ST. PAUL (May 18, 2015) — “Call me Ishmael…Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
And, so begins the saga known as “Moby-Dick”, Herman Melville’s 1851 novel about obsession, vengeance, chaos, and the nature of good and evil. Pretty heady stuff, and bleak, too.
One can easily be weighed down by the burdens of everyday life and the calamities of human existence. It’s all too familiar in today’s world (as in Melville’s), what with natural disasters such as recently experienced in Nepal, civil strife in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri and other parts throughout the nation, train car derailments and exploding oil tankers, ongoing economic woes for working folks, climate change, religious extremism, crumbling infrastructure, and the continued inability of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The list goes on and one can’t help but grow weary of it all. The countless squabbles over the most obscure issues, apparently to both establish and maintain group differences. Tribalism. But, what if people put aside petty differences and worked toward resolving some of these problems? What are the possibilities?
Not long ago, April 30 to be exact, this came to mind in no uncertain terms with the Fourth Annual International Jazz Day Global Concert featuring jazz musicians from around the world and varied ethnic and faith backgrounds. In 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated April 30 as International Jazz Day to recognize this art form “for promoting peace, dialogue among cultures, diversity, and respect for human rights and human dignity; eradicating discrimination; promoting freedom of expression; fostering gender equality; and reinforcing the role of youth in enacting social change.”
This year, jazz musicians Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Hugh Masekela, Femi Kuti, Eliane Elias, Dhafer Youssef, A Bu, Al Jarreau, Claudio Roditi, Avishai Cohen, Antonio Farao, James Genus, Ben Williams, and other luminaries played before a live audience in Paris and millions more scattered around the globe through a live stream broadcast. (Fortunately, I was able to take a lunch break at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis to watch the live-streamed event).
Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was present to offer strong words of support, noting that jazz encompasses improvisation, spontaneity, and cooperation, all key abilities for dealing with a world fraught with challenges; highlighting, once again, Herbie Hancock’s observation that jazz is about working together and respecting one other. I couldn’t agree more, being transfixed myself by the musicians’ exuberance and camaraderie, playing together as a group while maintaining members’ individuality through their respective pieces, solo and otherwise. Watching these artists lay down a framework for the group as a unit while working individually, through improvisation, around and through that structure was captivating. A fusion of old and new, traditional and experimental. It was equally enthralling to view camera shots of the Paris audience responding both intellectually to the high degree of musicianship and emotionally to this, yet another form of human communication, with some members brought to the point of tears.
Author Kurt Vonnegut contended that the only proof he needed for the existence of God was music. Saxophonist John Coltrane proclaimed that he wanted to speak to people’s souls through his music. And, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu declared that music in the soul can be heard by the universe. Powerful stuff, that music.
Yes, indeed, there may be something to this. Consider, for example, that following President Obama’s announced thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations last December, the Minnesota Orchestra organized and recently made a trip there as part of a cultural exchange tour to play two concerts at the Teatro Nacional in Havana while also working and interacting with music students from area schools. By all accounts, it was a resounding success, coming full circle from its last tours there in 1929 and 1930 as the Minneapolis Symphony.
For those of us who came of age during the Cold War and the brink of nuclear war over the missile crisis in Castro’s Cuba, this is a remarkable development. No one could ever have imagined the arrival of this day. Powerful stuff, that music. Just think about the possibilities.
R. Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has practiced immigration law exclusively for more than 25 years in the Twin Cities with an emphasis on political asylum, family and marriage-based immigration, naturalization, removal defense, appeals, H-1B visas, and religious workers.