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Jazzing Politics | The Nation

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Jazzing Politics

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Everyone knows that Plato mistrusted the politics of music, and most Nation readers probably recall that Adorno saw pop music, in particular, as an insidious form of brainwashing. That current of suspicion runs through philosophy worldwide, reminding us to be grateful that we don't live in Plato's Republic or in a fundamentalist theocracy. (The joy at the sudden return of music to Radio Afghanistan became an instant symbol of this recently.) In this context, Nietzsche was rare in his praise of music's historical and social functions, an embrace that let him appropriate its textures and effects into his sensibility and prose.

About the Author

Gene Santoro
A former working musician and Fulbright Scholar, Gene Santoro also covers film and jazz for the New York Daily News...

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It's clear that music--even popular music, which includes jazz--has a power that unsettles philosophers and politicians. The figure of the bard, the Orphic seer whose power can penetrate the world's veils and change its bent, still exerts a strong, if largely subliminal, pull on the imaginations of artists and audiences alike.

It's striking, then, that both left and right nurture a disdain for and suspicion of popular culture, unless it's nostalgic or carefully defined, and hence safe. Today in America, art swims in a near-all-encompassing commercialism. "At least we valued art enough to censor it," a Russian expatriate professor-friend once remarked to me. "Here you just let anyone shout whatever they want." But commercialism can be an efficient censor as well: I cited Lenny Bruce, whom he'd never heard of; when I tried to explain, he didn't understand. "Dirty words?" he asked, shaking his head. My attempted point: Gatekeepers exist always and everywhere, and even in freewheeling consumer America, entertainment capital of the world, art is understood, at least by some, to possess gravity.

There are always some artists who aspire to be Shelleyan bards, no matter their medium. They take the time to study and learn, sometimes in tidy or systematic ways and sometimes in meandering, maddening fashion. In our postindustrial culture, their status and power, like old magic, ain't what it used to be. Still, most people, like most philosophers, tend to think of musicians as talented beasts. Rafi Zabor's fairy-tale novel, The Bear Comes Home, inverts that notion with whimsical charm and some nice satiric turns. Zabor's bear plays cutting-edge jazz saxophone and develops a whole quasi-human life, including human lovers, inside the jazz world, where he's mostly accepted, even considered a star. Now jazz musicians, thanks no doubt partly to race, have long been treated as, well, semitrained bears--especially insulting given the body of work and extended discipline they developed over the past half-century. Some, like Charles Mingus and Anthony Braxton, to name two men who are very dissimilar in most other ways, raged against it in extensive writings and speaking. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, in their very different ways, sidestepped it or ignored it, at least in public. Beboppers subverted it, as Amiri Baraka pointed out in Blues People, adapting and tweaking the costumes and mannerisms of European bohemians in their claim to be artists.

Political or social commentary has always been part of jazz, implicitly or explicitly. How could an art form originally formulated by outsiders be otherwise? There are famous examples: "Black and Blue" by Armstrong. We insist: Freedom Now Suite by Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. "Fables of Faubus" by Charles Mingus. A Tribute to Jack Johnson by Miles Davis. "Alabama" by John Coltrane. But now, post-9/11, new resonances have been added, unlooked-for surplus value, to art that has something to tell us about who we are now, much as it has to so much else--normal bits of life in our times, like airplanes falling out of the sky, suddenly acquire newly active potential meanings, a spreading shadow of possible contexts.

Enter clarinetist Don Byron, 43, and trumpeter Dave Douglas, 38. Both have garnered lots of press coverage, gathered awards, attracted musicians and followers, produced varied and important bodies of work that are stylistically and conceptually diverse as bandleaders and composers. Both are those fortunate jazz rarities, possessors of major-label deals. Both are widely read and intellectually cultivated, and infuse that sensibility into their art, which includes how they use liner notes, album illustrations, the whole package surrounding the disc that effectively embeds it in a perspective. Both recorded their latest albums before the World Trade Center came down. Each had particular social as well as musical concerns, creative speculations, the process of rebraiding reality's DNA into something that, in that magical way of art, steps out of time while simultaneously reflecting a vision, a personality, a series of moments rooted like Ygdrasil in our world. Both albums have acquired new echoes, courtesy of history, as inevitable as they were unforeseen.

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