Jazz and Humanism

Two books that I came across lately on jazz legends from the bebop era present a common theme, namely that art is above politics. It is not that we can ignore political differences, but we can transcend them.

One of my favorite jazz pianists, Billy Taylor, was no doubt a lifelong Democrat. Yet in his own career he was fundamentally traditional – a family man, married for over sixty years, he eschewed political radicalism and the alcohol and substance abuse that was so common to the performing arts. Like fellow bebop artists Oscar Peterson and Hank Jones, Taylor avoided provocative invective on race and other issues. For many blacks it was a matter of enjoying the basic respect that comes with hard work. These men expressed no sense of outrage or entitlement. In his study of Oscar Peterson Jack Batten notes that

Oscar’s anger and frustration over the racial insults he so often faced didn’t show up in his music. He played with force, not with rage…. Oscar was too much the reticent and polite Canadian to permit his music to reflect his feelings.

Not all jazz artists were as intellectually mature or nuanced. Teddy Wilson, for example, was known as the “Marxist Mozart” for his leftist labor activism. Batten contrasts Peterson’s approach with the posturing of some of his contemporaries, noting that the Montreal-born musician “composed a song about race and civil rights, but it offered hope and not a hint of anger.”

Along these lines Billy Taylor’s posthumously published memoir is not without its criticisms of others. Yet his generally mild disapproval was directed toward those who were annoying and arrogant rather than merely divergent in their views. In particular the passages discussing Taylor’s relationship with President Nixon are noteworthy for their sympathy and humor. As a traditional conservative, I have never been a particular fan of Nixon’s big government middle-of-the-road policies. But Taylor’s contrariety in the face of left-liberal dogma and character assassination is refreshing. Nixon had been an anti-Communist in the McCarthy era and for that reason (and perhaps for simply being a Republican of any stripe) the progressivist establishment was determined to destroy him. Taylor rose above this lack of basic charity and decency.

Obliquely referencing the Watergate affair, Taylor says that “no person deserves to be summed up in terms of the strains on his life when there are so many positive things to consider.” He recalls that in the segregation era the White House was off-limits to blacks (except in menial roles). His first visit as an honored guest at the presidential mansion was during Duke Ellington’s birthday celebration in 1969. “President Richard Nixon,” Taylor writes, “is someone that I came to respect and admire for reasons completely separate from his politics. The fact is that he opened the doors of the White House to jazz in a way that no president before him had done.” Such was the outlook of a real humanist.

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