While traveling abroad in Southeast Asia, we shirked from inquiring eyes when George Bush’s coronation was broadcast live on CNN. We weren’t ashamed to be an American — on the contrary, we’re proud to be a citizen of this glorious country — but at that inglorious moment in history we were mortified to have come from a nation that could stupidly reelect such a poor President, a man who the rest of the world justifiably mistrusts and dislikes.
Although the United States of America is supposed to be exporting freedom and liberty (conveniently packaged as easy-to-use morsels of democracy), we’re best known of late as the leading producer of international violence. The shining example we strain to set has been dulled and denuded by our inexplicable exploits in Iraq, where hundreds of innocents continue to die in defense of increasingly ambiguous ideals. Every evening we spent in Asia, however, reminded us that America has bestowed countless gifts upon modern civilization, including the immeasurably valuable concept of opportunity, which many precincts of Earth sorely lack. Every evening, when we ventured to where live music was being made, we were reminded that America’s greatest export continues to enrich and enlighten people in every part of the globe, in places that are literally oceans away from New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, and New York.
America gave birth to jazz. And it remains our finest aesthetic accomplishment.
Music, it’s been said, is the universal language, the mother tongue that needs no translation. Hearing (and seeing) a bandstand filled with, say, Filipinos, swinging hard to a Duke Ellington melody or riffing on a Miles Davis line, affirms our fervent hope that no matter our religious and racial differences, no matter our disparate customs and colors, at some essential and edifying level we’re all part of the same family, a toe-tapping tribe whose roots extend backward from Bird and Pops all the way to ancient ancestors banging on a hollow tree trunk.
We were there in Southeast Asia to sing, and when we began to assay the compositions of Messrs. Porter, Gershwin, and Basie, we could see from the smiles and the head-nodding that the Asian audience was unconcerned at that moment with our country’s foreign policy fiascoes; they cared only that this was a missive from the Land of Jazz, a real example of a real American art. Though our bloodlines never crossed, we felt like true and consecrated descendants of the geniuses who changed the world with their joyous-mournful-manic-serene music.
Dizzy and Monk, Billie and Sarah, the Marsalis men — all of them came from the United States of America. And if that was so, then America couldn’t be such a bad place after all.
The hallmarks of jazz — improvisation, collaboration, negotiation — are what make it unlike any other type of music. Perhaps during these dire times our leaders ought to look to America’s greatest export before making more horribly un-American decisions. The rest of the world, we suspect, will be most appreciative.