My father was a teacher, my mama was a community worker, I taught in so many schools. So when you get that experience of how to communicate with younger people, put that hand on them and give them that old-school feeling, the maturity and adult, a lot of our kids just need the feeling of that love, and that's the frame of reference that I teach from and that's the frame of reference that all of our musicians in the Jazz at Lincoln Center.
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Many heroic things happened during slavery. And remember that there was a national movement away from it even at the time. The era of Reconstruction and then the subsequent dismantling of Reconstruction sent us in a tailspin. Then we had the Civil Rights movement. Now we have our first non-white president. We have a pattern of moving apart and then coming back together throughout the history of this country. Each time, we come closer.
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I noticed that religion gave some people a way to escape dealing with the world: 'Things will be better when you die, ' the people of my grandma's generation said as they worked themselves to death. 'God wants you to forgive and love those who do you wrong, ' some people said to shake off the shame of being unable to respond to the abuse they endured. The holier-than-thou faction found comfort in believing, 'The rest of y'all are lost because you don't have a personal relationship with God-our God.' But art engages you in the world, not just the world around you but the big world, and not just the big world of Tokyo and Sydney and Johannesburg, but the bigger world of ideas and concepts and feelings of history and humanity.
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Today you go into make a modern recording with all this technology. The bass plays first, then the drums come in later, then they track the trumpet and the singer comes in and they ship the tape somewhere. Well, none of the musicians have played together. You can't play jazz music that way. In order for you to play jazz, you've got to listen to them. The music forces you at all times to address what other people are thinking and for you to interact with them with empathy and to deal with the process of working things out. And that's how our music really could teach what the meaning of American democracy is.
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The thing in jazz that will get Bix Beiderbecke out of his bed at two o'clock in the morning, pick that cornet up and practice into the pillow for another two or three hours, or that would make Louis Armstrong travel around the world for fifty plus years non stop, just get up out of his sick bed, crawl up on the bandstand and play, the thing that would make Duke Ellington, the thing that would make Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, the thing that would make all of these people give their lives for this, and they did give their lives, is that it gives us a glimpse into what America is going to be when it becomes itself. And this music tells you that it will become itself. And when you get a taste of that, there's just nothing else you're going to taste that's as sweet.
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He [Benny Carter] is all that every jazz musician the world over wants to be. He's performed 20,000 nights. How many shoes have been shined? How much mascara put on? Rouge? How many of those impossible bowties have been tied? How many love songs have been sung? How many dances have been danced? How many have passed to the sound of his music? It's been said that a man should not be forced to live up to his art. Benny Carter is one of the rare instances when we wonder whether the great art that a man has created can live up to him.
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I feel that for years of teaching in the country and reading criticism in books, I feel like the things most needed in our culture are the understanding of the meanings of our music. We haven't done that good of job teaching our kids what our music means or how we developed our taste in music that reminds us and teaches us who we are.
I travel up and down the country and I've been all around the middle of America for many years. Middle America is not one big mass of people with a proverbial beer in its hand, keeping the country down. That is not my experience of it and I don't labor under that misconception. And we have a long tradition of coming together through music in our country.
Swing is extreme coordination. It's a maintaining balance, equilibrium. It's about executing very difficult rhythms with a panache and a feeling in the context of very strict time. So, everything about the swing is about some guideline and some grid and the elegant way that you negotiate your way through that grid.
It's really not a stretch. The checks and balances are the same. The drums are the executive branch. The jazz orchestra is the legislative branch. Logic and reason are like jazz solos. The bass player is the judicial branch. One our greatest ever is Milt Hinton, and his nickname is "The Judge."
It's like we're suffering from an identity crisis, and that identity is in our arts and the fact that we don't find it chief amongst our agendas to teach our kids who we are as a nation and the battles we've had on this ground and how they've been successfully resolved. We can't enjoy the fruits of the labor of our ancestors.
Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance. It's about a man and a woman. So the pain and the struggle in the blues is that universal pain that comes from having your heart broken. Most blues songs are not about social statements.
As long as there is democracy, there will be people wanting to play jazz because nothing else will ever so perfectly capture the democratic process in sound. Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don't agree with what they're playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all.
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What takes its place is very dry education. And the tools that actually can teach you - singing and playing, learning how to participate with other people, spiritual richness - are replaced with a big emphasis on how to memorize things. That's such an incomplete education. Survival of the fittest used to mean being bigger and stronger.
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As you get older - for example, in our band we have members of our orchestra, like Carlos Enriquez and Ali Jackson and Walter Blanning. I taught them when they were in high school, and now they teach me.I'll regularly call Ali and say, "Man, can you break this rhythm down for me?" Or Carlos was actually our music director in Cuba, and he's been instrumental in a lot of my education, and I started to develop a saying with them, because they tease me all the time - you get older, you have that familiar relationship - I say, "You have to follow your young leadership, too."
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I'm not a person who writes really abstract things with oblique references. I look at abstraction like I look at condiments. Give me some Tabasco sauce, some ketchup, some mayonnaise. I love all of that. Put it on a trumpet. I've just got to have the ketchup and Tabasco sauce. That's my attitude about musical philosophy.
When those who are educated using their education to exploit those who aren't. That's what the sub-prime scandal represents - people of education using it at the expense of others. At Jazz at Lincoln Center, we have 22 educational programs. Not just the word but the substance of education is guided by the arts.
When I came to New York, to Brooklyn, I met Alvin Ailey and Stanley Crouch and August Wilson. They were always putting things in a philosophical context. All the great jazz musicians did, too. There was always a sub-context to what they were saying about music even though they would be very down home and earthy. So I started to develop, in addition to my power and ability to simply hear, a way to place myself in a time.
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Jazz celebrates older generations and not just the youth movement. When you "sell" only to people of a certain age, you get cut off from the main body of experience. The power of couple dancing and courtship, it's elegant, and you wouldn't realize America was once a nation of dancers and singers today. People of all races could dance and sing.
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I worry more about the marketing that's taken hold since the 70s. The Jazz era, the Swing era, those were huge. Entire decades were named for music. In the 1940s - after World War II - changes in taxation, ballrooms closing, people moving to the suburbs, and the onset of target marketing and the confusion of commerce with art caused some things to happen as a result that have taken us away from jazz and what jazz offers us.
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Jazz music is America's past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.
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Certain music, jazz in particular, has the ability to make you a better citizen of the world. It helps you expand your world view and gives you more confidence in your cultural achievements. Improvisational jazz teaches you about yourself while the swing in jazz teaches you how to work with others
We fight for territory. We see it in our Congress, we see it in our political systems, we see it in our ways of life, how separated we are. When we moved out of the cities and we lost all of the memory that was in cities, and we - one of the highest achievements in our culture is to be able to segregate yourself from everyone else, and the deep thing is the deepest punishment is solitary confinement.
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We don't have the leadership or the understanding of the value of this, and when your political systems and your economic systems start to fail, it's only a cultural understanding that allows you to reconstruct them and to get back to who you are. For some reason, it hasn't dawned on us yet.
When I did the Abyssinian mass, I went through the whole history of the church music and the gospel music, even with the Anglo American hymns, the Afro American hymns, the spirituals and how it developed, up to Thomas Dorsey and the Dixie Hummingbirds, going through the history of the music, jazz musicians.
New Orleans had a great tradition of celebration. Opera, military marching bands, folk music, the blues, different types of church music, ragtime, echoes of traditional African drumming, and all of the dance styles that went with this music could be heard and seen throughout the city. When all of these kinds of music blended into one, jazz was born.
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I get so much from having the opportunity to interface with the younger people and to bring information to them and to represent our culture and our way of life. The feeling and the warmth and the love, it's unbelievable. The type of exchange that goes on between students and teachers or visiting people who are doing master classes, and not just when they're musicians. Even general classes, when the students are not necessarily musicians.
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I remember when I wrote a piece, "Blood on the Fields," it was a while ago, it was about slavery and about two characters, and I studied so much of music, I would always go back to the original documents, and as much as I can get original chants and slave chants and different type of beats and rhythms and ring shout.
When you study our greatest artists, you will find that they give us a key to understand how to deal with each other, and that our bloodlines are intertwined. It's not hyphenated America. That there is an America, and it is expressed in those arts. It gives us a key to figure out how to negotiate with each other, and it tells us actually who we are.
You can reach a situation where things of intelligence and refinement and culture can be considered elite, and things that are crass and ignorant can be considered to be real and of the people. And when you begin to have the mass of populus striving for something that's not worth striving for, then tremendous amounts of energy go into...the maintenance of that which is worthless.
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