Perhaps every creature in a creature’s own way is called. Persons personally, animals bestially, plants vegetably…Among persons…consciousness of this lure lets us…grasp a fresh possibility or not.. We are called to improvise…risk the adventure.
– Catherine Keller, On the Mystery
The worship of God is not a rule of safety—it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. The death of religion comes with the repression of the high hope of adventure.
– Alfred North Whitehead, quoted in Keller
For those moments when I am playing in front of a good rhythm section, I am simply [“Master of the Universe”]–everything is perfect!! [I]n complete control, you can do whatever you want within that space inhabited at the moment…There is a confidence, an unseen swagger, an assertiveness. It’s so good that all you want is to repeat it…hooked forever.
– Dave Liebman’, on his website
Something that can be counted on when we bring “special guest” jazz musicians up from New York City to our little Utica venue is that they will bring something of the City’s aura with them. Having taken their music so far in this genre unlikely to bring pop stardom or celebrity riches, they have both a humility and a hip glamour that is different from local players (while taking nothing from them). That combination, of down-to-earth and hip both is partly due, I suppose, to the jazz tradition, with its roots in American Black experience. As well, no longer America’s in-fashion dance music, in a sort of humbled way, jazz is planted and cultivated in darker urban turf. It is an expression of urban entanglement, undergrounded and undersung in mainstream America that prefers less-entangled, lighter and whiter places and music.
In part the quality of hip glamour that clings to the NYC cats comes from things Orin and I learn beforehand as we prepare for publicizing the show. The artist’s pedigree, Olympian-level names he or she has played with, not to mention the artist’s website reviews by DownBeat, Jazz Times, etc., have us anticipating out-of-the-ordinary talent.
For someone who is vulnerable to intimidation by NYC glamor and superiority, as I am, the aura of “hip” accompanying such musicians is notable in that it does not intimidate. Their very real New-York vibe does not exude superiority. Its particular “other-orientation” is not to things that exclusivize, like wealth, sophistication, trendiness and travels. Rather, it orients to something in-common, if rarely invoked in my social circles. That orientation, indicated in every note of improvisational expression coming “from bottom up,” up out of the body, mystically inspired, includes me in a culture counter to the dominant materialist one, not necessarily defiantly or anarchistically, but lovingly alternative. Though I am very much an Upstate “square,” this culture provides a perspective that allows me to see what I die for lack of in these cowed, servile times – that is, some indication in this my world of the reality of the embodied heart.
In the way jazz pundits speak of it, because of its unique unity of improvisation joined with the “good rhythm section” jazz exemplifies the democratic ideal. This to me is a self-congratulatory and commercially viable (safe) way of talking “over” the mystery – as well as conveniently ignoring the fact that America is ruled by corporatocracy, not democracy. We might go closer to the truth of it saying jazz exemplifies the real existential situation of entanglement and the way to be free and entangled both. For democracy will only and ever be possible among people possessing both the humility and the “swagger” of the jazz improviser, as well as the attunement of the ensemble. Jazz exemplifies a democracy not only because of the players’ marvelous attunement, nor the “improvisation” that implies the exceptional genius, mystique intact. The improvisational art serves a spirit greater than the artist; inspired by self-interest (eros), the artist serves, not ego, but the Divine. And, shocking as it is for me to say it, there’s no democracy without God on somebody’s side! For those who talk knowledgeably about jazz keeping within the dominant neoliberal rationalist, other-phobic discourse, “the Divine” can at best mean something to do with camp! Neither agency nor ontological reality can be ascribed to the creative source.
Clearly, liberal progressivism is is not up to the task of resuscitating democracy. It can proceed no further toward its goals of freedom and equality, let alone preventing climate collapse, without the inward-derived energy – eros – that enlivens individual becoming. Without individual empowerment, the kind we tend to think of as “exceptional,” democracy is an abstraction, lacking embodiment. It cannot be defended against the fascist confidence of the theocrats, the market faith of the plutocrats, or arrogant colonization of localities and souls by corporate chain entities and social media giants.
Thus, for a moribund left, the democracy exemplified in jazz ensemble playing gives hope for a politics by telling us wherein the God may be found that is not the God of the theocrats. Embodying transcendence – ecstasy – makes the music of jazz – without any overt politics – anti-totalitarian in a way that the most ardent secular lefty can never be. Once but no longer, peoples’ passion for equality and brotherhood could be engaged with collective appeal. Now, personal passion must be ignited first for the joy of it. Without the power of divine immanence, leftward ideals can never become the vision that would allow us to relinquish our way of life; they can never move people toward our in-commonness.
From the perspective I’m putting forth, what is important to know about the improvisor’s gift is not its exceptionality, awe-inspiring as it is, but its in-commonness. Its expression comes from something that, though inclusive of you and me, cannot be received/responded to except by those of us who will risk the adventure of self-interest that is creative expression. Its inclusivity, which is real, comes from that bodily experience called ecstatic from which no one can be excluded (except under conditions of oppression including that of wage slavery). Yet we by and large, bowing to the dominant liberal “take” on the soul’s reality, confoundingly, exclude ourselves.
In preparation for his appearance on Nov 19 at The Other Side, I read up on legendary saxophonist Dave Liebman, a professed apostle in this jazz tradition that traces its roots back to Louis Armstrong, down through Coltrane and Miles, all the jazz “highnesses.” At his website, I came across the words quoted in the epigraph. “Master of the universe?” That, I reflected, is the kind of language that can get you in trouble! Perhaps realizing people who hadn’t “been there” would be unlikely to understand, Mr. Liebman quoted the late comedian George Carlin describing the same experience: “There is nothing happening in the universe outside of that reality and that experience…that is solely mine and only I can do. There can’t be anything better than that. To be intensely alone, intensely myself, in control of everything, the center of a self created universe.”
But I got it. No language but the kind that conveys an image of power will do! What both artists describe is an exalted state, a “highness,” that comes not from power over others but simply being empowered by, to use the old, much-abused, over-processed word, “God.”
I was reminded of some words of transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, less famous member of the Concord MA intellectual circle that included Emerson and Thoreau, that impressed me when I came across them years ago: “I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.” For her boldness, as I dimly recall, she was chastised by Emerson or Thoreau or maybe both! Still today, this remark can come across as offensively smug. But what if, alternatively, we were to hear it as coming from a feeling of empowerment that was not from ego alone, but from a kind of exalted state brought on by her faithful attendance to the creative outpouring of her own mind, an experience she was simply attempting to name, not with braggadocio, but honesty? How else might one express such real experiences except in using a kind of language traditionally reserved for “Highnesses” of one sort or another, including the ultimate “Highness?”
Granted, Dave Liebman and George Carlin, as well as Margaret Fuller, are “exceptional talents.” But, if we pull apart the meaning of “Highness” from its association with ego and egoic power, are we then still speaking of an experience belonging only to the exceptional?
The night of his performance, Mr. Liebman sprinkled in stories in which names like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, etc., glittered like diamonds. He took particular care to tell the story of how, as a 15-year-old, hearing John Coltrane play at a small Manhattan club was an experience that “changed his life.” He counseled the audience that such realizations, when and if they come, should be followed.
It was clear (to me, anyway) he was not saying this because emulating Coltrane leads to fame and riches. Rather, the realization (“That is what I want to do!”) should be followed simply for the reason that following wanting brings with it the experience of ecstatic power – “Master of the Universe” – which presents subjectively, as more valuable than fame or riches. That is, he spoke of that which he knows! The encounter with the authentic lure brings with it a Highness not of exceptionalism, that is, of being different from everyone else and from the rest of creation, but of a somewhat lowly willingness to be devoted to what is exceptional within, that is, to the exceptional that is common and in-common. This “exceptional common” is not new. It’s the stuff of religious myth going way way back.
Once having been mainstreamed in the major monotheistic world religions, the way of “exceptional commonness” failed to seed the race of mystical humanists we might have become. But the possibility remains! This exceptionality is independent of comparison with others; it has no defensive aim, cannot be motivated toward empire. Presenting itself in the lowly soul’s voice, it speaks in poetic language, in words or images that have intrinsic meaning. All humankind is endowed with this capacity; were I to become hospitable to the lure I might possibly become “Master (sic)of the Universe,” incapable of accepting demeanment of of my own wondrousness instead of being obedient to the masters of corporate power and their antipathy to otherness.
At our weekly family dinner the night after Liebman’s concert, I brought up Liebman’s story of the life-changing moment. His story had reminded Orin and me of the same motif in fairy tales, as Robert Bly retold them in his men’s movement workshops. Robert spoke of “the opening” that occurs in adolescence that one may decline but ought not to! The opening is to the lure – in a fairy tale, this might be – as in Grimm’s The Maiden Czar – an enchanted lady who sails into view with her entourage of golden ships full of more enchanting fairies.
Sad-but-true, I’m no enchanted lady! My telling Liebman’s story to the 11 or so family that night raised a hubbub. As I said, such talk of “openings,” or “bliss-following,” etc. can only be welcomed by the ones who have responded to the lure! Others will hear it only as exclusionary, as condemnation, what’s wrong with you, etc., that you did not follow your dream, or else as something for smart people to ridicule. (In The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, Robert Bly reminisces his joining in with classmates in high school English class, to make clever mockery of Thoreau.)
Thus the question: How can the rule of the heart be “propagated” when routinely hearts are set against their own Highness, when it’s normal to abandon the exceptional “commons” of oneself? ( In Anna Karenina, Count Vronsky, bored in his life of exile with Anna takes up painting “but he could not imagine that one could be utterly ignorant of all the kinds of painting and be inspired directly by what was in one’s soul, unconcerned whether what one painted belonged to any particular kind.”)
This abandonment of the most fundamental commons, a “crime,” for which no charge will ever be brought, upon which no court of law will rule – is against the humanity struggling to be born in one’s own soul! And yet, for most of us, unknowingly assigned to unexceptionalism rather than born to the commons, it is impossible to do otherwise. No matter how unhappy with my life under soulless consumerist corporatocracy, as an honest person must be, way-of-life change is unimaginable. But think, in this anthropocenic age when all life on earth as we know it is threatened, impossibility is what’s left to work with! What do you mean you’re not an artist? Although there’s pain involved in realizing one missed the opening to the creative soul when young, the Divine lure does not recede and is always potential. Defeated by impossibility, the possible – a way of living cooperatively, to the benefit of the commonwealth – may yet be found. Humbled, we can keep to the locations wherein entangled humanity – its variety, vitality, warmth and particularity – can be seen and felt – in families, neighborhoods, local businesses, in the character that particular places like Utica develop over time. Such a devotion, underground and unsung, can only be undertaken by our Highnesses, the finding of which is key to an alive democracy.