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Jazz Riffing History: Building Cosmopolitanism One Song at a Time

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Jazz critic and memoirist Nate Chinen recently wrote in the New York Times about the influence of bloggers on the development of a revised history of jazz. Reacting to Branford Marsalis's opinion, cited in the Chinen's piece, that after the Vietnam war, jazz went into a period of decline bordering on disappearance, musician bloggers contributed to a remarkable, and remarkably rapid, cataloguing of nearly-forgotten musical gems, providing a swift, strong, and loud counterpoint to Marsalis' claim.

Chinen recounts the process of revision as follows: jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas reported on his blog about the impact that reading Philip Jenkins's Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America had on him. The book made him think that the eruption and expansion of conservatism beginning in the middle of the 1970s might have short-changed the history of jazz and he called for a "new jazz history that would acknowledge a 'generation of multiplicity,' beginning in 1974 and stretching to the end of the cold war." (Times, Dec. 6, 2006, B10 ) In time, musician bloggers responded and different sites began to compile a veritable treasure trove of recordings, jointly documenting and demonstrating the multiplicity Douglas called for.

How this all happened, and happened so rapidly, speaks to the power of the Internet to resurrect, celebrate, and share histories and counter-histories. But it also speaks to the power of jazz itself, that beautifully interdisciplinary and collaborative original American musical genre. Both as metaphor and reality, jazz embodies the power of playing together, with and through the inspiration of others, building a world of rich plurality filled with singular voices out of sound and image and sometimes word and the amplitude created through their interweaving.

I visited some of the sites Chinen mentioned in his piece. At Destination: Out I discovered an article and some tracks by trumpeter Bill Dixon from his Considerations I: 1972-76 album. "Long Alone Song" managed to make me feel his playing as the musical embodiment of thinking itself. A solo piece, it had an uncanny ability to sound full even in the quietest moments. Listening to it was like listening to the space between things and as I did I realized another insight in between the lines of Chinen's essay.

Throughout the decades since the 1960s, for which I remain nostalgic, all sorts of folks were challenging established ways of thinking and being, working against the grain of what was self-legitimated as "normal." Whether it was the continued civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay rights and queer movement, environmentalism, or the rise of new media and new arts, many people in many places were broadening our understanding of what it means to be human, living in a world filled with those who are just like us, that is, human, every one of whom are, at the same time, unique and different from everyone else.

Maybe now, when it sometimes seems like we're on a ride to the future and someone's forgotten how to manage the controls, we need to remind ourselves about everything that happened in the decades since 1974 when nothing supposedly happened. Maybe now more than ever, we need to assemble a kind of counter-catalogue of all the people and events and movements that have continued to offer a contrapuntal, richly layered, alternative set of social, cultural, ethical, spiritual, and political practices. And maybe, out of the jazz score we could make of those elements and play together we could discover how to do what Kwame Anthony Appiah called on us to do in Cosmopolitanism: "to take minds and hearts formed over the long millenia of living [and playing] in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become." (xiii)

This is a call to all bloggers and other writers and activists to contribute to that effort and engage in lively, public discourse about it. Let's do it open-mindedly, collaboratively, and with respect. But first, go listen to that track by Bill Dixon. Then, take a deep breath, and get to work.

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