Jazz from a Dying Planet?

Jazz from a Dying Planet?
Robert Preston as Prof. Harold Hill in the 1962 film version of “The Music Man.”(Warner Bros.)

In my capacity as publisher of The Syncopated Times, one of the duties I must fulfill is that of cheerleader for the music. It’s necessary that I harness any of my sporadic bursts of enthusiasm toward brightening the prospect for fans, musicians, event promoters, and venue owners. I knew that when I signed up for the job, though I cannot think of any less qualified candidate for the role of Professor Harold Hill than I am. Some days I can hardly bear to look at a trombone, let alone seventy-six of them.

Even so, I’ve managed to push along with something not unlike optimism even as I sensed the enormity of the task. (The negative connotation of the word “enormity” is apt.) Since March 2020, I’ve kept the lights on in hopes that things would return to normal(ish) after the worst of the COVID pandemic was over. The prospect was favorable in June and July for such a turn of events. Then the Delta variant emerged—and people were getting sick again. A few scheduled 2021 festivals have been postponed, the directors promising to try again next year.

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It turns out that this is not the end but the middle. I still feel compelled to find the bright side to this situation. The good news is that I can keep the paper going indefinitely, since we operate on what amounts to not just a shoestring but a strand of dental floss. There doesn’t seem to be any dearth of musician profiles and historical articles in the pipeline. There also seems to be a consensus among readers that the paper keeps getting better. I hope that’s true.

I want to spare the apocalyptic rhetoric—and the willful denial that is its conjoined twin. I’d like to lead the crowd in a cheer for the acceptance of reality. We have stewardship of the greatest art form our country has produced, and its fragility and spontaneity demand our devoted care. Its survival depends on how we nurture it—and plant its seeds wherever they will take root and grow. This is more difficult now than it has ever been, as we are frustrated by lockdowns and cancellations. Things that we relied upon as permanent are gone, or have changed for the worse. Even with such bafflements, the music wants to live.

This summer, despite vaccinations and other preventative measures, COVID cases soared. The condition of the planet itself is dire, with hundreds of thousands of acres burning beyond control—and thousands more flooded. On a more human level, our country operates on (at least) two separate versions of reality. The last mentioned is not the least of our crises. If we want a delicate flower like jazz to endure, we have to tone down the fury and put away the shooting irons. We cannot afford to lose any more fans—be it through COVID, natural disasters, obsessive outrage, or acute lead poisoning. So many are joining the Saints simply because it’s their time.

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In the issue you hold in your hands, I have been pleased to include several profiles of younger artists whose presence here fills me with great hope. They’re the people we’ve been keeping the music going for. We might have thought it was for ourselves, as entirely selfish pleasure, but jazz and ragtime, swing and songbook, have been living through us to get to the next generation—and so on. We have to be strong and well and magnanimous enough to deliver it to them, on a planet that is sound and stable enough for its life-support.

We must reassess our priorities of what is most important to us and what we can do without. Clean water, clean air, a landscape that isn’t on fire or under water—are all necessary for the existence of jazz. They’re also necessary for the existence of us. Robots and AI simulacra of humans aren’t going to dig Louis. We’ve sent jazz on a record to outer space, but so far the aliens haven’t got back to us. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos may vie for dominance on Mars, but most likely they will have left Jelly Roll Morton behind. In the blasted landscape of the Earth perhaps to be, who will sing a Canticle for Beiderbecke?

If we are too short-sighted to imagine a world without redwoods and rivers, rabbits and foxes, coral and sea turtles, perhaps we can squint enough to envision a landscape without swing and syncopation, assuming the deterioration of our planet continues on its present trajectory. That old Esther Walker recording comes to mind: “What-cha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Jazz?” By the same token, what are you gonna do when there ain’t no oxygen? Jazz cannot exist in a vacuum—and neither can we.

I don’t mean to go all Greta Thunberg on you. I’m not that good a person. I admit my own tendency toward following the Path of Least Resistance whenever it presents itself. But one would have to be pretty oblivious not to see that we’re in trouble. And by us, I mean everyone—including jazz fans and musicians.

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“Well, I’m not going to live to see all that devastation,” is a common cop-out. Except that we are seeing it, right now. Younger jazz fans and jazz fans yet to be born will certainly see the worst of it. If you’re willing to march off with the Saints and let the Life Support System of Jazz (i.e., Earth) expire, then why do you even subscribe to this paper?

C’mon guys—we can do this.

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Andy Senior is the Publisher of The Syncopated Times and on occasion he still gets out a Radiola! podcast for our listening pleasure.

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