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Jazz Journal

It’s a summer Monday, I’ve been away for a few days, the emails and Facebook posts have accumulated, and I am saddened—and frightened—by the events in Charlottesville. I attended a peaceful rally and stood with uptown New York City neighbors of every ethnicity and age, some carrying candles or signs, a new literary genre since 45 was elected. I am sure someone will eventually collect them into a book.

I began this blog post thinking about free speech vs. hate speech, and how propaganda—words and images—are often prequels to violent action, an historical truism. Hitler’s “willing executioners,” as Daniel Goldhagen, a Harvard historian called the ordinary people of Germany during Hitler’s rise, are too easily led, too unquestioning, too virulent in their verbal expressions of loathing and exclusion. Hatred obliterates conscience, humanity and rational thought. And this being unequivocally true, a bizarre question surfaced in my writer’s mind: I wonder if bigots listen to jazz? And, if not, what is their music of choice?

I listen to all kinds of music, but it is only jazz—its melodies and riffs, the improvisation of the next unscripted note—that satisfies during hard times. And this has been true for me since high school. Only my really cool friends listened to jazz on the all-night station in New York, unbeknownst to our parents, of course. We were supposed to be sleeping, not talking on the phone about the latest Jimmy Breslin editorial in the New York Post, or listening to the radio. We were going to a progressive, politically engaged school. Andrew Goodman, an alumnus, had just been murdered during a voter registration drive in Mississippi, a murder that remained unsolved until 2004.

Jazz. I spent my late adolescent years in Boston, New York and San Francisco, in affordable jazz clubs instead of rock clubs. For the price of one drink, we could stay into the night and all night. Jazz lovers and jazz clubs were integrated. What an amazing word! Some of the musicians were white, some were black. Did it matter where the music originated? Yes and no. Its African and slave origins were embedded. Tunes held the pain of the Middle Passage, the celebration of survival, hope for the future. The British imitators I knew when I lived in London—George Melly, Johnnie Dankworth, Cleo Laine, in particular—were in awe of its power and did their best to honor the musical tradition, making their own contributions.

So I ask again: do bigots listen to jazz? Should we pipe this indigenous American music through the air ducts of offices and bus stations, supermarkets and Walmarts? And, if we could do this, would a bigot’s brain waves shift from hatred to love? Would they begin to absorb the true meaning and promise of America? Would they stand down and turn in their guns?
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