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JT Notes: Social Music

Editor Evan Haga introduces the November 2016 issue

When the journalist and educator Ashley Kahn reached out to me this past summer and said he had moderated a discussion on jazz and civil rights featuring Kamasi Washington and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, of course I was interested in seeing a transcript. Jazz has historically been a voice of poetic truth during times of unrest, and our nation and world are certainly in turmoil. But one particular bit of the dialogue struck me, and inspired me to fast-track the article into this month’s cover spot. “A lot of people say, ‘You’re political,'” Scott explains near the end. “As I understand the word I’m not, because I really deal with social issues; this is more about the dissemination of power between people.” I felt a quiet flash of revelation at my desk: Here was an opportunity to allow the jazz community to address critical issues without succumbing to the ugliness and absurdity of the country’s polarized political landscape. Go ahead and search the piece for the words “Trump,” “Clinton,” “Republican” and “Democrat.” Though it might seem miraculous given the news cycle you endure, you won’t find them.

Pure politics, especially the divisive partisanship that defines the term in America, rarely exists in great art; cultural marvels excel on purely aesthetic terms, inspiring reflection on larger ideas about humanity. As a devoted fan of the visual arts, I’m amazed at how often a new conceptual piece leaves me bereft of thoughts or feelings until I read about it, and the same goes for my work in jazz. It shouldn’t be essential that I absorb 2,000 words of press notes, perhaps repurposed from a grant proposal, to come across something engaging in a piece of music.

Within and apart from their own music, I believe Washington and Scott have internalized this idea as well. Kahn asked the maestros to choose examples of jazz being used as a form of protest, and their selections included Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Both of those recordings-the former a lament for victims of lynching, the latter a benediction for the children murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing-are hauntingly beautiful illustrations of racism-born despair that somehow define their original context and transcend it. Yes, America’s political system is still its most effective vessel for change, but only its cultural inventions actually embody the democratic fellowship the country was purportedly founded on. So between cable-news binges, remember to immerse yourself in an album by Ella, or a painting by Stuart Davis, or a monologue by Richard Pryor, or a short story by Raymond Carver, or football, or Southern fried chicken, or a sitcom, or…

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Originally Published