Jazz in times of peril

Jazz can teach us how to better cope and perhaps even triumph November 18, 2001


In the wake of terrorist attacks, Anthrax, and periodic warnings from government officials to prepare for more, Americans report continuing feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and fear. The economy is slowing and our sense of personal and national security has been challenged. In such times, it’s tempting to look to the arts for comfort.

And music certainly can offer both the solace or the patriotic fervor some seek. But jazz — though it can also inspire and provide succor — offers something perhaps more useful in times of peril. Jazz presents a model of how to cope with and triumph in conditions of uncertainty.


In an interview with the Oregonian the day after the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, who was in Salem with his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, said there was no need to change his group’s repertoire in response to the events of September 11. “No,” he said, because “jazz has always been at this point.”

The “point” to which Marsalis referred — this new era of jeopardy and national uncertainty — is similar to the late 19-century historical conditions of personal insecurity and chronic threat faced by African-American jazz pioneers. Recall, for instance, the Creole musicians in New Orleans who, accustomed to playing in symphony orchestras and enjoying the rights accorded white Americans, woke one morning in 1892 to find that new laws had reclassified them as “Negro,” and henceforth they would be unable to live and work as they once had.

More important for us today, however, is the fact that every jazz performance replicates that historical drama artistically. So Marsalis was also referring to the “point” where jazz musicians always situate themselves, the improvisational situation in which the player is deliberately put at risk.


To improvise means to compose and perform simultaneously. Though players in the classic jazz tradition often follow parts of a written composition, they are usually free to change any aspect of it, from melody to rhythm. This allows them to make up the music as they go, spontaneously responding to the conditions of the moment. That includes responding to their bandmates, whose mutual freedom creates a situation in which players, in order to craft a unified musical experience, must react to each other as well as to the underlying tune.

The jazz musician places him or herself in a complex and shifting soundscape where surprise and originality are expected. There, the individual must create meaning and structure anew in each performance. This approach amounts to a practical American existentialism, in which the highest values are self-affirmation and improvised responses to changing conditions.

In jazz, challenge and opportunity are inseparable. And that pretty well describes the situation of Americans today. What, then, can we learn from the jazz player that will serve us?


First, jazz teaches that we must live in the here and now. Bassist Glen Moore, of the group Oregon, once described playing the music this way: “It’s like plumbing. You’re connecting all these pipes together in a pattern, but there’s water in the pipes.”

In jazz, the only direction is forward, the only time is now. As Portland pianist and jazz professor Darrell Grant says, “The premise of the music is that we be prepared to address the present moment.”

Jazz shows us that freedom is both opportunity and challenge. To create order while allowing individual expression is the dilemma. The success of an artist’s solution to that problem is determined by its elegance, emotional expressiveness and collaborative potential.

Thus the joy and vitality we hear in the best jazz is the sweet sound of individual freedom meshing cleanly with group unity, of a new order being discovered at the brink of chaos.

“When we traveled to Russia with Paul Horn in 1983, before there were many public jazz performances in the USSR,” guitarist John Stowell recalls, “one woman came up to us and said the music told her to ‘stay free and try to be happy.'”

Ah yes, happy and free. Will Americans ever feel that way again? Jazz can show us how to get there, but the route won’t take us back to what we once were. Like the jazz musician, we’ll need to embrace uncertainty and learn to improvise in unfamiliar territory.

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