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Both Directions Together

Improvising the greatness we need in these dark times

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

I’ve been writing the “Blue Monday” column for around six months now. Each week is a new situation, a new political experience to endure and a new writing challenge to surmount. In recent weeks I have struggled to achieve the synthesis of music and politics that I’ve envisioned for the column; and as many friends have observed, my columns lately seem basically to be political commentaries with a tune or two tacked on at the end. The observation is correct, and I think there are a number of reasons why: because the past few months have been centered on my five week visit to Prague and Bucharest; because during that time, but indeed for longer, I’ve been away from my piano for long periods, and have been playing less, and have thus been less connected to music; and because things seem to keep getting worse and worse with the Trump administration’s assault on constitutional democracy, compelling me to spend more and more time listening, reading, and thinking about our very real political crisis.

Last week I published a heartening piece about the New York primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But that moment was quickly overcome by the intensified outrage and fear caused by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, the deportations and separations, and now the denaturalizations. Then I attended, and wrote about, an uplifting “Families Belong Together” rally against these policies on the Bloomington courthouse square (I mistakenly reported my impression that thousands were in attendance; it would appear that a more accurate estimate was that 300-400 people were assembled on the square). Here too, while I experienced a momentary sense of what Hannah Arendt once called “the joy of public happiness,” I was also struck by a sense of the limits of such rallies in the face of the present danger.

If you doubt that we are facing a real danger of a distinctive, perhaps “postmodern,” form of fascism, take a look at Trump’s July 5 speech; indeed, take a look at this video of the speech, billed as “President Trump’s FANTASTIC Speech at MASSIVE Rally in Great Falls, Montana – July 5, 2018,” and posted on YouTube by “Trump TV Network.” Pay attention to the 30 second ad for CRTV (Conservative Review TV), a far right, Infowarslinked network created in 2016 by right-wing media personality Mark Levin, which regularly attacks “fake news” of “the liberal media” and bills itself as “100% free of anti-American propaganda.” Pay attention to the military-style recording of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” followed by the “Star Spangled Banner,” that opens the rally. Pay attention to the way that Il Duce emerges from the wings of the stage, and then rambles on for well over an hour, mocking “Pochohontas” (Elizabeth Warren) and #MeToo, denouncing Democrats and liberals and “the lying fake media” and the Justice Department and Hillary Clinton and Mexican gangs and “infestations” from across our southern border. The speech is filled with lies and calumnies and absurdities. And the crowd cheers, predictably chanting “Lock Her Up! Lock Her Up!” on cue, as if at a screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

This rally, and the authoritarian populist mobilization it enacts, is a vivid reminder of what Trumpism represents. And so almost all of my intellectual attention has lately been focused on Trump and on the broader political crisis that his rule symbolizes and threatens to exacerbate.

And then, this past week, on July 5, I received a gift from Deb Kent, one of my dearest friends, who also happens to be my ex-wife and the mother of my—our—children: John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, otherwise known as “The Lost Album.”

The release of this album is a major event in the jazz world. As Winston Cook-Wilson explains: “Newly released, abandoned master tapes for a 1963 studio album, found in the basement of Coltrane’s first wife Naima, provide an unusual composite of the saxophonist’s different stylistic modes in the first half of the decade. Posthumously titled Both Directions At Once, it captures one of the greatest jazz groups of all time—Coltrane’s ‘classic quartet’ of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones–trying to settle on a new recorded personality, and drawing the strains of their artistry together. The contrasts of their catalogue are pushed against each other, sometimes within the same song.”

Both directions at once.

I find these words particularly apt at this moment, and I’d like to consider them, briefly, from three perspectives: the personal, the musical, and finally the political—because everything here ultimately turns to the political.

The personal. On July 5, 1982 Deb Kent and I were married. We were a married couple until July 2005. During that time we grew up together, supported each others’ careers, and raised two amazing children. For a variety of reasons, we decided in 2004, in a very mutual and amicable way, that our marriage had become too stressful for us both, and it was best for us to no longer live together as a couple. And so we divorced. Few things test the human ability of separate individuals to get along more severely than a divorce. We were tested. But what we learned, pretty quickly, was that even as our most intimate of relationships was ending, it was possible for us to relate to each other in a way that was both new and actually better, for us, as the people that we had become. This was not easy. But the result was something extraordinary. We are now very distinct, and very different, individuals. We are not “together” in the way we once were. But neither are we in a literal sense “divorced.” Our relationship is not “severed” or “ruptured” or “breached” or “split” or “canceled” or “nullified.” It is simply changed. Early on in this unfolding process, we developed with our children the euphemism of “reconfiguration.” “We are not ending our family, we are reconfiguring it.” And this was indeed what happened.

And so on July 5 of this year, at a time when I really needed it, Deb Kent gave me Both Directions at Once.

Deb is many extraordinary things. One of them is a writer and poet. I suspect that she bought me the Coltrane album not because its title conveyed some poetic meaning for us, but simply because she knew that I love the music of Coltrane—indeed, one of our last dogs together was named Coltrane; he was, ironically, her dog, and fiercely protective of her! But he liked me too—and she knew that a new “lost album” had recently been found. And she wanted to gift it to me.

All the same, the album’s title does speak profoundly to her and my relationship. For by legally divorcing, we actually moved in both directions at once relative to one another—farther apart, but also closer together.

Paradoxical? Perhaps. Beneficial? Without question.

The musical. All musical performance involves interpretation. This is true even for the most accomplished classical musicians who are sight-reading composed music from a score. Jazz is a particularly interesting form of music because of the way it mixes genres and the priority it gives to improvisation, which is a kind of extemporaneous, on-the-spot musical composition.

Even within the genre of jazz, John Coltrane was unique among the great innovators for the way that he mastered and then transcended a number of idioms—from bop to post-bop to modal playing to an almost post-harmonic style—incorporating what was most meaningful to him from each, and always moving forward to new forms of creativity—a process that was not seamless, because he had his demons, and also because the conventions of the world often conspire against our best efforts to move forward.

As Phillip Clark notes, “The Lost Album” epitomizes this feature of Coltrane’s music:

The release borrows its title from remarks Coltrane made to his fellow saxophonist Wayne Shorter (who would effectively succeed Coltrane inside a new incarnation of the Miles Davis Quintet). At this point, he inferred, his career was looking “in both directions at once” – much had already been achieved but, ever restless, he was wise to the radical turns his music was about to take. At the Half Note in 1965 we witness him pushing the forms of “Afro Blue” and “My Favorite Things”, two longstanding pieces in his repertoire, until their frames buckle; a year later, at Temple University in Philadelphia, we hear Coltrane transcend the saxophone itself mid-solo, creating sound by beating his chest and vocalizing a brutally intense guttural yodel.

Nate Chinen furnishes a similar perspective in his NPR commentary, entitled “John Coltrane’s ‘Lost Album’ Is A Window into His Pursuit Of The Impossible”:

According to Ashley Kahn’s insightful liner essay, Both Directions at Once borrows its title from something Coltrane once said to his fellow saxophonist Wayne Shorter, “about starting a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and the end of it at the same time … both directions at once.” It’s a syntactically impossible move that you can nevertheless often hear Coltrane striving toward as an improviser, even here. There’s another, more linear connotation to the new album’s title phrase, which involves the harmonic conventions that Coltrane had mastered and the skyrocketing abstraction to which he was increasingly drawn. “Trane’s influence moves in both directions,” wrote the poet and critic LeRoi Jones in 1963, in an article for Metronome. (Several years later, when he was known as Amiri Baraka, this piece appeared in his collection Black Music.)

Both Directions at Once incorporates this “both . . . and . . .” dimension in the selection of tunes that Coltrane chose to play during this recording session, but also within certain tunes themselves.

“Vilia,” for example, is as a melody borrowed from the Hungarian composer Franz Leher’s operetta, “The Merry Widow,” and it is played as a straight-ahead swing tune in the manner in which Coltrane played in the mid-1950’s with the “First Great Miles Davis Quintet.”

“One Up, One Down,” on the other hand, is a simple modal piece played at a frenetic pace in which Coltrane plays very “outside” the harmony, with the bass and piano indeed dropping out at times so that he is entirely unencumbered by harmony.

“Slow Blues” incorporates these differences in style within the basic structure of a simple twelve-bar blues, with Coltrane stating the melody and then playing a wild solo described in the liner notes by Ashley Kahn as “mixing the warm familiarity of the blues with pinched-throat, avant-garde blowing.” Coltrane is then followed by McCoy Tyner, who comes in at 5:40 with a straight-ahead, gospel-infused piano solo that could have been played at any Blue Note recording session of this era; followed by a second, more conventional Coltrane solo; followed again by the melody.

In this album, posthumously produced as an album, but based entirely on a single March 1963 recording session, Coltrane seems literally to be going in two directions at once in his playing, both pressing always further “outside” the norm, and also returning to it. His more “out” playing is enriched, and balanced by, his grounding in more harmonically conventional jazz; at the same time, his more conventional playing here is enriched, and extended, via his more “out” and “free” playing.

Political. I submit that this kind of musicality might well be a metaphor for what we most need right now politically.

The recent primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has clearly struck a chord, loudly, throughout the political establishment. On the left it has generated real and justified excitement. As Peter Dreier has observed in his recent piece, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Resurgence of Democratic Socialism in America,” Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is not a one-off development, and it is part of a broader tendency with real historical roots. As he writes:

If Ocasio-Cortez wins her race for a seat in Congress from New York City in November (which she almost surely will), she will be one of at least 35 DSA members serving in public office around the country, including school board and city council members, and state legislators in Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, Montana, Michigan, Virginia, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. If all the DSA members currently running for office win their elections in November, that figure will grow to more than 100 officeholders, all of them Democrats.

I have already offered my own loud two cheers for this development. Two cheers are not three, and in my piece, I argue that we are a long way from being able to believe that victories like that of Ocasio-Cortez betoken anything like a new “hegemony” of the left. But cheers are cheers, not frowns or groans, and at this moment, to be able to cheer about anything political feels pretty remarkable. And the current “resurgence” that Dreier neatly outlines is remarkable for two reasons: because it represents a real energizing of the Democratic base, and because it represents a real empowerment of the left within the broader “democratic left” that is essential if there is going to be a Democratic revival; and, as I have argued recently, “there can be no democratic left without an energetic left.”

And so while I genuinely appreciate the concerns articulated by more centrist Democrats and even some “Never Trump” Republicans—whose hostility to Trump I welcome even if in other ways I cannot regard them as “allies”—I am nonetheless discomfited by the rapidity with which some commentators have rushed to diminish the left resurgence. Bret Stephens, for example, writing in the New York Times, quickly declared that “Democratic Socialism is Dem Doom,” cautioning against an embrace “of Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow travelers,” and continuing:

a Democratic Party seriously interested in defeating congressional Republicans in the fall and Trump in 2020 isn’t going to win by turning itself into a right-wing caricature of the left, complete with a smug embrace of whatever it conceives to be ‘socialism’ . . . a chief danger to democracy is a politics in which the center bends toward the fringe instead of the fringe bending toward the center. It’s the way Trump became president. But the antidote to one extreme isn’t another, and Democrats will only win once they reclaim the vital center of American politics. The center is Dayton and Denver, not Berkeley and Burlington. The center is Harry Truman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, not Eugene Debs and Michael Harrington. Democrats who want to win should know this.

Less hysterically, Damon Linker, a consistently thoughtful commentator, has also insisted that “Socialism Won’t Save the Democrats.” As I posted on Facebook, I share Linker’s skepticism that “socialism” can “save the Democrats.” But I strongly disagree with the title of his piece, and also with an aspect of the piece itself: the notion that “the left is proposing that Democrats embrace a politics of the hunch and the fervent hope.” This strikes me as overblown and unfair. Perhaps some democratic socialists and others on the left may be “proposing” this; some may indeed think that they “have all the answers”—and if they do, they will be joining a long line of right-wingers and centrists who long have believed that they have all the answers, and who have joined this arrogance with real power! But I think that many on the left are offering not theoretical proposals but practical alternatives. They are organizing people, seeking to win elections where they can win them, and trying to build from there.

Ocasio-Cortez seems to epitomize this. The interviews of her that I’ve read show her to be a serious and savvy political strategist, a kind of bridge-builder, and a pragmatist in the best sense of the term. She does not seem to think that “democratic socialism is the answer.” She thinks that her version of democratic socialism, and DSA, are powerful alternatives that might become more powerful over time, through the hard work of politics. Ocasio-Cortez has been very clear that she is “a democratic socialist,” but that she does not “lead with” this idea, and that indeed: “It’s part of what I am. It’s not all of what I am. And that’s a very important distinction. I’m an educator, I’m an organizer, and I believe that what we’re really seeing is just a move for health care, housing and education in the United States. . . Democrats are a big tent party. I’m not trying to impose an ideology on all several hundred members of Congress. But I do think that once again it’s not about selling an ism, or an ideology, or a label or a color, it’s about selling our values. . . An important part of my strategy in winning was building a broad-based coalition of people.”

I am skeptical that her approach to framing and campaigning, fueled by the strong DSA and community organizations in her concentrated, urban district, can be “scaled up” to the Democratic party as a whole much less to the country as a whole. But I am open to being proven wrong, in particular places or even in general. I am not troubled at all by the efforts of Ocasio-Cortez and others like her, who I think of, pace Stephens, not as “fellow travelers” but as like-minded, idealistic, and energetic fellow citizens and democratic activists. I welcome their efforts, and I think that everyone who supports the reinvigoration of the Democratic party, as a counterweight to Trumpism and as a potential vehicle of greater social and environmental justice and democratic equality, ought to welcome their efforts.

As I’ve argued repeatedly, it is important that all participants in the struggle for the “soul” of the Democratic party proceed with a sense of what William Connolly has called “agonistic respect,” and with a sense of the need to coalesce, during general elections, to defeat the clear and present danger of Trumpist Republicanism (and there is now no other kind of Republicanism). This means that “the newly emergent left” will be called upon to make compromises down the line—as all groups do. But it also means that those more mainstream Democrats who wish to continue to influence the party need to do the hard work of engaging constituencies, offering real solutions, gaining support, and winning primaries. And they too need to proceed with a sense of respect for their challengers, and especially when their challengers win.

Let the contest proceed, vigorously. Over time. Let the party evolve, over time, as its agenda is contested. So long as the contest proceeds with a sense of proportion, in a spirit of “self-limitation” and “agonistic respect,” then it can only be a good thing. A recent CNN report on a growing divide between centrists and leftists announces: “Democrats are feeling down. Now they have to decide which way is up.” I think this is wrong. It is true that Democrats need to approach the November 2018 elections with some sense of “unity” based on an appreciation of the need to coalesce around Democratic candidates and to defeat Republican candidates. And it is also true that by 2020 the Democratic party needs to settle on a Presidential candidate capable of defeating Trump. But these two “imperatives” leave a lot of leeway for ongoing debate and contestation about the future of the party. And these things do not need to be “decided now.” Indeed, it would be premature, counterproductive, and simply wrong to try to resolve the debate now, just at a point when it is picking up some real steam.

Now is not the time for the Democratic party to decide whether to move to the center or to the left, and it surely is not the time for the forces of the center to seek to marginalize those of the left.

Now is the time, I would submit, to go in both directions at once. It is a time to move toward the center in some ways and in some places, and toward the left in other places. Stephens is egregiously wrong, in at least four ways, when he declares that “the center is Dayton and Denver, not Berkeley and Burlington.”

First: in November the Democrats need to do their best to win in all 435 Congressional districts. And while Berkeley is not Dayton, Dayton is also not Berkeley. To imply in any way that some places are more important than others in our geographically and demographically diverse country is, at this moment, pointless.

Second: “Dayton” itself might not so unproblematically represent the centrism with which Stephens associates it. For, as Dan Kaufman points out in yesterday’s New York Times, the Midwest is itself the site of important “progressive populist” traditions, epitomized by though not limited to the strong traditions of Wisconsin progressivism.

Third: while places like Berkeley or Burlington might not ever represent the demographic center of gravity of the Democratic party, the ideas and policies that are pioneered in such places might well play a very large role in future transformations of the Democratic party. To diminish these ideas and policies because they do not come “from the heartland” is idiotic both intellectually and politically. Was Falls Church, Virginia, the demographic “center” of the U.S. when Jerry Falwell created The Moral Majority in 1979? Did Arlington, Virginia represent the demographic “center” of the U.S. when libertarian ideas first started flowing from the Mercatus Center? It is perhaps worth noting that it is Burlington, VT, hardly the demographic “center” of the U.S., that has given us Bernie Sanders, the man who tirelessly and effectively campaigned for President in all fifty states, and who won over 13 million votes, and 43% of the total vote, in the 2016 Democratic primary—no small feat.

Fourth: why limit the discussion to Dayton and Denver versus Berkeley and Burlington? What about Los Angeles or Atlanta or San Antonio or Houston or Chicago or Philadelphia or New York City? What about states, like New York or especially California, that have served as strong bastions of opposition to Trumpism and also as sites of experimentation, particularly with regard to environmental policy?

In short: arrogant talk about where “the center” lies is nothing but arrogant talk masquerading as common sense. And in both a literal and in a figurative sense, now is the time not to move to the center or to the left, but to move in both directions at once.

You think this is impossible?

Listen to Trane.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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