Politics on the Band Stand
The group is setting up, the drummer staking their claim on the band stand and the rest of the rhythm section is loading in. The horn players are complaining about reeds, warming up chops, organizing music, and other rituals finally honed over years of performing. The singers are, well, not there yet. The band leader is micromanaging and worrying with the latest changes the wedding planner has just informed them of at the last minute. It is a dance you have danced a hundred times. The latest jokes, occasional passing of the flask (I know GASP!) and a few comments about what, if anything, will be fed to the band. And then, it happens. Someone is angered by some event and start a string of political comments, fiercely defending their position and talking loud enough for most to hear. Maybe they are seeking approval or seeking like minded musicians? There are some that agree and jump into the fray. Maybe one or two people have opposing views speak up, and now it is a mess. Common themes, opinions and 'facts' fly about the band stand and lines are clearly drawn in the sand.
In this ever contentious political climate, it seems the lines in the sand are more like trenches with little hope in sight for reconciliation. We approach one another as rival sports fans would, venomous and angrily defending our team. We do not listen to other points of view and strive only to support our viewpoint and overlook glaring hypocrisies in our arguments. We are sanctimonious in our positions and justify our opinions at every cost. We manipulate facts and shape them to support our causes. We are quick to attack one another like boxers or MMA fighters in the ring.
I was on a gig during the last election cycle. The sax player next to me started as soon as they showed up with blistering viewpoints about one of the candidates. A 3 hour gig became a 3 hour diatribe about every aspect of the candidate and the political party associated with said candidate. I tried my best to get away from the individual, however just about every break between tunes were filled with that person's opinions. I pleaded a couple of times that I prefer to keep politics off of the band stand, but to no avail. If you know me, you also know that I have a history of being clear about what I am thinking or feeling, often at the cost of tact. Somehow I kept it together this gig, but it was brutal.
In short, shut your damn mouth. I, and many, do not give one scintilla of what you think about politics. You are pissing some of us off and in this litigious society, can no longer punch you in the face. I get it, you are upset. I get it, it is important that you voice your opinion. Let me give you a heads up...
YOU ARE NOT CHANGING ANYONE'S MIND THAT DISAGREES WITH YOU! YOU ARE JUST PISSING THEM OFF AND S****ING ON THE GIG! IF SOMEONE AGREES WITH YOUR VIEWPOINT, THEN YOU ARE DOING NOTHING MORE THAN CARESSING EACH ONE'S EGO! THE REST OF US COULD CARE LESS WHAT YOU THINK AND WISH YOU WOULD SHUT THE HELL UP!!!!
Look, I am not saying that music cannot be a powerful voice in our culture and yes in even in our politics. There is a long history of music and the impact it can have on changes in our society. I am not saying that music is not important as a medium for change. I love Rage Against the Machine, even though it is clear they apparently only rage against one side of the machine. They suspiciously never target the machine when it does not serve their political viewpoints and frankly, the political party they support. That is hypocrisy and how ironic is it one of my favorite lyrics from one of their songs is "Fist in the Air in the Land of Hypocrisy". Regardless, protest music, politically charged music, music against societal injustices, these are all a vital part of our history. I get that and often like much of it.
Music, and in my opinion all art, can and should be an important part of the cultural landscape. It can serve as the voice of the voiceless, the inspiration that brings about change. It brings people together in a unified front, an anthem as it were. (Funny how only one side of a viewpoint seems to gain traction or promotion in our society, but honestly I do not think that belittles the importance of music and art in social change and/or protest). Music is a reflection of our culture, and is what our society deems important enough to say about itself.
I am not talking about musicians getting on TV and voicing their political views as if they are some sort of authority. I could care less. You can lie to me about your political views if the music inspires me or motivates me in some way that speaks to me. If I dig it, I like it and frankly do not care what your intentions are.
That being said, this is not what I am talking about in this blog. Politics in music is important and should be fostered and encouraged. But politics on the band stand, in my opinion, is quite different. We are brought together to make some music together. (and make rent money of course) Most of us do not even speak to each other when we are not playing together. Many of us are friends and the gig becomes a reunion of sorts. Music brings us together, sometimes if just the pursuit of paying bills, and offers us the chance to work with various types of musicians and musical backgrounds. That to me is such a beautiful thing. When the divisiveness of the political climate ends up spewed all over the band stand, that unifying thing is destroyed.
To the jazz people out there, I was under the impression that jazz was music that did not discriminate. Isn't that the history of the music? People with different ethnicities, gender, religion, social status, disabilities, etc were judged only by their ability to play. If you can play, you were equal. The music is blind, regardless of the musicians. Sure, there were many musicians that had very strong opinions politically, socially, economically, etc, but the performance was void of that. I am sure there are exceptions to that impression. I am sure there were many cases where controversial viewpoints were voiced during the set up of the gig. I am not blind enough to think that was not the case. That being said, and to the heart of this blog, is this:
Performing music provides us the opportunity to show how people can come together to make something beautiful. Instead of promoting the hate and division soaked in our political system, can we focus on the joy of what is possible when all kinds of people and viewpoints can come together in the pursuit of something?
I recently spoke up to a very famous and powerful person in jazz about the topic of promoting division over unity. Instead of using the person's position and global exposure for bringing us all together in the love and pursuit of this music, the person chose to consistently present very strong political viewpoints to its client base. The political viewpoint was more important than the spirit of the music. Bad business aside, having that type of reach globally only to squander the opportunity to reach across so many divisions for something unifying is a real travesty. Where is our voice of love? Can we not disagree and still come together and create something wonderful? Why can't we support and promote that instead of topics and opinions that divide us further?
I toured and performed several concerts with a musician that could not have been more opposite than I on just about everything. Off of the bandstand we literally had nothing in common. However, when we stepped on the bandstand, all of those things were left to the side. I cannot remember one instance that our disagreements ever permeated the stage. The chemistry that musician and I shared was, in my opinion, incredibly rare. We seemed to know what the other was thinking, and the music we made was magical. The audience knew it, our fellow musicians knew it, and we knew it. Impossible to explain, but one of my most cherished musical collaborations. We understood that off the bandstand, we more or less disliked and barely tolerated one another. We left that off the bandstand, and the experience was what I think separates art and music (specifically jazz) from other forms of communication. The music was more important than what we felt and thought. The stage was no place to point out the issues we had with one another, and we both knew it.
I look forward to playing with people that leave politics and other highly charged topics off of the bandstand. Music is a chance for me to come together with other people and create something special. I could be playing with people that are completely opposite of me, my viewpoints, opinions, or lifestyle and never know it. In the end, who cares what you or I think. Can I play? Can you? If I am surprised that you like to think you are a baseball bat reincarnated as a bass player and feel very passionate about the designated hitter being the best thing to the sport than so be it. I may disagree, as the designated hitter is clearly a creation of Lucifer, but man that duet we just played was incredible. Thank you for leaving that crazy shit off the bandstand, and please, get help soon.