Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Jazz Matters: International Jazz Day 2014
For those who didn't know April 30th was declared International Jazz Day by UNESCO in 2011. So
what is International Jazz Day and what are we celebrating? The music? Or a form of cultural diplomacy that pays lip service to the role that jazz has played in soft diplomacy - beyond which usually lie social, economic and political influence? Not wanting to sound completely cynical, though I can help, when confronted with the 'sugarcoated' messages. On the International Jazz Day website there's a nice quote from jazz ambassador Herbie Hancock,
"Jazz is really about the human experience. It’s about the ability of human beings to take
the worst of circumstances and struggles and turn it into something creative and constructive.
That’s something that’s built into the fiber of every human being. And I think that’s why people
can respond to it. They feel the freedom in it. And the attributes of jazz are also admirable. It’s
about dialogue. It’s about sharing. And teamwork. It’s in the moment, and it's nonjudgmental."
Of course these noble sentiments aren't offensive as such. How could any reasonably- minded person be against mutual tolerance, unity and peace, equality, etc. My unease is about the way jazz has been co-opted as a soft power tool. Jazz's role in cultural diplomacy paved the way for America to dominate popular music globally, which presented an interesting paradox in 1950s and 60s. As the music that originated with an oppressed minority struggling against racism and inequality, jazz was used to represent American culture abroad by the US State Department - although racial segregation existed in some states in America. Jazz royalty / heroes were appointed jazz ambassadors to carry the message of 'freedom' that jazz symbolized, which became attached to American propaganda about the 'American way of life' and the value of democracy during the cold war period. The contradiction did not escape the musicians - Charles Mingus, commented that if jazz was good enough for the overseas audiences of the state department then why wasn't it good enough for young people at home. Back then cultural diplomacy was clearly about the American experience of freedom with its modernity idealized. It wasn't just Jazz musicians but also Basket ball players, and other entertainers whose auras were exploited in this way.
Is the creation of International Jazz Day a revival of the jazz ambassadors of the 50s and 60s? Jazz and 'freedom' go together like a horse and carriage. But it gets tricky because 'freedom' was shaped by particular ideological forces and the US State Department that made the American way of life and 'democracy' appear interchangeable. Looking at the current language used to talk about 'jazz': 'jazz is a democratic music'; 'jazz allow people to express their individuality; 'jazz is a vector of freedom of expression', are these sentiments that different? Weren't these also the symbolic messages jazz musicians carried with them behind the iron curtain? Perhaps the really interesting part is what has happened to the American dream and America's 'moral' authority in the world today. Wasn't this enduring sense of 'freedom' - the freedom to make money, which accommodated the rise of rapacious bankers? For me engendering an appreciation of the music art form sometimes seems to be a footnote by comparison.
Herbie, tells us,"We all want to live in a jazz world where we all work together, improvise together, are not afraid of taking chances and expressing ourselves." I'm not knocking Herbie because he's right about one thing which is jazz is about the human experience and to put it in a less sugary way, that experience was / is about hope, possibility and at times losing oneself. So what should one do on International Jazz Day? Listen to Jazz; buy some jazz, play some jazz; engage in dialogue about jazz; find something jazzy to do...
Here are my quick and very random picks for International Jazz Day 2014 and Happy International Jazz Day!
Ted Gioia's The Imperfect Art: Reflections On Jazz and Modern Culture - a really excellent and enjoyable read.
Herbie Hancock: The Norton Lecturer in 2014'The Ethics of Jazz' - in 6 parts. Vijay Iyer and Homi Bhabba make an appearance.
The History Of Jazz Piano In 11 Minutes
by Patrick Jarenwattananon
Liam Noble's Brother Face
Graham Scrambler Emeritus Professor of Sociology UCL
Jazz and Sociology Revisited (Feb 11 2014)
Jazz and Sociology (Mar 27 2014)
Check out Babel Label on Bandcamp