Deirdre Moore | July 2013

Jazz, History and Democracy: Arts Immersion To Do List Week 6

The sky was overcast and there was a pleasant breeze blowing at the downtown pier in New London, Connecticut as I sat and listened to the self-described “Plank-Walking” United States Coast Guard Dixieland Jazz Band.  Being at that concert brought me back to Sundays of my childhood when my dad would blast jazz throughout the house as he worked on home improvement projects (of which there were many!).  I love early jazz, Dixieland jazz in particular.  It’s just foot-tapping, hand-clapping kind of music when it’s happy and incredibly touching when it’s sentimental.

When I hear it I can’t help but think of New Orleans although I’ve never been there.  That’s a wonderful thing about music, it has roots, a history.  It can connect you to another time and place in your own personal history or conjure images of a place and time you have never actually experienced.  Each type of music has a signature sound created by specific instruments. Accompanied by, the way those instruments play  teach you something about the people, place and time from which that music stems.

In my time as a classroom teacher I never studied jazz with my students (only a cursory visit to the blues) but hearing that concert on Sunday made me wish that I had.  Having been inspired by this concert on Sunday, I started to research jazz and came across a PBS website discussing a film about jazz by Ken Burns.

In an interview he answers the question “How does jazz differ from other music?” like this:

If you can think what a revolution jazz was, up until that point, if you looked at the page, and it was John Phillips Sousa, and it went “dah dah dah, dah dah dah, dah dah dah.” That’s what you played.But in jazz you can go “epp dat at dat at,” and “dee dee dee.” You can make it up the way you want to do it. And it’s no less arduous. It’s no less rigorous. It’s no less demanding of an art form. But what it says is that the genius of America has been to trust the individual. It’s just the utter symbol of freedom in it. And this is not freedom without responsibility.

This is freedom coordinated with other people.I just can’t play whatever I feel like. I have to listen to what you’re saying. I have to listen to what the other person is saying, and work it all together. And that’s democracy at its heart.

Wow, what a concept!

Jazz is a metaphor for democracy! I never thought about presenting democracy through jazz before. Or, presenting improvisation in jazz as lending your voice to become a participating citizen of a democracy.  It certainly drives home that point for me; we require every voice for a democracy’s fullest expression. We’ll save that topic for another article!

My trip down memory lane and these Arts Integration inspirations are thanks to my Arts Immersion to Do List “Experience art: music.”  I am so glad I decided to take this challenge this summer and hope you are finding lots of ways to be refreshed and inspired this summer as well.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.