That Public Thing

Jazz can teach us a thing or two about being a community.

For many years, I've worked by day in the nonprofit arts and culture sector, interested in issues of equity and civic engagement, and by night as a jazz musician. Folks I've known have often remarked on the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-otherness of these professional poles.

But after thinking hard about how we construct community, I've realized that my conceptions of community and the public realm are deeply informed by the inclusiveness and idiosyncratic individuality that were passed on to me by the jazz community—musicians with names like Mr. Smooth, Cornbread, Cee-Po, Wild Bill, Mild Bill, Old Floyd, Cap'n Jack, and Jimmieapolis.

Jazz has a rich legacy of collective joy and exemplifies a microcosm of successful democracy in action, despite over-the-top characterizations such as one from a 1921 Ladies Home Journal article that indicted jazz for being, “barbaric in color, savage in gyrating motion, stupefying the optic nerves and conveying to the brain confused messages of underwear, chewing gum, and automobile parts.” Jazz puts a premium on listening, conversation, and the art of asking questions, and, as civic innovator Peter Block reminds us, “Questions create the space for something new to emerge.”

The questions that jazz asks are comparable to the ones you'd pose about how to live actively in a neighborhood or community: How much risk are you willing to take? How participative do you plan to be? How much are you invested in the well-being of the whole?

As opposed to just being a subterranean culture of cool, jazz is deeply concerned with participation and community and puts great stock in risk, collaboration, and the importance of individual voice and multiple perspectives. In fact, it might be a good analogue for how communities can work more cooperatively and collaboratively.

Seen in this light, jazz is a fantastic prism through which to understand the complex taffy-pull between the individual and the community, rich in street-level self-reliance and a DIY spirit that is as deeply American as Emerson—and it just may be a model for living together and navigating change when neither seems possible. Suddenly the alternate democratic galaxies of John Dewey and Ornette Coleman seem not so far apart.

Jazz, like democracy, is grounded in an art of the possible—the ultimate “yes, and.” Jazz thrives by impetuously embracing George Bernard Shaw's famous quote, “I hear you say ‘Why?' Always ‘Why?' You see things; and you say ‘Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?'” Whether improvising on familiar melodies or creating instant compositions out of the air, consensus and consilience come into being through listening and a sense of accountability where, to borrow from Block, intimate and authentic relatedness is experienced, the world is shifted through invitation rather than mandate, diversity of thinking and dissent are given space, the focus is on the communal possibility; commitments are made without barter, and the gifts of each person and our community are acknowledged and valued.

A jazz performance is a great illustration of how the parts needn't wage war on the whole. From the quiet and self-effacing, foundation-laying bassist and tickle-and-bounce piano players to those unholstering saxophone sheriffs who slash at melodic spaces, worry notes, and excite silence with the oceanic force of Jackson Pollock ripping the john door off the Cedar Tavern—it takes, as my Grandma Honey would say, all kinds to make the world go round. In that instance, Jerome Kern's “All the Things You Are” invites a universe of choices, with finite beginning and end, where consent must be mutually assured and nurtured, not merely mandated or manufactured from on high—but where the questions and the journey are more transformative than the answers or any known destination.

The sympathetic magic that takes place in the thirty-two bars of a jazz standard is inherently inclusive; leadership is collaborative and flexible by nature—and more often than not responds to change with equally collaborative and collective energy, producing resolution and surprisingly harmonious results for those involved. “Jazz groups,” notes writer Paul Berliner, “simply treat performance errors as compositional problems that require instant, collective solutions, in some cases, the skillful mending of one another's performances.”

What are some of the other values that might be transferable between jazz and the public realm? Taking turns: soloing, buoying others with support. Shared values and vision: nurturing a sense of commitment and a common idea of the future. Collaborative learning: risk begets learning; if there's no chance of failing, there's no chance of learning. Empathic listening (sometimes called reflective or active listening): a bridge to mutual understanding that allows us to play in “all the keys.” Call and response, theme and variations, riffing, or musical barn-raising—all these values make us better improvisers and help us thrive in a society where uncertainty, flux, and fluidity are givens.

Ultimately the music, a shared tradition, and deep listening help establish our residency within what Robert Bellah refers to in Habits of the Heart as a “community of memory”:


People growing up in communities of memory not only hear the stories that tell how the community came to be, what its hopes and fears are, and how its ideals are exemplified in outstanding men and women; they also participate in the practices—ritual, aesthetic, ethical—that define the community as a way of life. We call these ‘practices of commitment': for they define the patterns of loyalty and obligation that keep the community alive.


In his book Thinking in Jazz, Paul Berliner writes, “from the outset an artist's ongoing personal performance history entwines with jazz's artistic tradition, allowing for a mutual absorption and exchange of ideas … [and] complementary themes of shared community values and idiosyncratic musical perspectives.”

These practices of commitment create “that public thing,” which Hannah Arendt says, “gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other.” Uncertainty—what will we do next?—is more blessing than curse. It's bottom-up, self-organizing as a high art: maximal freedoms within minimal structures, girded by common purpose, dependent on taking turns, a balance between risk taking and caretaking and a trust in a process that nurtures, rather than manufactures, consent. One of the most direct lessons that connects the improviser's craft to the community builders' is a path that encourages us to live in an open, evolutionary spirit.

Social philosopher Mary Parker Follett, a contemporary of John Dewey, had the soul of an improviser and seemed to innately understand creativity and collaboration (and she just may have been the first person to utter the phrase “the practice of community”). Her thinking is every bit as vital to the literature of civic engagement as it is to group creativity. For Follett, “community is a creative process,” one that supports collective will, but is rife with spontaneity and freedom and aids in “unifying the differings.”

“The greatest contribution a citizen can make,” writes Follett, “is to learn creative thinking, that is, to learn how to join his thought with that of others so that the issue shall be productive. … The most familiar example of integrating as the social process is when two or three people meet to decide on some course of action, and separate with a purpose, a will, which was not possessed by anyone when he came to the meeting but is the result of the interweaving of all.” That is jazz in a nutshell.

Jazz maintains a sense of continuum and renewal because of its rich social history, its vibrant stories, and because, over the past century, it mirrored the hard-fought civil rights struggle for progress, justice, and collective joy. In philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's view, every practice that operates within a system of shared values requires a certain relationship among those who participate in it, and such practices can't help but instill “civic virtues.” As MacIntyre writes, “We have to learn to recognize what is due to whom; we have to be prepared to take whatever self-endangering risks are demanded along the way … to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage, and honesty.” We carry those virtues forward with a certain weight and honor for past, present, and future.

For most of the past fifty years, jazz has been fairly good at tending its seedbeds, investing in what John W. Gardner once described as “systems that provide for their own continuous renewal”—perennially bringing the latest bright crop of young talent into the fold and initiating them, not only to the architecture of the music, but to the responsibilities of carrying tradition and craft forward. Communities need to do the same thing. One of the keys to this is how we issue invitations and engage true hospitality. “Hospitality,” says Henri Nouwen, “is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place … to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. … The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness—not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free.”

Perhaps college jazz programs should include a class on community organizing, because even as the pedagogy has become professionalized and codified, the responsibilities to the larger community are at risk of being lost. The notion of neighborhood and social contract, the handing down of oral tradition—these are vital to the establishment of a connected life beyond the notes and the art. Or as George Lewis notes in A Power Stronger Than Itself, his history of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the need to embrace “a notion of collectivity and collaboration rather than a concentration on a heroic individual.”

Mr. Smooth, Cornbread, and Jimmieapolis of St. Paul welcomed me into a foreign world that taught me to consider community and quality of life, to respect difference while embracing resilience and change. Those values were passed on like a cool-school version of Emerson's Over-Soul, that binding energy that connects us to others, that recognizes the divine in the smallest of gestures. Being responsible for the stewardship of gifts, the elasticity of tradition, and innovation is part of the social contract of jazz. The gesture and exchange between players and audience, between the individual and the community, between past and present heightens our belonging both to this thing called jazz and to the world around us.

At the end of the day, successful jazz performances and successful communities engage in similar ways—they both value “Why not?” over fiat. Whether we're talking about community planning, navigating the commons, or playing jazz, the evolution of an idea blossoms and is allowed to flourish when we recognize that, as Ornette Coleman once said, “there are as many unisons as there are stars in the sky.”


Art and Music, Civic Life, Community


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Also in this Issue

The Image and Act of Communion

Uprockin' the Rose City

That Public Thing

Legally White

The Olde Towne Team

Second-Chance Family

Unimaginable Riches