Friday, February 26, 2010

All That Jazz

Back in January I wrote a post about American exceptionalism, the thesis offered by generations of American historians that their country was put on earth as a beacon to other nations, responsible for perfecting Western civilization.  It was summarized nicely by President Polk’s observation that America’s history lay ahead of it.    

Few American historians still subscribe to the theory of exceptionalism, and perhaps fewer Americans (openly, at least, kind of like not admitting to the Bee Gees songs hidden on our iPods).  In any event, my point wasn’t to try to prove or disprove the thesis.  I just wondered aloud--recognizing the incredible power generated by thinking you are exceptional--what the loss might mean to America in the future. 

It’s almost impossible, after all, to recover your mojo once you lose it.

My post on exceptionalism probably generated more email than any other I have written (except maybe for Running with Haruki Murakami) and it got me thinking. . .if Americans aren’t capital “E” Exceptional, are they at least small “e” exceptional in any way?

I remembered from the Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, Gerald Early saying, “I think there are only three things America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.”  I was pondering what these three things might have in common when all of a sudden I stumbled into a bunch of recent Tea Party talk about the Tenth Amendment.  That’s the amendment that grants any power to the states (or the people) that is not specifically granted the federal government.  In other words, it’s a system that, by default, gives the greatest authority and responsibility to the smallest unit possible.

It’s what we mean in business when we sing the joys of decentralization.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, then, I owe you my theory about American “small e” exceptionalism:

We are a Tenth Amendment People.

Said another way, our national “core competency” is creating governance, systems, processes and art that optimize individual contributions without tearing the fabric of the whole.

(Of course, we do tear the fabric of the whole sometimes, which is probably why we're not big “E” Exceptional.) 

All of which brings me to a book by Wynton Marsalis and Geoffrey Ward (Ken Burns’ writing buddy) called Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.  I picked this Kindle book up on a lark, as part of some other research I was doing, and really enjoyed it.  It’s another kind of manifesto, like Harakami’s book about running, and Jaron Lanier’s book about the Web.  In all three cases, you don’t have to run, surf the Web or love jazz to appreciate the writing, though chances are you’ll want to do all three by the time you’re through reading.

More to my point, it seems to describe the music of a Tenth Amendment People.

Here are a handful of interesting quotes from Marsalis (designed to make you want to buy and read the book):
In this book I hope to deliver the positive message of America’s greatest music: how great musicians demonstrate a mutual respect and trust on the bandstand that can alter your outlook on the world and enrich every aspect of your life—from individual creativity and personal relationships to the way you conduct business and understand what it means to be a global citizen in the most modern sense.
The most prized possession in this music is your own unique sound.  Through sound, jazz leads you to the core of yourself and says “Express that.”  Through jazz we learn that people are never all one way. . .Jazz also reminds you that you can work things out with other people.  It’s hard, but it can be done.  When a group of people try to invent something together, there’s bound to be a lot of conflict.  Jazz urges you to accept the decisions of others.  Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow—but you can’t give up, no matter what.  It is the art of negotiating change with style.  The aim of every performance is to make something out of whatever happens—to make something together and be together.
Jazz is the art of timing.  It teaches you when.  When to start, when to wait, when to step it up, and when to take your time—indispensable tools for making someone else happy.
The musician’s relationship to time can be of ultimate assistance to you in: 1) adjusting to changes without losing your equilibrium; 2) mastering moments of crisis with clear thinking; 3) living in the moment and accepting reality instead of tying to force everyone to do things your way; 4) concentrating on a collective goal even when your conception of the collective doesn’t dominate; 5) knowing how and when to expend your individual energy.  Being in time also gives you the confidence to take chances.
Jazz musicians have to listen and communicate.  You have absolutely no idea what the other musicians are going to improvise, so you’re forced to listen.
Swing demands three things.  It requires extreme coordination, because it is a dance with other people who are inventing steps as they go.  It requires intelligent decision-making, because what’s best for you is not necessarily best for the group or for the moment.  And it requires good intentions, because you have to trust that you and the other musicians are equally interested in making great music.
Sweets Edison told me the blues was the saddest sound you ever heard.  Horace Silver said it was the most joyous sound.  It’s perfectly designed to give form to what we feel at any time. . .The amen cadence in Christian church music—the blues.
You don’t have to earn your creativity—you’re born with it.  All you have to do is tend to it and unleash it.  Every human being on earth is given the gift to create, and that creativity manifests itself in trillions of ways.  There are no laws or rules.  Creativity is unruly.  Like a dream—you can’t control what comes to you.  You only control what portion you choose to tell.
Jazz—the music—is the collective aspirations of a group of musicians, shaped, given logic, and organized under the extreme pressure of time.  When we all work together, the music swings, and when we don’t, it doesn’t.  That’s why, although the perception of jazz is that we all get along, in actuality, we’re all always trying to get along.   It is the integrity of that process that determines the quality of the swing.

In other words, jazz emphasizes personal creativity and responsibility to a collective.  It believes in our ability to make reasonable choices, takes a chance on our decision-making skills, and emphasizes talent and the size of our hearts.  In fact, jazz encourages us to be as creative as we can be without destroying the fabric of the whole. 

Kind of like the Tenth Amendment intended.

By the way, here’s some of the exceptional music that was playing on my Ipod while I read Moving to Higher Ground:

West End Blues and Gut Bucket Blues, Louis Armstrong
Over the Rainbow, Keith Jarrett
Rosetta and Pocketful of Blues, John Hicks
Time After Time, Cedar Walton

I know, I know.  Exceptional but a little sappy.

C Jam Blues, Oscar Peterson
But Not For Me, Ahmad Jamal
New Orleans Blues, Marcus Roberts
Lonely Days, the Bee Gees


Only kidding about that last one. 

Maybe. :)