story, and of course they were sitting RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. In that moment it would have been very easy and very tempting to just shut down, truncate the story, and play a quick and dispirited version of the song, but I didn’t. I knew that even if the folks at that table had proven beyond reasonable doubt that they had no intention of “getting it,” it would be a shame to miss out on the chance that was right at my fingertips to connect with others in the room who were on that precipice. Feedback afterward suggested that this is exactly what happened – it doesn’t always work that way, but it does often enough to affirm that I would be foolish to squander the opportunity.

Part of what makes this tricky is that, of course, I don’t know HOW open someone is up front. I can make an educated guess based on other factors, but it’s an inexact science. If one has the stomach for failure or rejection, however, the benefit (the ROI, if you will) of putting oneself out there is pretty hard to argue against. Let’s say that 80% of Americans have NO capacity to like jazz (I don’t think it’s nearly that many, but for the sake of conservative estimates, let’s go with that). Of the remaining folks, let’s say that 80% who could like jazz never will allow themselves to listen to it because they’re too invested in a jazz-rejecting identity. Of the remaining folks, let’s say that 80% still won’t get it if they put on my record or enter a venue where I’m playing. That leaves a “tiny” sub-population who will be moved by my music . . . a number 7 times greater than the number who bought Adele’s last album. The statistics are obviously contrived, but hopefully they help to convey the point that seemingly insignificant odds can still represent a game-changing impact in a world in which a seemingly small number of “fans” can turn the tide in one’s success as an artist. If I’m aloof, if I’m rude, if I lapse into “jazz nerd talk” that excludes “ordinary” people, I’m closing a door for no good reason other than lacking the patience to keep it open.

And so here we circle back around to politics. The same principles and tactics apply, but instead of different layers of propensity to enjoy jazz, we’re looking at worldview and politics. Let’s say a certain percentage of those who voted a particular way are nasty, hateful bigots. I’m not suggesting we devote ourselves to rehabilitating them against their will, but there are others not in that category. So among those not in that category, let’s say that some are abstractly less far away philosophically, but not interested in engaging in genuine dialogue. Fine, it’s probably not worth devoting our time and energy to someone whose only mode of discussion is one-way. But that’s still not everyone. So among those who ARE open to discussion, some will ultimately leave any discussion having drawn the same conclusions with which they entered. But not everybody. And if that small percentage of that small percentage of that small percentage view things from a different lens, you’ve actually made a profound, measurable difference. And that’s even assuming that we have the capacity to measure whether seeds we plant with folks who we conclude are “hopeless” will die in the ground or possibly germinate slowly.

As with the purity or sincerity of musical ideas, and as I said up front, this all presupposes that you are not compromising your beliefs. I am not recommending that you say “well, okay, it is true that SOMETIMES grabbing a woman by the p**** is pretty cool” as a means of artificially manufacturing common ground. But if you’re expressing yourself sincerely, you can do so in a way that’s inclusive or in a way that automatically excludes those who don’t already agree with you. Suggesting that someone’s choice of a vote automatically attaches a pejorative noun to them (e.g. “You are a [insert bad thing here]”) automatically shuts down conversation. Is it worth it? Is it the only way to communicate the gravity of the subject matter? Or is it simply a means of letting go of your conversational discipline because you’re upset and/or don’t feel it’s worth choosing your words in a careful and dignified way? If you stop and look within on a case-by-case basis, you will find the answer.

I’ve written before on this blog about the power of intention, something I’ll simply reference here by saying I have seen incredible transformation in people whose views I thought to be iron-clad. Not every time I’ve tried (or even close), and seldom quickly, but it has happened. And honestly, just knowing that is enough for me to find the inner strength to keep trying, even though I know the odds in any given moment may be long. The odds that we will be free of consequences if we stop trying to find civility where we can are even longer.

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