The Art of Jazz

“When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz.”

— Gerald Early

Imagine a country: imperfect, divided, diverse, contradictory, inchoate, in search of a more perfect union.

Now give that country a sound, a feeling, and a form.

Jazz is the soundtrack of American life. It is a prism through which we can see and make sense of our own history.

Jazz peels back the layers of American identity. It takes our national character and gives it shape.

It was born in the Crescent City of New Orleans — established by the French in 1718, briefly ruled by Spain, a waystation for the ships and crews of the world, a part of America since 1803, and home to an unprecedented mixture of the world’s people, languages, cultures, and styles of music.

Its roots can be traced to the early 19th century and to the public, legal gathering of slaves in Congo Square, who brought a uniquely African form of music  — polyrhythmic, antiphonal, and unabashedly expressive — into public view.

It is a music of movement — marching bands and swing dances and waltzes and mazurkas. It contains within its DNA the genes of ragtime, the blues, and the sacred music of the baptist church — but also klezmer, calypso, and zydeco.

Jazz is a dialectic. It rewards individual expression and demands selfless collaboration. It is organized chaos. It emerges through feeling. It is the recipe of a thousand chefs.

To its detractors, jazz is an abomination — a “bolshevistic smashing of the rules and tenets of decorous music. A “willful ugliness.” A “deliberate vulgarity.”

But to its devotees, jazz is a barometer of freedom itself — a music Duke Ellington said “is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”

Jazz is more style than composition. One moment it was unknown — “a low noise in a low dive.” A moment later it was the center of everything, “the diversion of princes and millionaires,” an art form that could match a new tempo to the world and to American public life, “a restorative for the national nerve complaint, the great American noise.”

Its feeling, Wynton Marsalis says, is like the feeling you get going into your favorite grandmother’s house. You know there’s all kinds of things in there that you might not recognize, but it’s accumulated wisdom. Jazz is freedom of expression with a groove.

Jazz objectifies us. It’s an art form that helps us understand ourselves. It’s the art of negotiation. It’s the argument we keep having.

Jazz is a chance to decide how to let one’s personality emerge against the tapestry of a whole stage full of musicians doing the same thing, at the same time.

Jazz is like democracy itself. It’s a process that will not always go your way. It will force you to adjust.

Jazz is a way of wrestling with what to means to be human. “What comes out of your horn is what you understand about life, the texture of it, the absurdity of it, and the beauty of it.”

Jazz is all of it — the interweaving, the dueling, the calling and responding, the alternating, the texturing, the dominating and submitting, the euphoria and the sadness, moving, challenging, celebrating and reshaping.

Jazz is not the notes you play; it’s the notes you leave out.