Jazz, America, and Independence Day
Jul 05, 2020
In 1776 - when around 90% of the global population lived in extreme poverty and only around 10% of the human population was literate... when the vast majority of the world was governed by tyrannical monarchs and empires and only had as much freedom as the nearest king or army felt like granting them on any given day - a small band of highly imperfect men banded together and changed the course of the world.
They dreamed of a place where the people were self governed. Where every person was granted life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They viewed these rights as inalienable - not granted by any army, any government, any politician, and therefore not able to be taken away by any army, government, or politician. They laid these philosophical Ideals - these highest of Ideals - into ink and sent it off to the most powerful human on the planet to tell him they no longer belonged to him. They knew it would bring war and death, but they also knew it MIGHT bring liberty and self-governance. So they took that risk.
Since day one they, and we, have failed to live up to those Ideals. As humans, we are imperfect. We always have been and we always will be. As an artist, I feel the pain of failing to live up to my potential everyday. I can hear the highest Ideal of musical aesthetic in my mind. It sounds so real in my head, it's like I'm listening to another person play for me. And yet year after year, decade after decade, no matter how much I learn or practice or work... I fail. But the Ideal always persists.
It haunts me. An ever-present reminder of what I could be, 'if only'. But I'm an imperfect man and know that I will never reach my own personal Ideal. Yet I'm forever drawn to chase after it. To persist. To help music students chase after their Ideal. To perform with musicians who are in their own constant state of chasing their own personal Ideals. I notice tons of TINY little wins along the way. Small successes. It makes me feel like I'm getting somewhere. And every now and then I get that ecstatic, orgasmic moment where the goddess of music seems to come down and grace me with sheer illumination and bliss... when everything clicks... and when I can simply play and connect with that Ideal, and with the Ideal of the other musicians I'm working with. It's so fleeting and short lived. Every musician knows the desperation and inspiration those moments leave behind. You wake up the next day on the biggest high of your life feeling so grateful... and then remember that all things must pass. You pick up your instrument and it's just not there again. The ego mind can never will those moments into existence. They can only come when we fully surrender. And so the desire for that moment to return ruins it. And we're back to the shed. Back to the grind. Back to the ever-present understanding that living up to our Ideal is a never-ending battle.
From our first day as a nation we have failed to live up to the Ideals that gave birth to us. And over generations Americans have suffered and fought and striven to push toward those Ideals... and shamefully, too-often, to ignorantly push back against them. And so we all fight on.
The hardest part about this history for me is the recognition that without this struggle, without this fight... we wouldn't have jazz itself. Many ingredients went into the history of the formation of jazz, but at the core of what we think of as jazz today was the uncontrollable outpouring of the desire for individual freedom, expression, and respect that our black elders, creators, purveyors, and teachers could not contain within theirselves. A shouting out through their instruments to declare all of the joys, the heart break, the suffering, the struggling, and the inner turmoil brought about by the struggle our nation has been trapped in since day one to live up to the Ideals that gave birth to her. It feels grotesque to say that the struggles were worth it, but it feels equally grotesque to not be forever grateful to the art form that was birthed because of it. It leaves me with little else other than joyful sorrow. Grateful regret. The push and pull of human existence. Ideals and failures. Breathe in, breathe out. Life and death. What can a finite mind say about such eternal, archetypal things?
And then I see this picture. Taken not far from where I live. A group of Americans burning the American flag on July 4th and chanting "America was never great."
It doesn't make me happy to see. But I'm also not offended by it. If I had a way to convince them to stop I would. But I don't see evil degenerates. I don't see punks or thugs. I just see the Ideal. I'm forever haunted by the Ideal - my own musical Ideal and the Ideals laid out on July 4th, 1776 by the men who set the bar so high for us. Does any musician live up to Bach? Or Miles? Or Beethoven? Or Hendrix? Or Coltrane or Monk or Duke or Bill Evans or Wes Montgomery or Billie or Jim Hall or Sonny Rollins or... sigh... I could go on all night with this list. Great men and women. Musicians with horribly tragic sides to themselves. Anger, drug use, theft, assault... I'm sure if someone wrote a book on the topic of all the wrongs famous musicians have committed it would be long and disturbingly hard to read. And yet the footprint of the Ideal they left behind for us continues to haunt us all... it continues to drive us forward. To shed. To progress. To grow. To become better.
I see these Americans exercising their 1st amendment right burning this flag, shouting "America was never great," and doing it standing only feet away from a building owned by the elected President of the United States of America, a man with the power to wage nuclear war... and yet these Americans are protected by the Ideal that that flag represents. In the act of watching them burn this flag and hearing them chant, "America was never great," I see our subtle little Ideal, usually hiding in the background being fought about, shining through. I'm immediately struck by just how great America is and how grateful I am she exists... that these Americans can do this with no fear that they or their families will suffer consequences at the hands of a politician. This may seem like an obvious thing not worth noticing... but in the grand scheme of human history, this is a very new way to see society. This is our Ideal. And the reason it seems so silly is precisely because of how subtle it is. Once this Ideal is taken for granted as the natural way of human existence... poof. It's gone. Like a musician who stops shedding. It's game over. Yet here it is. On full display... though I'm not sure the girl lighting the flag on fire is aware of just how special that is.
In their flag burning and their chanting of, "America was never great," I see the moment of sheer bliss I feel when everything clicks on the bandstand and the music takes over and plays itself. I see the Ideal shining through this picture and smiling back at me, reminding me why those men back in 1776, as imperfect and human as they were, were absolutely brilliant. They were able to boil down all of history, human nature, philosophy, and sociology into the simplest of terms and set the perfection of those terms at the core of it all. All men are created equal, endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the flag burners' attempt to proclaim that America has never been great, these young folks gave me my first sigh of relief since George Floyd's murder and the protests ensued knowing that our Ideals are still there. We've never reached them, but they're still there. And we're still striving toward them. And it's painfully beautiful and depressingly hopeful to me.
I wish all of you Americans out there a happy July 4th. May we always remember our Ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And to all of my fellow artists and jazz musicians... I wish you many, many years of 'happy practicing'. Our musical Ideal is there, whether in our own mind, in the recordings of our heroes, or in the teachings of our teachers. May we never stop trying to live up to it.
Happy Independence Day and Happy Practicing
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