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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