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Why I Play the Blues

A Very Brief Reflection on the Meaning of Politics and its Limits

The “Blue Monday” column began as a way of integrating the two passions of my life: politics and music and especially jazz. Readers will have noted that lately I have strayed from this purpose, and my columns have become political commentaries pure and simple.

My obsession with politics is in part an occupational hazard, for I am a political scientist by trade. But it is also the passion that led me into this profession, and it is a passion that has been intensified, to the point of obsession, by the rise of Donald Trump and the felt need to read and watch everything I can about politics, and to comment about everything, and to do what I can to change our politics. For Trump Must Go.

Last week I created a shitstorm of controversy on Facebook by declaring that I would not vote for Joe Donnelly for Senator because he has run a vile, red-baiting campaign ad. My liberal Indiana friends were outraged that I might thus weaken Donnelly’s chances against an even more vile Republican challenger. Much energy was spent responding to this or that post. I declared that I would explain myself further in my next Blue Monday column. And then this past Saturday (yesterday) I started writing. Five hours and five thousand words later, I was not yet done. My political-intellectual OCD had kicked in. The adrenalin pumped. And then I stopped.

I didn’t want to stop. I had to stop. Because my band, the Postmodern Jazz Quartet, had a gig and I needed to get ready and go and play jazz. As all musicians understand, the show must go on. Period.

I am writing this on Sunday, the day after. I will soon turn to that promised piece on “Why I Won’t Vote for Joe Donnelly, or the ethical and strategic limits of red-baiting.” But after a nice walk with my dog Jessie — these walks are the only time I have to just think — I had an epiphany. And as I thought about this epiphany, I was exhilarated. And I decided to write about this. Here. Now. The other piece will come in a day or so. But now, this.

I didn’t want to go play with my band last night because I was in the throes of my political writing. My being was suffused with a powerful need to express myself and to contribute to public discourse about What Is To Be Done. I know I am not alone. I can’t get away from this. It follows me everywhere. One of my courses this semester is about the current crisis of liberal democracy. Another is a critical discussion of U.S. politics called “Making America Great Again?” I spent last Friday at two campaign events for Liz Watson; Bernie Sanders was in town, and the events were a huge success. Then I attended a talk by a colleague about how to increase Latinx voter participation. Then I came home and read In These Times, the Nation, the New Yorker, and a range of other periodicals. Politics. Is. In. My. Head. All the time.

I didn’t want to play music last night. But I had to. So I did.

And it was amazing. Playing with my band is always a great experience. Playing at our regular venue, C3 Bloomington, is always great. But last night was special for me. I was in a zone. The music flowed out of me like never before. My bandmate, Pat Harbison, a world-renowned trumpet player and jazz educator at IU’s Jacobs School of Music — and one of the friends with whom I had been arguing about politics on Facebook — was kind of awestruck, and during a break, he came up to me at the bar and noted that it would be a good thing if I got embroiled in intense controversy more often.

I needed to play. To step aside from my worldly passions, for a moment, and to allow myself to enter another zone, of the non-verbal and the sonic and the purely improvisational. I needed to be carried away by the music. To allow my fingers, which are constantly typing on my computer keyboard, to freely roam the keyboard of my piano.

Last night I played the blues like I have never played the blues before. And it was awesome.

There were no recordings made last night, but a few older videos can convey a sense of what I experienced.

Here is the Postmodern Jazz Quartet playing “Cool Struttin,” a blues tune written by the late great pianist Sonny Clark, featuring Pat Harbison (trumpet), Jonathan Elmer (trombone), Will Barnard (tenor sax), Jeremy Allen (bass), Chris Parker (drums), and yours truly on piano.

Here is me playing the Lee Morgan classic “Ceora,” featuring Pat Harbison (trumpet), Jeremy Allen (bass) and Chris Parker (drums).

And here is a short TV feature of an earlier incarnation of the band, which included Rob Walker (bass) and Mitch Shiner (drums):

There is joy in this, and creative release, and freedom.

I play jazz because I love to play jazz. It is one of my ways of being in the world.

Many of my early columns discuss the affinities between jazz and politics. But these are different media of experience and action, and each has values, and challenges, of its own. On my living room wall, right above my piano, hangs a photo of graffiti that says “Without Music Life Would Not Be Fair.” I think this is true.

Music is not a sufficient condition of freedom. But it is a necessary condition.

I play the blues to express myself, and to give my life meaning, and to perform with and for others. It is deeply individual and at the same time profoundly social and cultural and historical.

I am political because I believe in human freedom, and I rebel against a world where so many people have neither the time nor the freedom to experience themselves in the way that I experience myself through the blues. The dominant forces of our world are obstacles to this. On the one side, we are buffeted by the logic of commodification and “the art of the deal.” On the other, we are increasingly besieged by the herd logic of right-wing populist resentment.

We live in dark times.

And we need to struggle against the darkness politically.

And this struggle takes its toll, in many different ways, to be sure (and there are many activists who are much more enmeshed than I am).

All good things do not go together neatly. And political engagement is lacerating, and comes at a price. One of the most brilliant reflections on this is the famous poem by Bertolt Brecht — a political artist if ever there were one — titled “To Those Born Later.” I do not think that Brecht ever took a break from politics. His art was political. But his politics was also artistic. For most of us who are political, this is not so. And sometimes it is good for us to play. As a tonic and source of reinvigoration. As a reminder of the freedom we are fighting for but also as an enactment of that freedom. And just because it is one important way of being human.

I played the blues last night. It was joyful.

Now I return to politics.

But later I will play some more.

To Those Born Later
I

Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.

What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
That man there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?

It is true I still earn my keep
But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat
From the starving, and
My glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would also like to be wise.
In the old books it says what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
Your brief time without fear
Also to get along without violence
To return good for evil
Not to fulfill your desires but to forget them
Is accounted wise.
All this I cannot do:
Truly, I live in dark times.

II

I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger reigned there.
I came among men in a time of revolt
And I rebelled with them.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

My food I ate between battles
To sleep I lay down among murderers
Love I practiced carelessly
And nature I looked at without patience.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

All roads led into the mire in my time.
My tongue betrayed me to the butchers.
There was little I could do. But those in power
Sat safer without me: that was my hope.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

Our forces were slight. Our goal
Lay far in the distance
It was clearly visible, though I myself
Was unlikely to reach it.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

III

You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
Remember
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped.

German; trans. John Willett, Ralph Manheim & Erich Fried

Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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