jazz communitarianism...

"Musical communitarianism in America has a long and wonderfully eccentric history." Now that is a sentence that resonates with me! (Spirits Rejoice!, Jason Bivins, p. 112)  In his chapter, "Urban Magic: Jazz Communitarianism," Bevin's asks the question, "What makes people establish counter-institutions?" and "To what are they counter?" One word dominates his historical reply: freedom.

With each wave of centralization or period of political-economic realignment, Americans have - in varying numbers and for diverse reasons - built cultural moats. Whether railing against "bigness" with echoes of populist traditions, retreating into agrarian communities, or establishing organized resistance to the state (in examples ranging from the Hutaree to the American Indian Movement), American self-fashioning has often involved the establishment of different spaces and places to cultivate virtues hard won in a corrupt "mainstream."

This reveals something more than the truism that resistance to political authority is written deep into the American grain: rather, by foregrounding these themes at the outset, we see how religio-musical communities are situated in a constellation of improvisational efforts to enact selves and societies on terms other than the given. Walt Whitman's vistas and barbaric yawps, Herman Melville's character Bartleby preferring not to, the MC5's kicking out the jams, all operate on a frequency of creative refusal that is alive in jazz communitarianism... So it is in warehouses and living rooms, church basements and coffee shops, community centers and storefronts that sounds come into being and fade into air, that musicians play into being experiences that simply by their existence are radical in McWorld. (Bivins, ibid, p. 114)

What a fascinating insight. Not only is my artistic impulse rooted in a long history, it is shaped by the certainty that freedom, integrity and compassion can best be nurtured by participating in a community of resistance. Further, our best selves are strengthened for the common good prefiguratively; that is, in the practice of making shared music we learn how to live in harmony and peace. This is never perfect, of course - and idealistic communities of resistance are usually short lived. But their insistent rebirth throughout American history points to their value, yes? How did Dr. King put it the night before his death?  "I've been to the mountain top..."

Yes, we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!


As this sabbatical time ripens, I can't help but sense that my return to ministry is going to include a more intentional - and intense - exploration of jazz communitarianism. Especially as it applies to a community of resistance in the spirit of peace, compassion, civility and radical hope. I might as well face it...

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