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Jazz in the Key of Democracy
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Cornel West

      . . . Cornel West, scholar, philosopher/theologian and activist. A University Professor at Harvard, Dr. West is author of more than 20 books, including the bestseller , Race Matters. He won an American Book Award in 1993 for his two-volume work Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism. His latest book, co-edited with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is The African American Century. Dr. West was educated at Harvard and Princeton, has taught at both, as well as Union Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School and the University of Paris. A Public Intellectual, Dr. West speaks widely and is regularly featured in the mass media.

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      Jazz is more than music, it is a mode of being, according to the jazz man in the world of ideas, Cornel West. The same is true for democracy, he declares. It is a mode of being, not just a way to arrange authority.

      The world is most assuredly being Americanized, Dr. West observes. If Americanization means democratization, heās enthusiastic. But he fears that something very different is going on -- that it is American sentimentality, immaturity and materialism that are infecting the rest of the world, the American dream reduced to prosperity, security and spectacle. He calls us back to the self-respect embodied in the Negro National Anthem -- "Lift Every Voice" -- reminding us that voicelessness is the lack of democracy in a world whose history recounts the domination of elites.

      Like jazz, democracy is fundamentally about self-criticism, self-correction, self-examination, says Dr. West. It allows for society to engage in critical, reflective, experimental, improvisational modes of being. What does that mean? It means youāre against dogma. Against rigidity. Against orthodoxy in all forms, he maintains.

      What links democracy and jazz? Energy. Joy. Both require the combination of individual performers and the whole group. Neither is about fetishized "success" or "winning." Both unleash sensibilities which are radically against the grain. They are processes that encompass all contexts and are not limited to the closed, controlled systems elites prefer. Jazz, like democracy, is always unfinished, open-ended, shot with contest. And dialogue is the life-blood of both.

      Both also encompass the "blue notes." Dissonance. Defiance. They pull the cover off sentimental claims for harmony and liberty, get beneath superficial glitter and glitz to wrestle with history and its struggles; reality and its misery; forms of death that American mainstream culture evades and avoids.

      Mystery is central to each. We are creatures toward death, Dr. West reminds us, hoping to find some compassion between womb and tomb. Just as the essential mystery of music is inexplicable, no political regime or social system can relieve us of the requirement to wrestle with meaninglessness and inevitable death.

      Cornel West connects Louis Armstrong and Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Coltrane and Walt Whitman, putting an accent on the dialectical interplay between spontaneity and discipline, between individuality and community, between commitment and an ability to laugh at the products of oneās commitment -- inevitably imperfect.

      What new world does Dr. West glimpse? The flowering and flourishing of unique forms of individuality in a democratic context that lures us to courage, vision, service, sacrifice. He sees us able to explore, examine and interrogate ourselves and the world against the backdrop of relative stability and fragility, knowing there is no end.

      In this time of multiple contexts and many identities, Dr. West believes our most important identity is a human one. A democratic identity follows a close second. To be human at its highest level, he concludes, is to be at play. To live with style. To swing like Duke Ellington AND Muhammad Ali. To have the kind of joy that allows us to love, live, struggle. And die.

[This Program was recorded December 6, 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Cornel West describes how people of African descent in America have injected "blue notes" into American history and modernity for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. He expands on the jazz metaphor and considers the many facets of the idea captured in his book title, The African-American Century.


Conversation 2

The power of laughter engages Dr. West, who compares the tragic to the tragic-comic. He explains why he thinks the latter reflects a democratic sensibility. He describes two reasons why he regularly quotes Ralph Ellison, who said, "All Americans are black." Dr. West suggests the role of the dark side in discerning what it means to be human, concerned that American culture is afraid of the darkness, preferring sentimentality and Disneyesque fantasies. He sees both good news and bad in the Americanization of the world, with examples of each.


Conversation 3

Democracy is a process, according to Dr. West, who contrasts it with the closure elites seek. He compares theodicy -- trying to reconcile a good God in a world full of misery -- to democracy's plebodicy -- how do ordinary people respond to unjustified suffering? He reminds us that there is no solution or end-point to either challenge. Dr. West expands on both the requirement for individuals to take responsibility and the universal human mystery which no political regime or social system can resolve. He considers our need to redeploy the American myth of the frontier, with a series of examples of moral frontiers. He explains what it is to be a radical democrat with an existential twist.


Conversation 4

Dr. West proposes a way to understand democracy as a way of life as well as a mode of institutional arrangement. Jazz is suggested as a vehicle for creating a new American myth, which takes Dr. West to the center of his own work as a jazz man in the world of ideas. He explains at length why he thinks of jazz as more than just music -- as a mode of being. He expands on the double entendre of what it means to ãswing,ä with examples from Duke Ellington to Muhammad Ali, filling the metaphors with hope and joy. Dr. West reminds us of jazz's roots in American spirituals, tracing that musical legacy forward to today. He challenges continuing white supremacist notions.


Conversation 5

The role of Public Intellectuals is discussed. Dr. West acknowledges an appropriate place for what he calls the busy-bodies of the present, contrasting that to his definition of the intellectualās role. He explains what American Pragmatism is and is not and why it is so important -- allowing us to maintain a critical distance, but forever engaging the problems of human beings. Cautioning us against becoming uni-contextual, Dr. West assures us that democracy is about being multi-contextual and amplifies. He objects to the notion of multiculturalism, pointing out what it really means in America. He criticizes Americaās tendency toward historical amnesia. Addressing the complex of issues around the "post-modern," Dr. West reminds us of the importance of our historical moment -- the dominance of America after 1945.


Conversation 6

Dr. West relates questions of context to the challenge of democracy. He urges a quest for genuine individuality and opposes the narrow, rapacious individualism of today's mainstream American culture. He shares his glimpse of the new world he sees in the making. Dr. West describes an individual's two most important identities. He connects music, joy and a sense of community to a sense of play.



Publicists Tracey George for Simon and Schuster, Suzanne Williams and Scott Diperna at Random House and Kate Pruss at Perseus/Basic Books all helped us prepare for this conversation. This kind of cooperation makes the world a better place and we thank each of them.


Related Links:
Dr. Cornel West's latest book, co-edited with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped our Country, published by The Free Press. Race Matters is a Vintage Book. The Cornel West Reader, a mind-expanding selection from Dr. West's writings, is a Basic Civitas Book.

Our second conversation with Dr. West, focused principally on Democracy Matters, is here.

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