Jazz & Democracy
On Saturday August 15th and Sunday August 16th, the Montavilla Neighborhood Association (MNA) will host their second annual Montavilla Jazz Festival. Taking place at Portland Metro Arts (on SE 90th and Stark St), the festival brings together neighbors and music lovers to enjoy originally composed, progressive, Portland-based jazz. With 13 bands and an expected attendance of over 400, this festival’s scope and scale makes it unique among events sponsored by neighborhood associations.
The Montavilla Jazz Festival is more than a music festival. As the MNA chair and co-organizer of the festival, Fritz Hirsch, put it, it’s an example of “people working together to create something that is bigger than themselves.”
At MNA’s Jazz Festival participants can learn the art of community collaboration while grooving to the soulful sounds of musicians like Alan Jones Sextet, Darrell Grant All 4 Naught, Ian Christensen Quartet, Tim Willcox’s Superjazzers, and David Friesen Circle 3 Trio.
What can a jazz band teach us about working together? How can musicians help us negotiate the tension between individualism and the common good? Moreover, how do the two distinct and seemingly unrelated worlds of jazz and democracy relate, both historically and metaphorically?
Jazz was Born in the Shadow of Democracy
Jazz was born in New Orleans in the late 19th to early 20th century as a result of its rich ethnic diversity, anti-black legislation, and violent racism. During the time when jazz first emerged, African American’s legal and social status and chances for equality were becoming increasingly limited. In Portland, the jazz scene also emerged during the time when our black community faced discriminatory housing policies and other forms of structural and institutional racism.
In both New Orleans and Portland, jazz emerged as a means of giving voice to the voiceless. It provided respect, acknowledgement, and recognition to the individual and it allowed for collective creation, which challenged the traditional concepts of power and race. It is no coincidence that the descendants of african slaves created jazz, the most democratic music, while being denied access to the United States democratic process.
The history embedded in jazz is the essence of democracy – freedom within structure, tension between individual and community, diffusion of power, and the necessity of multiple perspectives.
Jazz as a Metaphor for Democracy
Jazz is all about improvisation. The process of improvisation involves composing on the spot within a flexible framework. Improvisation requires participants to express their individual voices and creativity, while creating a cohesive whole. Both democracy and jazz are expressions of freedom within structure. Jazz soloists are empowered within a framework determined by the group, just as citizens are provided self determination and liberty within the laws set by people in a democracy.
Notice the balance between structure and improv in this video of the George Colligan Quartet (a Montavilla Jazz Festival artist). When Damian Erskine takes the first soloing pass (at minute 1:36), you can see how the other musicians take a step back and make room, while still maintaining the supporting form and accenting his key phrases.
Both jazz and democracy require that power is diffused and shared. In the U.S., each branch of our democracy has an unique role – similar to how each musician has a role – and some power over the other two branches. This system ensures that no branch goes unchecked.
In both jazz and democracy, the diffusion of power and the constraint of liberty within structure create an inherent tension between the individual and community. This tension is defined by the conflicting importance of individual voice and the larger whole. Jazz musicians show us that resolving this tension is not the goal. The goal is to embrace and even value this tension as an asset. Because how musicians meld their differences in collectively creating determines their musical outcomes. Similarly, how citizens work together determines the success of our democracy.
Improve your Improvisations
To embrace the tension – to contribute to something larger than ourselves, while not losing our authentic voice – both citizens within a democracy and jazz musicians must first and foremost above all else listen, listen, listen, and then respond.
Agreeing with one another isn’t necessary, or even ideal since diversity of thinking is beneficial. Instead, we only need to be open to engaging in the dialogue, the back and forth, and to leave space for something new to emerge.
A jazz performance is a great illustration of one way to fuse different ideas to solve complex problems, problems like homelessness, housing affordability, and density, that currently face SE Portland. Check out the Montavilla Jazz Festival to see some impressive improvisation and how dialogue, a common purpose, and group discovery can fuse divergent voices into music that is greater than the sum of its parts.
By: Kelly Fedderson
Community Resource Program Manager
Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition
(503) 232-0010 ext. 312