Music and Politics: Strange Bedfellows Get Stranger

Politics and music often cross paths. Most often, musicians use their celebrity pulpit to stump for candidates or to bring attention to a cause. Politicians, like many others, use music as a marketing tool (think of Clinton’s first campaign with Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop (Thinkin’ About Tomorrow) which was featured prominently throughout as well as during the inaugural celebrations). The latter is likely the most effective; music like the aforementioned Fleetwood Mac song appeals to a huge swath of voters of every affiliation and also has an enormous nostalgia value for some of the most politically desirable demographic sectors. What has never happened, as far as I can tell, is politics being used to promote music–it’s always the other way around.

Recently, I received an email from JazzEd magazine advertising a series of videos featuring the unlikely duo of Wynton Marsalis (“a legend of jazz who’s written about democracy”) and Sandra Day O’Connor (you guessed it, as the first female Supreme Court Judge, she’s automatically a “legend of democracy,” who, incidentally, “loves jazz”). Let Freedom Swing is an annoyingly cutesy rhyming reference to the 19th Century patriotic classic My Country ‘Tis of Thee (God Save the Queen with new lyrics by Samuel Smith) which was referenced in Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and in George Orwell’s 1984. The first verse ends with the line Let freedom ring! which is the beginning of the anthemic chorus from Martina McBride‘s hit tune Independence Day (which is the theme song to Sean Hannity’s Radio Show). With such varied and conspicuous references, the song and the phrase clearly reside somewhere deep in the American psyche.

So, now Marsalis and the Lincoln Center take their turn in attempting to co-opt whatever cultural caché this old warhorse has left in it, with their own embarrassingly bad rhyme that makes me wince every time I say it: Let Freedom Swing. The initiative is sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and “The Documentary Group” (not sure what that is), with support and input from the Teachers College at Columbia University. Here’s the mission and description from their website: Let Freedom Swing.

The videos and study guide are designed for use in social studies, humanities, and music classes in grades 6-12, although teachers may be able to adapt the materials for use with younger children. Three key themes structure the videos and study guide: “We the People,” “E Pluribus Unum” (From Many, One), and “A More Perfect Union.” Each video is about six minutes in length. The study guide contains questions for discussion, teaching activities, and additional resources.

We are excited about this unique educational project. We hope educators will find these materials useful in stimulating student interest in two of America’s greatest creative contributions—jazz and democracy.

From the outset, the hyperbole is hard to square with reality. America didn’t invent democracy, and in fact, America is a representative Republic, not a democracy. But let’s not quibble with those terms and their definitions–I get the reference, even though it’s technically incorrect. Instead, let’s venture into the video and see what this “unique educational project” is all about. Here is a transcript of excerpts from the first two parts of the three-part video:


Sandra Day O’Connor (reading from Marsalis’ book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life): “Jazz calls us to engage with our national identity. It gives expression to the beauty of democracy and of personal freedom and of choosing to embrace the humanity of all types of people. It really is what American Democracy is supposed to be.”

Wynton Marsalis: “Just the name jazz connotes freedom…it’s about ‘We the People.’ ”

Narrator: ” ‘We the People’ is a powerful phrase, but is that where power in American Democracy really comes from? Jazz has something to say about that.”

Jimmy Heath: “Jazz is Democracy, it is Democracy at its best…”

Narrator: “Jazz and American Democracy both share one of the most revolutionary principles in world history. The simple idea that every participant has the right to think and say what they want.” [Cue cutouts of 18C drawings of the Founders with cartoon “speech bubbles” juxtaposed with a modern jazz group.]

Students: “You’re working together to make the piece sound good.”  “You see how both jazz and democracy are very similar in the sense that in democracy and jazz, you have to have some sort of form and structure for it to work.”

WM: “Improvisation is the great ‘I am'”

Narrator: “Taking something that everyone knows and giving it new meaning, that’s jazz. It’s also at the very heart of American Democracy.”


SDO: “I like the way you related what happens in a good jazz band with what happens in a good democracy.”

WM: “I think that’s what the Constitution is. We have a collection of virtuosos who got together and they grappled with problems.”

SDO: ‘The great contribution the framers of our constitution made was developing the form of our government.  Three separate branches–the presidency, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch.”

WM: “The drummer is like the president, it’s the loudest instrument. The bass is the judiciary…”

SDO: “Oh the judicial branch.”

WM: “ …there’s a great bass player named Milt Hinton…”

SDO: “Keeps ‘em steady.”

WM: “That’s why he’s called ‘The Judge.’  He addresses the harmony and the rhythm and he’s in the center of the rhythm section so he’s in a central location…he can understand everything that’s going on, on the ground level, on the harmony…but the piano and the rhythm section would be like the legislator. The piano represents all of the notes, all of the keys.”

That’s about half way through the second video, and I just couldn’t bother transcribing much more of this claptrap.  This attempt to tease a deep relationship between jazz and democracy is difficult to watch, even without the gross generalizations, exaggerations, and mischaracterizations (to say nothing of the non-sequiturs) littered throughout. There are so many issues with this, it’s hard to know where to start.  The whole analogy rests on this notion that “everyone has a voice.” In jazz, that voice is allowed to express itself fully as a member of an ensemble. In a democracy, that “voice” expresses itself through voting.

As I said before, that’s a cute analogy, but cute is about as far as it goes.  There is nothing unique about jazz that identifies it as the musical version of democracy.  Everything said about jazz could easily be said about any other style of music–a definition without a distinction is a definition without meaning. For example, why isn’t a symphony like a democracy?

Composer: Founder, writes the Constitution

Conductor: President

Strings: House of Representatives

Brass and Woodwinds: Senate

Percussion: Judiciary (“Keeps ‘em steady. Here comes the Judge”)

Or a Piano Quintet or a rock band?  Or a baseball team?  Or the crew from SwampLoggers? With this kind of sloppy metaphor, virtually any type of group activity with a common goal can be said to be an example of democracy. But jazz is not just generic, dime-store democracy, jazz is democracy “at its best”! Is it the fact that people improvise in jazz as opposed to, say, in a symphony orchestra that makes jazz more “democratic”? That’s hardly a persuasive argument for this hackneyed comparison.

Let’s be honest about what goes on in jazz improvisation–everyone’s role is highly proscribed by both their instrument and by the parameters of style imposed by the music and the other musicians in the group. For example, if your “voice” sounds like Jaki Byard or Evan Parker, you’re not going to be welcome to express it as such if you’re playing with Ella Fitzgerald, the Count Basie Big Band, or Wynton’s own quintet because your voice doesn’t fit with these groups’ repertoire nor does it fit their leaders’ tastes (so much for the “the drummer” being the president). If you want to play in any group but your own, you’d better be ready to play a lot of different styles in an authoritative manner. In other words, your voice had better be very flexible and accommodating or you won’t get to “vote.” In every jazz ensemble, the musicians certainly have some leeway, but the parameters of what is allowed are much more narrow than the utopian world of freedom and personal expression that is described in these videos and in so much of the highly romanticized, more or less “standard,” mythology of jazz. (Symphony musicians also have a lot of leeway, but it’s not in the pitches played, it’s in the interpretation and in the exquisite synchronization of 60 or more people playing as one from a single score, which strikes me as a banal metaphor for “democracy,” but it’s certainly more successful than one that uses five players walking out onstage and playing a 12-bar blues or a 36-measure torch song from some Broadway musical from the 1940’s.)

The analogy fails in this (and many other) regards; in a democracy, you get to vote regardless of how marginalized or outrageous your views are. This is not the case in jazz (or any other music) where your voice must mesh well with the aesthetics of the ensemble, its repertoire, and its leader (to say nothing of the record company, the manager, the bar owner, the director of the venue you want to get booked at) if you expect to have any hope of being given a voice in the first place.

One could continue with this kind of rhetorical autopsy, but there’s too much material so it’s just too easy.  The problem is with the initial comparison of a style of music to an entire system of government based on that system’s polling method. To describe, as the insouciant Marsalis does, the US Constitution (a document that is one of the crowning intellectual achievements of thousands of years of philosophical and political thought) as being the spontaneous product of a “collection of virtuosos who grappled with problems”  is breathtaking in both its ignorance and arrogance.

The mission of these videos is purportedly pedagogical–to educate students from middle school through high school about “jazz and democracy.” As a tool to educate about “democracy,” the videos are not effective. The supposed links between jazz and democracy are not even teased, they’re positively tortured, lacking depth, context, and internal coherence, which I’m sure is obvious to most of today’s media savvy teenagers. Outside of some shallow references to the “three branches of government” and the ubiquitous mantra of “We the People” that is used capriciously and illogically in these first parts, there’s nothing else. Are they trying to promote democracy with this series? Is there some nefarious  “anti-democracy” movement afoot in America today that requires remedial jazz education to combat the march of totalitarianism? Certainly students in this age group need to learn about the American system of government, but that can be done far more effectively without any reference to jazz (which is unfamiliar to most young people in the first place) or any other form of music for that matter.

So, what’s the point of these supposedly “educational” videos?  The point, it seems clear to me, is not to promote democracy, it’s to promote jazz. Democracy doesn’t need a promotional or a marketing campaign, at least not in most of the world (and where it does need it, the son or brother or nephew twice removed of the dictator in charge wouldn’t allow it on the two TV channels available anyway).

We’re all in favor of democracy, so if you’re in favor of democracy, then you must begin to develop a love for jazz, because jazz is, as we all know, “democracy at its best.”  This remarkable campaign is therefore actually trying to leverage the unassailable power and caché of the term “democracy” to goad, cajole, or shame young people into liking jazz, which makes this perhaps the most bizarre and patently absurd attempt to bolster interest in jazz that I have ever seen. Music can help to sell a political message or a politician, but politics won’t sell music if the people aren’t interested in the music in the first place.

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6 Responses to “Music and Politics: Strange Bedfellows Get Stranger”

  1. Music is in serious trouble in america and in so many ways is the canary whose health reflects a greater problem. No matter how cynical anyone may feel about this, anything that gets jazz into schools and developing minds is positive.

  2. I would say a symphony is more like a republic. It is organized to protect small unions (states of municipalities) as well as express popular votes. Jazz. Well jazz is democracy with anarchist twist.

  3. Very interesting entry, Kurt.

    Music will reflect aspects of any type of human endeavor you choose to compare it with. In my opinion, the relationship of jazz and democracy is not unique.

    However, our current democracy could use more of the cooperation and creativity you find in jazz!

  4. (sigh) what a lot of garbage, the whole jazz-as- democracy thing. Makes one long for the good old days of Hitler and Stalin.

  5. Wynton has become such a bore. I seem to remember he had a thing that jazz was like NBA basketball. I think the saddest part of this story is that the only people who can get anywhere in jazz are the ones who master the politics of it. Do have to be the one who says it? That Marsalis Lincoln Center Government jazz puts me to sleep, more of that stuff is sure end any interest in music.
    Was it Miles who said about Wynton “Who asked him?”

    • I’ve added this article to my faeoritvs browser link bar because I want to read it again. I agree on a lot of the viewpoints you have written, but I feel the need to consider some aspects, and I totally appreciate the post. It goes without saying I also like the design of your website, incredibly fresh. Thanks.

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