Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cueing Up The Music

I should write more. I’ve been telling myself that for years. Instead of writing, I do other things.
Too often it’s as detached and passive as watching television. I think I’m one of the original bingers. At least, I was doing it years before I was aware it had a name.  24 was one of the first. Hey, the show took place over twenty-four hours. Why not try to watch it in twenty-four?
I’ve binged on the catchy, thrilling stuff like 24 and Lost, and on the Shakespearean Breaking Bad and The Wire. And I’ve sometimes supplemented those with regular, weekly doses of Biggest Loser and So You Think You Can Dance.
I don’t think of it all as brainless, but it’s not active either.
But I’m also spending a lot of time with Jazz Gumbo, my internet radio show and podcast. Once a week, I carry some vinyl into the basement studio of a Regent Park youth program and spin tracks for a couple of hours. I used to haul in a crate of thirty or forty albums each week, but now that I’m commuting, it’s fifteen to twenty. I’ve had to think more in advance of what I might play, of the soundscape of artists and styles, tempos and instrumentation, melodies and moods I want to create.
Putting the set together is like a stimulating and rewarding game. Most weeks, I start with the handful of albums I have from last week’s show that I didn’t get to. This week, that’s Terumasa Hino’s “Speak to Loneliness”, Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way”, Jay Hoggard’s “Overview” and Duke’s “Ellington at Newport”.
Most of them, I’ll carry in again, and I’ll eventually find a good place for them. If I haven’t played something in three or four weeks, back on the shelf it goes. There are almost always three or four numbers I’ve already decided to play (chances are, one of them won’t make it). Then, I’ll spend some time picking out other tunes to complement them or balance them. That’s a lot of fun. That’s the heart of the programming, for me.
Often, I’ll hear something on Jazz FM during the week, or something will come up on my iPod random play. Those will account for a quarter of what gets played. On the morning that I go in, I’ll often grab a couple of last inspirations as I’m walking out the door, and by that night I’ll have thought of another one or two I wish I’d grabbed. But, I do carry my iPod with me and anywhere from once to three times during a show, I’ll scroll through it, or go looking for something that just came to mind, to stick in on the spot. In the mix there are almost always at least a couple of tunes I’m not really familiar with. And increasingly, I have a recommendation from a friend or a listener, of a favorite tune or artist of theirs.
The actual two hours in the studio – which results in an hour and forty minute podcast, on average, is fun, busy, focused, scattered, stressful, spontaneous, frenzied, exhilarating, out of control and inspired by turns. I love the music and never tire of hearing it. And I experience the power and beauty of it in a concentrated way through the show. I’m trying to share in the brilliance of musicianship, the dazzling artistry that flows as sound through an infinite array of personalities, histories, attitudes, loving and experiencing.
I play enough music to know the potential of the connection between oneself and an instrument – a beautiful tool, built to open channels of expression through practiced skills of coordination and manipulation. Enough to know what magic emerges when skills reach the point when they can be given full reign, and you let yourself connect to rhythm and sound, and find the inexpressible flowing through you.
I love combining the musics of the different genres and cultures of the extended jazz family: the urban soul r&b from Detroit or Memphis, the classically structured jazz of the fifties and the eighties, the raucous, brash explorations of 70’s fusion, the visceral, blood coursing rhythms of Nigeria or Brazil, the folk inspired chord structures of South Africa or Poland, the rigorous, spirit flights of progressive or free jazz.
Yes, I should write more. But I’m pulled to so many other things.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Bernie's Revolution

How I’d love to see Bernie Sanders as the next President of the United States. But I don’t believe that’s going to happen. Could I be wrong? Absolutely. I’ve been wrong about so many other things this political season, not least of which is Bernie’s improbable success in elevating progressive principles and policies in a country which has a history of allergic and phobic reactions to all things that smack of socialism.

I admire and am hugely grateful to Bernie for his career, his values, his honesty and determination. I’ve wrestled with myself for the last several weeks over whether to voice the concern I’m about to express. I recognize from past campaigns how disheartening it is when supporters give up too soon. And I’ve seen in my personal life that many things I might have accomplished were within reach, had I only persevered for a while longer. So I recognize how wrong I might be.

But I also recognize that there are times when perseverance puts what has already been gained at risk, and sets up devastating loss that might have been averted. And it seems to me that this is such a time.

Donald Trump looms ahead. And his rise has foiled my beliefs and predictions about what might happen in America this election season even more than the Sanders phenomenon. Because, while Sanders has made socialism and progressive altruism palatable to the American electorate, Trump has worked a similar miracle for infantile impulsiveness, arrogance, blind vanity and disregard for others. He has turned bluster and careless ignorance into political weaponry, and then seduced far too large a segment of the voting public with the cartoonish ideal of a superman who will simply bully the world into his own egotistical likeness.

Hillary Clinton is a very interesting figure to put up against these other two. She might be viewed as the lukewarm between the hot and cold of Sanders and Trump, which brings to mind a judgement I remember from childhood bible study – something about spewing the lukewarm from one’s mouth, as inferior to either of the two extremes. She is the representative of “things as they are”, against which the supporters of both Sanders and Trump rage. If I had my way, there’s no question that Sanders would prevail. But I don’t believe that he has any possibility of success. Which leave Clinton and Trump. And my choice there is equally clear. While Clinton may, at worst, merely preserve what is deeply flawed, I believe that Trump may well destroy it, in a way similar to how Hitler destroyed Germany and the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan – with hateful ideology and a morally bankrupt sense of superiority. And I don’t know that the United States or the world will survive that.

The fourth figure that informs my internal debate is Barack Obama. I believe that Obama has been a powerfully transformative president. I don’t agree with all that he has done, and I’m frustrated at what he has not done. But I believe that he is the first political force to seriously weaken the conservative tide that began with the advent of Reagan, a tide that sent progressives into hiding and that made ‘liberal’ a dirty label that too many politicians simply shrank from. Obama, in the face of a mindless and persistent opposition, has pushed an agenda and a set of policies that has begun to readjust the capitalist caste system of entitlement, and to rehabilitate concepts of equity, fairness and equality of opportunity. His presidency has made Sanders’ rise possible, just as the fear and loathing of reactionary conservatism has given rise to Trump. And Obama’s eight years as president confirm the reality that change is slow and difficult.

This is a reality that I hope that Bernie Sanders will absorb. Sanders has changed the political dialogue for the better. He has made income inequality – a topic too loaded for discussion in the centers of power eight years ago – a legitimate topic of debate. He has forced “single-payer” health care back onto the agenda. He has forced attention back to the corrupting influence of money on the political system. He has championed the way overdue platform of free education for all. Carrying these issues forward as their champion is still within his power to do. But to continue to fight for, even to insist on, consideration as the Democratic nominee for the presidency, especially when he has clearly been the loser through the primary season, winning millions fewer voters than has Clinton, can only dilute his transformative message. Continuing to fight for the nomination increasingly casts him as just another politician, making any argument he can for personal, political gain. It’s not about you, Bernie. You have a successor in the wings. Elizabeth Warren will carry on your fight, and perhaps become the second consecutive female president eight years from now.

But now I’m counting chickens. There is still November. There is still Trump. There is still the potential for a Clinton presidency with Sanders as a supportive, prodding, enlightened conscience of the Democratic party. If he sacrifices this potential for an “all is fair” campaign of desperation for a nomination he cannot win, he will make a devastating Trump presidency all the more possible.

Please, Bernie Sanders. Turn your attention to the bigger fight, to the winnable fight. Begin to help unify the left. Begin to draw your supporters out of their disappointed threat to step away from the monumental challenge our country faces. Lead the way, for all of us. And give up your quest for the Presidency.