Jazz is Civility in Action
Civility is not only difficult to define, it’s even more difficult to achieve. Oh, it’s easy for most people to be polite and mannerly. It’s even easy to carry on a respectful conversation if the topic is bland enough. The weather, a local sports team or a good place to get your car worked on would all pass the bland test.
But dive into politics, religion, race relations and the like and civility can take a real beating. There are some areas where an opinion is more than an opinion, it’s a part of who we are or who we think we are or who we want others to think we are. Opinions in these cases can often be viewed as a challenge to an individual’s worth.
I think it might be similar to road rage, something that has probably been with us since the second car was made. I have heard rants from perfectly normal people about things that have happened on streets and highways like getting cut off, tailgated, robbed of their right of way and such that sounded like their right to exist had been challenged.
If you would like to see an example of civility in action, go to a Jazz concert. You will see a diverse group of musicians coming together to produce a result that none of them could produce alone. You will see brass, reeds, keyboard, percussion and string musicians, each contributing in a unique way that is appreciated by each.
You say wait, isn’t a symphony orchestra just as civilized? It may be that the members are civilized individuals, and I assume that they are, but each role is carefully scripted, rehearsed and directed. They are part of a hierarchy with seats representing the status of each musician awarded by experience, talent and I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect, some politics and other types of favoritism may be involved. Don’t get me wrong, the results can be fabulous but my point is that each note played has been selected and directed by someone else.
Jazzers, on the other hand, follow no script but their own, based on how they feel their interpretation of the music blends with what they hear coming from the other musicians. They improvise their part after listening to the creations of others. Get that! Listening to others, absorbing their contribution, letting their improvised ideas flow into the piece of art that is Jazz.
Each musician takes his moment in the spotlight and moves on to support the next musician to take center stage. Egos are suppressed in favor of a blended outcome. Each musician, in his own way, adds to the nuance, texture and flavor of the performance. Each musician contributes from his own experience and feel for the music by listening, learning, sharing and adapting.
A jazz band, in its moment of creating its art is free of conflict, competition and pretense. It transcends the incivility of most discourse that features preaching, instructing, rebuking, demeaning, winning and dominance.
In a world that cries out for innovative solutions to big problems, a lot can be learned from the civil behavior of Jazz musicians. My favorite Jazz musician, who is also an outstanding music teacher, passed this advice on to his students. “Listen and adjust, blend your tone, balance your volume. As I reflect on ensemble performance fundamentals it strikes me how easily these concepts apply to our daily lives. By listening, adjusting, blending our tone and balancing our volume we create a better community with similar goals and priorities.”