A Hot Jazz Space for Civility

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I face the task of writing this essay with more than a little dread. Last month’s “Static” expressed my views concisely and effectively, and if it were up to me I would run that column in this space as long as I publish The Syncopated Times. But writers have to write, and there is indeed more to say.

The madness of which I spoke is now dominant and I find myself lacking the emotional detachment I felt so certain I could maintain. Until November 8th, we had maintained an uneasy truce with each other that permitted us to navigate with a strained cordiality. Our social relations were brittle, though to all appearances stable. Our barely functional civility has shattered overnight.

I am not here to point fingers. Both sides were wrong. Each side regarded the other with thinly-veiled condescension if not outright disdain. Neither side could see the other as fully human. We will reap the bitter harvest of that total failure of empathy, and when it all goes wrong both sides will blame each other. Of course they will.

In the midst of this Uncivil War, we still have to make music. My thoughts about jazz as a hostility-free zone were stated last month. I begin to wonder if that view is even remotely realistic. Will it be possible to check our opinions at the door and settle in to swing? Or will the opposing sides form separate bands to play for their respective audiences in politically homogenous venues, blasting “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” at each other from across the street?

That seems fanciful (if nightmarish) but I never envisioned the current open animosity being the norm. People in what I would call “nice” communities near where I live are spewing hate at each other. A black woman was chased from an antique shop in the genteel yuppie village from which I used to broadcast my radio program: the owner (who had always been cordial on prior occasions) repeatedly shouted the name of the President-elect at her as she departed.

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Such incidents are deeply disturbing. When you peel back the veneer of Norman Rockwell, you get Shirley Jackson. The volunteer fire chief in Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle saves the home of the hated Blackwood sisters from burning to the ground, and then leads the villagers in a mob frenzy of destroying what’s left of their house. Authority, rather than maintaining order, acts as the catalyst for anarchy. Is this what we’ve opted for?

There will be strife, and a place of respite will be most necessary. I would love for hot jazz to be the musical equivalent of Switzerland. There aren’t sufficient numbers of fans and players for this music to survive a political schism. In spite of their differences of opinion, listeners, dancers, musicians, venues, and festivals all have to work together to keep it going. More than mere neutrality, we require magnanimity and ecumenism to ensure its continuance. My unstated motto since starting this paper has been: We Are All Here to Help Each Other. Now I’ve stated it.

For many of us individually, though, a potentially greater problem is that of focusing away from the conflict and pain enough to enjoy our music again. I’m highly susceptible to anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure) even at the best of times, and right now even the best jazz can’t touch it. The potential for pure nastiness among even apparently nice people obsesses, dismays, and scares the hell out of me. These unwelcome thoughts interfere with the work I have to do and with the enjoyment of things I love. The fluffy levity of popular music mocks me. Giddy syncopation grates on my eardrums and nerves.

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The above-named Shirley Jackson, with the last entry she ever wrote in her journal, shows that this too must eventually pass: “I am shocked at how miserable I have been for so long. I know something about this obsession business. It isn’t real. It is a huge cloud of looming nothingness triggered off by small events. But it is not real. It is divorced from anything real, dissociated. Laughter is possible.”

Yes. Though your neighbor is calling you hard names and you’re responding in kind, there’s this: Trouble’s a bubble. It looks like a steel-belted radial, but it’s a bubble. Once it pops, laughter—and music—are possible again.


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