But anyone alive in Laos could tell you that it certainly took place, all the attendant psychological and physical damage of war with it. And still, Ellington travelled there. He played in the midst of pain and violence, both of which jazz was already very well-acquainted with. But, as our musicians can attest to today, the joy of the music survived the storm of detonations.
Humans have this incredible ability to comprehend the non-linear, to find structure in senselessness, to accept the perplexing, to feel tens of emotions at once and experience beauty in the throes of adversity.
Humans have this incredible ability to comprehend the non-linear, to find structure in senselessness, to accept the perplexing, to feel tens of emotions at once and experience beauty in the throes of adversity. But it's not just that we have the ability to know these contradictions. We need them, if we want to even begin to find a vocabulary that can speak to the full range of human experience. So, if jazz is to be a method of communication across cultures and generations, contradiction must be at its heart as much as it is at the heart of humanity.
...demanding and freeing to play,
jazz recognizes that life does not happen
in lines on a page...
Both demanding and freeing to play, jazz recognizes that life does not happen in lines on a page, and much as we may try, it can never fully be transcribed. While syncopation takes us to the spaces between, improvisation takes us beyond. Each piece played is, of course, very personal, rarely performed the same way twice. Soloists simultaneously honor history and claim the music as their own — bringing it to a place both intimately known and completely new. Yet, when musicians perform with a band or in front of an audience, the music becomes a conversation, a give and take, a route to community and deeper comprehension.
But despite, or perhaps because of, its ability to perform transcendent communication, jazz has never been solely about bringing people together.
But despite, or perhaps because of, its ability to perform transcendent communication, jazz has never been solely about bringing people together. Its ability to get at raw truths, to call out and actively oppose hatred and discrimination, means that jazz has never gone unchallenged. In its early days, it was seen as risqué, provocative, and in some circles even dangerous — which is what made it all the more appealing to the youth of the time and what makes it all the more relevant, today.
Throughout its history, jazz has been the soundtrack to scores of social movements. But they are not a thing of the past. Now more than ever, as our country undertakes a much-needed reckoning with racism, the history of jazz reminds us that positive transformation begins with disruption and determination. And this is, indeed, only a beginning, for honesty is never silent, and change is never static. Rarely, is it easy. But, thankfully, jazz has never been the type to sit quietly and ask permission before speaking.
This brings us to the present. Using jazz to amplify the voices working to create beauty in our complex world, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Legacies of War and ARTICLE22 come together to build community in unexpected ways. At the nexus of art and activism, ARTICLE22 transforms Vietnam War shrapnel and scrap into jewelry; each piece helps clear some of the 80 million unexploded bombs contaminating the Laotian landscape. Like ARTICLE22, Legacies of War provides space for healing the wounds of war and creating greater hope for a peaceful future by using art, culture, education, community organizing and dialogue to increase awareness of the history of bombing in Laos and advocate for the clearance of unexploded bombs. History is also at the heart of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem’s mission to preserve, promote and present jazz by inspiring knowledge, appreciation and the celebration of the music locally, nationally and internationally.
As individuals and communities, we each have the privilege and the responsibility to listen, arguably the most important part of any good conversation.
Whether it be by using jewelry made from shrapnel to start conversations about war and its consequences, clearing Laos of war scrap to make communities safer, or stimulating hearts and minds with the music of jazz, we have the power to shape the future because history is now. As individuals and communities, we each have the privilege and the responsibility to listen, arguably the most important part of any good conversation. To listen, not just now, but always — for jazz and its truths have a way of showing up at unexpected times and unexpected places. Who knows where we may find it?
Photo from Meridian.org Duke Ellington The Keys to Diplomacy