Convergent Friends as New Jazz Traditionalists

Convergent Friends as New Jazz Traditionalists
by Chad Stephenson
as published in Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices

spiritrising    First off, I could not have come up with the title “Convergent Friends as New Jazz Traditionalists” without Martin Kelley who posted a video interview with me on his website,, and titled it himself.  The video captures a mashup idea–that Friends of various strains of Quakerism coming together to revive our common bond of faith and to remind ourselves of our roots and instigate a rebirth was similar to the way jazz music had been reborn in America through reviving its traditions.  I was beginning to see the new directions of Quakerism moving beyond its traditions, its fractious past, into a future where Quakers of many backgrounds were beginning to reorient themselves to one another and their shared history, faith traditions, and cultural roots in order to save the faith from demise through its divisions.  We were seeing the development of Convergent Friends as new traditionalists, reaching back into the past to reconnect the present, similar to the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis who revived the roots of jazz through his devotion to its traditions, its rich heritage, its distinctive mark on American life by bringing it to a younger audience.

I thought this was a throwaway concept–how could Quakers understand their relationship to jazz and its own divided culture?  Yet several Friends responded that the analogy is meaningful and helpful in teasing out the murmurings of “convergent Friends” as a reality coming to fruition.  So now I’ll do what all artists do and steal some titles from Wynton Marsalis’ first, self-titled, album back in 1981 (and one from 1986’s Standard Time, Volume 1) to take you to the source of the insight…

Standard Time vol 1 album coverFather Time

Just as the Quaker faith has undergone its own web of fissures, splits, and divergences from its beginnings, the jazz world has fractured into many splinters after only an century of history.  Arguments have erupted over the true meaning of the origins of jazz and what it encompasses, with its external influences from populism, subculture, Ivy League canonization, evangelism, divergences, strident supporters and rebels seeking new directions for its roots.  And why not?  Jazz music and Quakerism are flexible, malleable, and full of tensile strength leaving them weather-worn but wide-ranging and inclusive with many points of entry.

Just as Quakerism has done, jazz has grown and developed throughlines that have spidered out since its beginnings in the early 20th century.  Jazz music has come to encompass a broad range of stylings and interpretations–Dixieland, orchestras, big bands, modernism, minimalists, fusion, and other variances–as it has made its way through American, and eventually, world cultures.  It has developed its own stars and purveyors of each style as well created a few who could find and create their own voice among the gaps between them (notably Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis, among others).  Each layer of style was built upon reformation of the past, realigning of ideals measured against the medium and its audience who bought both records and drinks in the clubs which paid the musicians to continue.

Yet, as with Quakerism, its popularity had come and gone and was in constant need for care and revival among the young and restless.  A traditionalist would suggest it requires mastery of past standard, a proficiency in the rudiments of the trade, constant practice and discipline, respect and humility in the face of its esteemed past in order to reinterpret it for a modern audience.  A new voice, not just a new sound, was needed; yet it had to be a voice that would echo the cherished past enough to build a bridge toward a brighter future.

I’ll Be There When the Time is Right

Has it ever been up to one figure to lead the way for Quakers since the time of George Fox?  One person who so embodies the Spirit that encapsulates Quakerism’s core, where disparate groups can unite us?  Who has the mastery to mine the depths of historical writings and insights of generations of Quaker leaders?

For jazz, it was Wynton Marsalis who, with his virtuosity, pedigree, and unflagging commitment to his vision of the tenets of jazz, plumbed the depths of its history and returned with its pearls.  When I was growing up, I learned the names of historic jazz artists such as Art Blakey and Ron Carter as they were introduced alongside Wynton’s youthful comrades (and autures) on his self-titled debut record.  And as Wynton progressed, he brought together the young lions with the aged ones fusing them under his leadership of the revival.  I was being re-educated and I didn’t even know it.  On his later album, Standard Time: Volume 1 a common standard jazz tune like “Caravan” held the Afro-cuban backbeat mixed with Dixieland that flowed easily into a swing-cadance by a quartet.  It wasn’t until years later I learned it was Duke Ellington’s contribution to the American Songbook back in 1936 that Marsalis’s group had reinvigorated for my chaste ears.  Wynton had brought about rebirth through mastery of tradition.

As Marsalis materialized everywhere at once during the 1980’s, he brought jazz to the ivoried halls of Lincoln Center (shocking!), became a foil for his own brother, Branford’s, success with a pop musician, Sting, and found an audience among jazz purists such as culture critic Stanley Crouch.  He magnetized young aspiring jazz performers together, showcasing the roots of jazz (New Orleans) to eager crowds in rural areas using educational institutions like colleges and universities as his stage.  His message was clear–jazz is educational, cultural, life-giving, and for the here-and-now young crowd, if you’re able to handle its complexity and respect its deep cultural signifiance that I’m going to enjoin with you.  Now watch this.

His abilities however, proved integratable with the another genre of an aging audience–classical music. Not as a tribute, but as a sign of virtuosity, Marsalis’ classical works include his recordings of Haydn, Mozart, and Tomasi.  Embracing classical performances demonstrated that with his talents, Marsalis could speak to two audiences at once–jazz and classical–and ask them to meet one another on each others turf, wooing them to notice each other as two yet-to-be-introduced lovers from across a dance floor.

Will Quakerism experience this ability of unification, of vitality, of re-emergence?  What will it take?  So far, groups are developing under a term–“convergent Friends”–rather than under an individual.  As Robin Mohr pined in her blog What Canst Thou Say? in 2006, the convergent Friends movement is made of “Friends who are seeking a deeper understanding of our Quaker heritage and a more authentic life in the kingdom of God on Earth, radically inclusive of all who seek to live this life.”  Blogs and other social networking tools of the Internet are bringing disparate Quakers together via online engagement and creating a place where traditionalists can meet with neo-traditionalists along of international Quakers from major (North America, Britain, Kenya, and Central America) and developing Quaker populations (Korea, Japan).


    Marsalis was not without detractors. Reaction to his purist vision and union with other classical music forms was naturally caustic to the prodigious innovators who had moved beyond traditional roots to produce jazz for the times they were in, such as pianists Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock, who had begun producing pop-jazz works ready-made for consumption.  During the demise of jazz in the 1970’s and 80’s, as big bands and smaller combos were facing extinction by a marketplace looking for fresh voices beyond standards, new instrumentations and forms were emerging that hardly were recognizable as jazz.  Even his own brother, Branford, split with him early in their careers, with Branford persuing the delivery of jazz to the pop-rock world with Sting and a three year run on The Tonight Show (ask any jazz musician under 30 and they’ll know how they thought of a career in jazz might actually become profitable).  Wynton’s vision was being called out–if you stick with tradition, where’s your marketplace among the young?

Similarly, throughout Quaker faith, divergence from its roots has brought newer, modern audiences to Quakers and progressed with new pathways while abandoning the shared past commonalities.  Yet as a splintered tradition, Quakers have begun to suffer each other as distant relatives do when dining during the holidays; a failing coordination of growth which has led instead to disunity and a lack of understanding and respect for common roots essential to creating a mutually enhancing ecosystem of faith grounded in the Light.

Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)

Just as Quakers do, jazz musicians fear the irrelevancy and demise of their faith.  As the audience and practitioners dwindle and devoted attenders begin to gray, as freshness becomes familiarity, as creativity and exploration fall to pandering to crowds or the dumbing down of past disciplines, and current work begins to rest on the laurels of past heroes and achievements, practitioners can become lazy and actions lifeless.

Marsalis offers Quakers a model for evangelism that is unique.  He demonstrated that a revival can occur through mastering the roots of tradition with rigorous study and practice.  That a revival can occur through showcasing new talent alongside weightier members of the community can join generations.  That a revival can occur by finding an audience through the channels which they are attuned to and plugging into them.  That revival can occur through seeking the depths of the tradition rather than looking toward outward trends in your audience.  That a revival can occur through care and cultivation of a rich heritage of the past.  That revival can occur through rediscovery of the past as an alive world still speaking to us today.  As he himself points out as a guest lecturer in “Christianity and the U.S. Crisis,” a course at Union Theological Seminary in 2009, Marsalis states, “We [Americans] have failed to identify our arts tradition…we are a nation that is largely ignorant of it…our arts are there, they have been documented, and when we reach for them they are there for us.”  He is then followed by another great American thinker, Dr. Cornel West, who points out that educating youth on the roots of their cultural tradition “provides the armor [against majority culture] for them to flower and flourish; and in that sense it is the responsibility of each every one of us.  That’s why I like [Marsalis], he is not just a talented artist, he is an evangelist for jazz, he teaches everywhere.”

Caravan (A Slight Return)

However, even a purist such as Marsalis has seen the need to join forces with other one-time traditionalists such cellist Yo Yo Ma, country songwriter Willie Nelson, and bluegrass fiddler Mark O’Connor, in order to join himself to the musical world beyond his own.  Among jazz neo-traditionalists, these cooperative projects may be seen as variances or distractions from iconic jazz traditionalist figures such as Duke Ellington on Louis Armstrong among Marsalis neo-tradtionalists, but with Marsalis having demonstrated and established his bonafides, these cooperative projects are more like a council of elders practicing extending their trades to one another to show the world their correlations, how roots of various trees can rebuild a segregated ecosystem.

Convergent Friends face major obstacles, some simple and plain (world languages, geography, time zones), and others more complex (individualized concepts of God and the Biblical texts).  Three hundred fifty years of history is nearly impossible to master by a single practitioner of the faith.

Convergent Friends are being offered a chance to bring alive the variances of Quaker faith through correlation of the roots of its past.  By knowing one another’s faith traditions and seeing common roots, convergent Friends can build a web of support to nurture a future together.  To create a Quaker ecosystem that include all branches of Quakers which would be capable of supporting new life, a new face of Quakerism, which would demonstrate Quakerism’s viability as a growing faith.  In today’s world, with Quakerism’s openness and malleability, its ability to breed concepts such as radical inclusiveness or gather a meeting through a blogging community, it’s open-source access to the Light, it offers roots in a faith tradition that fits into a post-modern world.  As fellow Quaker, Liz Opp, says in her writings, “I continue to believe that the more firmly rooted we are in our own tradition and belief, the less threatened we will be by those who practice and believe differently from ourselves, and the more open we will be to learn from one another without fear of being assimilated, converted, or imposed upon.”

Amen, as a Friend might say.

Or as a new jazz traditionalist would conclude, “Thank you, and good night.”

Internet Archive visit

Internet Archive glass     I’ve been wanting to take a trip to visit a Friday lunch at the Internet Archive for years since I heard about them. If you haven’t heard of or used it, it might be a shock to learn about its existence–since 1996, they’ve been “capturing” the Internet onto permanent, indexed, searchable hard drives on behalf of the public. The Wayback Machine is probably the most famous arm of this project, and one that I use to reference works I wrote way back when I was a music journalist for the online-only publication, Buzznet.

A year and a half ago, they moved from their old digs in the Presidio to their new digs in the former Christian Scientist building on Funston (at Clement) and done some renovating (along with their logo which now features the Roman columns on the building). It’s a beautiful space, and one that fits many “wings” of the organization that they’ve branched into collecting–sound, video, and, along with Google, a book digitization project which includes open access and a lending library, called Open Library. They are even suggesting the MegaReader app for iPhone/iPad users to access the collection.

Digital desk

Digital desk

As part of the lunch, each person had to describe why they were visiting or, if you work there, interesting progress or events from your project you are working on.  I was visiting for several purposes with one being that my library receives unique items which are often Quaker-related and can be rare. I was particularly interested in seeing how their digitization works after realizing they have quite an amazing collection of Quaker documents already in their library for free viewing (482 as of this writing). One of the key findings, for me, is how this work is being done and shared as a research tool for Quakers, especially those not living near a library that would stock such items. Unfortunately, the cost is around $.10/page to have your document scanned, unless you donate the item to them, so this will most likely be cost-prohibitive at this point but it does bring hope that, should someone have a large bequest, they could probably pay for the scanning of many Quaker documents and have them housed, potentially, forever on open servers and open to the public. Better than a physical library in many ways!

I was particularly engaged by the Director of this project, Richard, who came from a commercial background and now works for this non-profit. He’s a great

Internet Archive server rack

A slice of the Internet

person to head this project as he definitely had a feel for why and how the Open Library will deal with the Googlization of everything in a non-commercial way.

The Open Library project is working toward offering books in many formats compatible with many e-readers out there, and have built their own web-reader which makes it available in this future-compatible format. And, since this past holiday season, it’s getting easier and easier to have access to e-readers. I’ve been an ebook fan/reader since back in 2000 when I started library school using my HP Journada 540 with a black-and-white screen.

While I’m not sure the Internet Archive will truly ever compete with the commercial world, it will continue its efforts to bring free books to the public in many formats and continue the fight for bringing books to people free of charge, so hooray for that. I’m happy to see that this is another answer for libraries as opposed to complicated DRM files and outsourcing to paid-vendors like OverDrive.

Headphoneless: connecting to community

As part of a conference on Convergent Friends I went to a few weekends ago, I realized that one of my urban tools, headphones, were getting in the way of my connection to my community.

One of my previous posts mentioned my love, fascination, and complex relationship I have with my noise-canceling headphones.  I fell in love with them and their blessed ability to remove noise, creating a better BART ride, lower the volume on my iPod, and promote a calmer traveling experience.  What I didn’t count on was my disconnection from the world.

Public transit’s great, but I do miss the solitude of the car–listening to the radio or my own mix was a great way to pass the time and educate myself when I was growing up traveling those long Maine-distances between towns on the country roads.  Nowadays, I plug in, walk out my door and have a 30-minute walk/transit to work and do the same thing with headphones and iPod.  But what’s missing?  Why do I continue to isolate myself from others, the same as in a car, while being in community with my fellow travelers?

This idea came to me when we discussed the concept of “Quaker plain”–how early Quakers, in their quest to be closer to God avoided distractions in the physical world.  Clothing became functional, avoiding frills (even shirt collars and belts were forgone for collarless shirts and suspenders), speech became more direct, and other moves toward a simple life so as to give more attention to God.  I realized that my headphones were not creating silence, but creating a distraction from the world, an ability to trade a personal, inward growth and satisfaction over the challenges and beauty the world offers.

One idea that developed from that discussion was having an Internet Sabbath, a day free of digital connection.  I could hear groans in the room.  These days, this is pretty challenging for many young Friends.  But this, in truth, is another distraction.  Yes, a useful tool, but not a necessary one–like a collar.  I’m noticing, however, that there is something developing among young Friends called “New Plain” which this might fit into.

Secret readers

Remember when reading comics was considered uncouth by the literati.  Well, I do and I know that it wasn’t that long ago, and that it took Maus and Batman: the Dark Knight to bring the light of day to the rest of the world on comics as art that is now upon us.

a comic-strip biography

Louis Riel: a comic-strip biography

I bring this up after re-visiting Chester Brown‘s biography, Louis Riel, which absolutely blew me away a few years ago.  I was already a fan of I Never Liked You from years back (having discovered him via Drawn & Quarterly‘s Julie DoucetLouis Riel, the graphic novel, is actually a reprint of work he did back in the early 90’s, which makes it all the more impressive.  Thoroughly researched, deftly edited, and drawn with the sparse clarity of Japanese manga and condensed dialogue, Brown makes quick work of a folk hero from what is now Canada who is both lauded and unsung (and easily mentionable to any Canadian as a quick ‘in’ if you drop his name).

To bring this up, however, at a children’s book store with adults brought an unexpected surprise: we all shared in a love of graphic novels, secretly.  We’d never truly own it out loud (except via a blog, right?), but we all loved to talk about what really made us fans.  Was it the artwork of the incomparable Steve Ditko who inspired us to think in other dimensions about the reasons behind good and evil?  The mastermind of marketing of Stan Lee in our early years?  Or our affinity for the bleak altruism of Frank Miller?  An affinity for the sparse, beautiful ennui in Adrian Tomine’s youthful protagonists?  We loved them all under the “Graphic Novel” display one evening and wondered if anyone else in the room knew we’d found each other.

Children’s books redux

Every year I get to go on a binge of children’s lit, taking a survey of what is out there, what are the trends, how things have(n’t) changed, and discover new pearls among…well.  What’s challenging is to realize that, in actuality, children’s book publishing is becoming more extensive than in the past.  This might go against the folk myth that print is actually suffering from an influx of the Internet, whereas print materials have been expanding for years.  However, books are going out of print much more quickly than in the past, such that I need to purchase a book in 1-2 years if I want it in hardback, otherwise it’s gone to paperback and in 3-5 years (conservatively speaking) it may be out of print altogether if it isn’t on some best seller list somewhere.  Shelf real estate is valuable to libraries and to publishing houses!

On a side note, I’m discovering a lot of good tunes via while working, with one gem being Joanna Newsom.  Unfortunately, this video is the size of a postage stamp on her site, but thank goodness for YouTube: