Jazzocracy: Jazz, Democracy, and the
Creation of a New American Mythology

Kabir Sehgal
(Better World Books; Mishawaka, Indiana)

an excerpt from:
The Myth of Jam Session

The first day of the American experiment was not July 4, 1776. Nor was it when the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria set sail from Spain. The pre-Columbian era of America, when Native Americans roamed the land, reminds us that the New World was no terra nullius, an empty and bare land. America wasn’t the “New World,” as it was already inhabited. When America’s first immigrant Columbus discovered the American continent, it was the dawn of the everybody world. It was the dawn of the jam session era of America. Christopher Columbus was a jam session: a Catholic sailor who Protestants lauded. Father Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882 to unionize Catholics when other unions wouldn’t. A mildly scornful name, McGivney recognized the jam session of Columbus, the minority sailor. The Japanese live in Japan, the French in France, and the Italians in Italy. One chooses to be an American. Early observers noted that on the tip of Manhattan one could hear eighteen different languages. (1) America is a jam session where the rhythm section keeps the groove going, and every cat speaks his or her own language.

One jazz musician remembered the jam sessions at the Victoria Bar and Grill in New York City, where saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Joe Thomas would play all day. (2) Running up tabs, folks sat listening to these musicians jive and jam for hours. Ellison wrote, “Dance hall jam sessions, along with recordings, are the true academy of jazz.” (3) It’s possible to learn more from the rapscallion than the dignitary. In the jam session, the individual blends into the greater group like the ingredients of cake batter: flour, milk, and sugar. Eventually these individual items blend into batter, yielding a lump character. It is not that jazz musicians lose their individuality, but contribute it to something grander, the plurality of a cultural and political democracy. The Jazzocracy honors the jam session motto of the antislavery newspaper The Liberator: “My country is the world. My countrymen are mankind.” (4)

Peeled away, the superstructure of the jam session reflects the infrastructural belief that Americans understand the importance of “everybody.” The jazz band has been a forerunner to integrated society since the earliest days: the mixed New Orleans bands and integrated bands touring the Iron Curtain. Many white musicians played in the Miles Davis Nonet that recorded his acclaimed Birth of Cool album. Jazz aficionado Phil Schaap contends that jazz was the first American pastime to integrate before baseball. (5) In 1936, the Benny Goodman Trio was the first integrated band to play regularly in public. A manager told Goodman that he didn’t want black musicians performing, to which Goodman responded, “This is my band. If you don’t want them in the band, then screw yourself. We’re walking out.” (6)

The Myth of Jam Session extends to all parts of the ring. The audience is an integral part of the jazz performance. It claps, whistles, sighs, squeals, dances, calls, and makes with the musicians. Furthermore, the jazz audience is a reflection of the diversity on the bandstand. Whites and blacks come to shows. There are no rules as to what one should wear or look like. No need to look “hip” or dress a certain way to fit in. Come as you are. The audience is as integrated as the jazz jam session.

Jazz taught us that borders, while important to self-identity when perceived by foreigners, are almost inconsequential within a union. Borders, territories, and worlds melt away in the fizzy brew of jazz. “When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions, there, of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come,” notes Campbell. (7) The update on Campbell’s quote is to look at the jazz jam session as if we were looking at the world from afar. Many a gig has seen instrumentalists who can’t speak the same tongue jazzing in the one language of music. The jazz band has always been an “everybody world” because it was borne out of the mélange of African American, Creoles, and Europeans. Your land is my land. The musical democracy of jazz brought folks together from different backgrounds and did not monopolize the art as a “black only” thing. (8) Ellington honored all big bands from 1925 to 1955—white and black—in his 1962 tribute.

That’s not to say that the jam session can lead to squabbles and conflict. Perhaps one of the best ways to forget differences is to laugh. Many bandleaders used humor to bring members together. In Jazz Anecdotes, Bill Crow tells the tale of drummer Zutty Singleton who was to play an exposed note on the xylophone at the culmination of the piece. He put a piece of paper on the xylophone to remind him which note to strike. During intermission, another band mate removed the paper. Singleton hit the wrong note and the band died laughing. (9) The fraternity of vagabond musicians urges a constant humor in which anyone can be poked. Bill Crow tells of Junior Raglin who used to drink from bottles when others fell asleep on the bus. Barney Bigard was not amused when much of his alcohol went missing. Bigard turned the tables by filling a bottle with his urine and pretending to fall asleep. Raglin, playing his Dumb and Dumber part, took a sip. “Now, I hope you know what you just did,” deadpanned Bigard. (10)

But is America still known for its jam session character? A survey of America in The Economist reported how a Vietnamese man saw an American car in Saigon during the Vietnamese War that convinced him to move to America. The car “reinforced all those positive images of America. It … stood for freedom.” (11) The survey cites a worrisome Pew Poll: “Foreigners no longer saw America as a land of opportunity the way they once did.” (12) Stepping away from politics, what does America export of its “art”? International MTV transmits semi-pornographic imagery, a dubious distinction. The mobile immigrants that supply America, the new everybodies, pump perennial energy into America’s economy, but “Has America become a centrifuge?” (13) Our exported art evokes the rusted melting pot.

Sometimes a jam session includes “trading fours,” where each member of the band takes four measures to solo. Often the soloist trades four measures with the drummer: tenor solo, drum solo, piano solo, drum solo, and on it goes until the end of the form whereupon one trades four again or returns to the melody. If someone forgets to play his four, there is a flagrant void of sound. If you play one measure extra, you’re not respecting the form. In the jam session of a Jazzocracy, Americans trade fours with each other. Talk and listen. Escape the dueling thirty-second talking heads and actually offer new and compelling ideas. Instead of conceding a debate to traditional liberal and conservative talking points, look for the unusual perspective from the quiet voice in the musical mix. Even tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins listened to the acoustic bass during his solos. (14) For instance: Why not negotiate retirement policies with Mexico so that US citizens can retire there, coming off American social security rolls? The cost of living is cheaper in Mexico, and US citizens would help economic development with local spending. Then the border becomes a two-way street—workers come to the US and retirees move to Mexico. A usual idea, to be sure, but not one to be readily dismissed. The difficulty of getting past the bifurcated political debate is immense; a plurality of ideas can be unearthed when the ear is put to the fertile ground of the American jam session.

Perhaps the most important aspect of trading fours is to remember oneself or self-remember. To behold an artwork, a Goya painting, or Rebirth Brass Band performance, one gives it full attention. When we discuss a political topic with our opponent, we push our attention onto him or her. Many times we forget to remember ourselves. When the drummer takes his four measures, not only is he playing, but you are listening to him. Your attention, then, is divided between the drummer and yourself. By remembering yourself, as Gurjdieff explains, we start to remember how we feel at particular moments. (15) Instead of becoming a mechanical listener to jazz music or performer, we are aware of ourselves, with heightened consciousness. Do you remember yourself while reading this text? “I am reading.” It’s not enough to go through the motions and trade fours. We lose ourselves in the making, adrift in a mechanical ocean of sleep – listening to the grid of the rhythm section groove but never realizing it’s our turn to improvise and self-amend.

Self-remembering is certainly not an invitation to adopt an egotistical perspective. I have witnessed many trading four sessions when a musician forgets it is his or her turn. After a measure of silence, the musician awkwardly enters. Remembering ourselves is consistent with the jazz-as-democracy trope because jazz is a performance-based music. We hold the keys to the interpretation, not the composer of the song. We must participate and not grow bored or tired of the exchange. Democracy is an arduous process and it can inflict the mortal wound of ambivalence into the electorate. By remembering ourselves, we are no longer just spectators but active participants in the making of democracy.

In recent times, some scholars contend that America’s democracy suffers from an ambivalent and uninspired citizenry. Politics today has become a business. The 2004 election cost about $5 billion, enough to buy over 2,000 Super Bowl commercials. (16)

Sociologist Robert Putnam finds that the professionalization of politics has made democracy less participatory. Political parties are becoming stronger financially, but the “brand loyalty” is becoming less meaningful. (17) Financial capital has supplanted social capital. Is voting turnout and lack of participation the declension of democracy? Technology (mainly the television and the broadcast culture) is often blamed for this trend, but it can help bring folks together as with Meetup.com (a co-founder of the Web site was inspired by Putnam’s findings). (18) When the unholy alliance of technology and voter segmentation occurs, the participatory nature of democracy takes on rust. Lincoln didn’t describe our government as of the segmented people, by the media-focused issue, and for the political insiders.

In a Jazzocracy, perhaps the best way to enact trading fours in the domain of government is to open the legislative government to closer scrutiny. Evoke interest when the citizen feels his or her interests are at stake. Too often legislators drop bills into a black box where only insiders understand what happens. A simple solution is to put all considered legislation online. The black box of crafting legislation would disappear, ushering in transparent discussion and a fantasia of facts. Open-source government is a step in the direction of the “politics of liberty”—but it is also an attempt to show how the common man is affected by the machinations of Congress. With more knowledge, the citizen may self-remember his interests and his role as an instrument of democracy.

The Economist reports that legislative compromises have seen better days: “The conference stage—a last chance for a compromise—has occasionally been omitted altogether.” (19) This leads to war-like Armageddon politics, where extremists battle instead of finding moderate solutions. Blame gerrymandering or polarizing cable television shows, America was once the land of reasoned compromise and negotiation. The Showdown at Gucci Gulch details how the 1986 tax reform act was an epic act of political compromise. America is “sorting” itself into like-minded groups, which in turn tend to absorb extremists, making common ground more difficult to find than Hillary’s Step, the passage to the summit of Mount Everest. (20) Trading fours in the American jam session is about getting music and government back to balance. The healthy and unhealthy branches of the tree share interwoven roots: The good and bad must be accepted together. Instead of Jacobist retaliation against those who disagree, give the loyal opposition their four measures. (21) Americans might all be “mute inglorious Miltons,” as poet Thomas Gray directs. But do we know if we ain’t listening?

The segregation of the electorate can be traced to the culture wars that are fought on the battlefield of ideology. Those who do not ascribe to a particular ideology or suffer from “institutionalized paranoia” are castigated as anti-American, jettisoned from the American kin. (22) The “culture war” is the intra-American fight between blue states and red states over social issues. It is the name given to America’s apparent “deep division.” America’s deep division is hardly a culture war, according to Morris Fiorina, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. In Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America, Fiorina sees America as closely divided but not deeply divided. (23) Taking a cue from Philip Converse’s “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” Fiorina sees the large portion of the electorate as ambivalent and uncertain. Americans are moderates, centrists, and independents, just as Putnam found. It is the set of choices—the extreme Kennedys and Keyes—that polarize. In the 2004 election, 209 electoral votes went “barely” or “weakly” for a particular candidate. For example, Bush may have won in Texas by twenty percentage points, but one percent in New Mexico and almost three in Nevada. Kerry won by eleven points in California, but less than half a percent in Wisconsin. America is a swing nation. Massachusetts and Texas may be the extremes of liberal-conservative polarization, but most of America lives in the continuum of ambivalence. The primaries, dominated by extreme activists, determine the party nominees, making it more likely for extreme candidates to win the nomination and land on the ticket. Some pundits think that the primary process is an illiberal process of democracy, where a small percent of the electorate acts as the sieve for millions of other Americans. Fiorina found that until recently (1992-2004), American presidents didn’t even win fifty percent or more of the vote, an era of indecision like that of 1880 to 1892. (24) In a Pew Poll, he finds that even the social issues of religion, sex, and morality didn’t polarize blue states and red states: Those living in blue and red states think privatizing schools and prescription drug benefits ought to be explored. Also, there isn't a drastic difference in the number of churchgoers in blue and red states. Furthermore, “the culture war” barely exists at a local level. Septic tank cleaning, trash collection, and animal control are hardly partisan issues. (25) Local politicians acquire more social capital because they live in the same community, humanizing their opponents. The “culture war,” it appears, may prove that America is closely divided. By and large, Americans are centrists. If the electorate is divided by the politicos, then music can be the bastion of unity. Whitman’s cultural democracy is a canteen where all may eat, insofar as the mythology of art has not already caricatured a certain people.

To borrow the title of Murray’s book, Americans are truly “Omni-Americans”: We share cultural experiences of another culture. Our language is full of Native American words; African Americans have given their musical sensibilities to popular idioms for centuries; Mexican culture is dominant in the southwest. Americans are part Native American, African American, Chinese, Irish, Jewish White, Mexican, and to be determined—an irrefutable jam session. The mulatto culture of America can be seen in the arbitrary nature of our beginning. When was day one of America? A few possibilities include Columbus’s maiden voyage; the 4th of July, 1776; the first settlers crossing the Bering Strait; or 1865 at the Appomattox Court House. Murray states, “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite.” (26) America’s kin is omni in nature. Indeed, Americans are closely divided along race, ethnicity, politics, religion, language, tattoos, and hair color. The mixing of American division has resulted in a broadmindedness that has led to ingenuity in the arts, literature, politics, and entrepreneurship. While Americans belong to a nation, says Tolstoy, we also belong to eternity: how close-minded to focus on the narrow. (27) To participate in the jazz jam session is to become American—to mix and create a lump character in which the pull and push of the composite is perpetually in flux.

There are those who feel the jazz jam session is not very inclusive. In Blue: The Murder of Jazz, Eric Nisenson asserts that some black jazz musicians today discriminate against white musicians. He blames the neoclassicalists—those who perform the canon of jazz (music from the early twentieth century to 1960). He attacks the philosophy of Crouch and Murray, who espouse a tradition of jazz that celebrates the African American inventor of the art. Nisenson labels the apparent discrimination of white musicians as “Crow Jim.” (28)

Such criticism stems from an inert assumption that Jazz at Lincoln Center, the neoclassicalists, and documentary maker Ken Burns somehow create a canon for jazz. But how can so few distinguish a canon for such a pervasive music? In my time, conversing with so-called neoclassicalists and those in the Lincoln Center big band, I’ve not observed any Crow Jim sentiment. The big band also has several white musicians and often collaborates with white celebrities. It is true that African Americans are the progenitors of jazz. But jazz is a language of re-definition because it depends on the sensibilities of the performers. Instead of bemoaning white discrimination with the pen, fight with the horn. In the jam session of jazz, any Crow Jim sentiment fades as the ability and merit carries weight. That is not to say that everyone isn’t welcome in the jam session. Those who can play usually get the gigs. Miles Davis, for one, encountered criticism when he hired Bill Evans as his pianist. I imagine that when critics heard Evans play, any Crow Jim belief quickly ebbed. The tradition of jazz isn’t Jim Crow or Crow Jim. It’s omni-American.

The Myth of Jam Session establishes the Jazzocracy as a commons. Professor Lawrence Lessig writes on commons, “We permit neither the government to control how that resource is used nor the market to control how that resource is used.” (29) Jazz is a commons in that everyone may participate in the making of music: Grab a horn and blow. Indeed, the more one practices, the better one gets. A distinction between resources should be made: Rivalrous resources are used at the expense of others. If three thousand cars jam a freeway, it prevents others from using the freeway. A nonrivalrous resource allows one to use something without preventing another to use the same resource. Jazz is a nonrivalrous resource because one person’s participation does not preclude another from experiencing the music. It is an innovation commons, an omni-American commons. By adopting this myth, we understand the value of nonrivalrous commons: Americans share in the making of the political system, and judging by Fiorina’s findings, are not deeply divided about the invitation.

  1. Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, “The Myth of the Melting Pot,” in Nicolas Cords and Patrick Gerster, Myth and the American Experience. New York, Glencoe Press, 1973. pg. 132.

  2. Bill Crow, Jazz anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. pg. 95.

  3. Ralph Ellison, Living With Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings. Modern Library, 2001. pg. 23.

  4. Howard Zinn, “The Power and the Glory: Myths of American exceptionalism.” in Boston Review. http://bostonreview.net/BR30.3/zinn.html

  5. Wynton Marsalis, To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road. Random House, 2004. pg. 64-65.

  6. Bill Crow, Jazz anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. pg. 136.

  7. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. Anchor, 1988. pg. 41.

  8. Ibid, pg. 208.

  9. Ibid, pg. 159.

  10. Bill Crow, Jazz anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. pg. 161.

  11. “Degrees of separation,” The Economist. 16 July 2005. pg. 3

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid, pg. 4.

  14. Valerie Wilmer, Jazz People. Da Capo Press, 1970. pg. 57

  15. P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. Harvest, 2001. pg. 117.

  16. “Cost of 2004 elections: $4 billion and counting” USA Today. 2 November 2004. http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/2004-11-02-election-costs_x.htm?POE=NEWISVA

  17. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster, 2001. pg. 38.

  18. “The glue of society,” The Economist. 16 July 2005. pg. 16.

  19. “Motion dismissed,” The Economist. 16 July 2005. pg. 18.

  20. “Motion sustained,” The Economist. 16 July 2005. pg. 20.

  21. Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You. University of Nebraska Press, 1985. pg. 6.

  22. Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture. Da Capo, 1970. pg. 79.

  23. Morris P. Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. Longman, 2004. pg. ix.

  24. Ibid, pg. 12.

  25. Cindy Simon Rosenthal, “Local Politics: A Different Front in the Culture War?” in The Forum: Vol. 3: No. 2, Article 5. 2005. http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol3/iss2/art5

  26. Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture. Da Capo, 1970. pg 22.

  27. Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You. University of Nebraska Press, 1985. pg. 365.

  28. Eric Nisenson, Blue: The Murder of Jazz, Da Capo Press, 1997. pg. 42.

  29. Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas. Vintage, 2002. pg. 92.

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