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, QuakerQuaker.org, 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).

Hesitation

    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.”

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.

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 Last.fm 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:

CB “Library revival”

Library Revival! and Mind the Gap…

Last year, a Pew Internet & American Life Project report stated, “There are several major findings…one is this: For help with a variety of common problems, more people turn to the internet than consult experts or family members to provide information and resources. Another key insight is that members of Gen Y are the leading users of libraries for help solving problems and in more general patronage.” Whoa! Libraries aren’t dead, they’re just in revival! But the paper goes on to describe this young group as 18-24-year olds, rather than elementary or high school students. So what happens before then?

 

One of the joys of the early years during library time is when parents come and remark that “somehow he just started reading–overnight!” Like a light-switch, reading becomes important, and then all-consuming! Prying that Magic School Bus book out of their hands to put food in their mouths during dinner time is actually a challenge and, secretly, a joy to both the parent and the child. The joy lasts for three or four good years–the voracious series-reader, the comics-reader, the reference-reader, the in-depth subject-reader, the behemoth-volume reader, the genre-reader–all books seem to be part of the feeding-frenzy. Enjoyment and pleasure is a key component here, finding a book, magazine, comic, even trading cards or role-playing games help kids find out who they are, their likes and dislikes, their penchant for exploration. And as kids mature, reading as reward is a great part of our school–fifth graders begin their week by taking the first twenty minutes of class time with a self-chosen book for silent reading; classroom book clubs are exciting places to diversify the young readers’ repertoire; during silent reading time, students look around to see one another deeply engaged.

Yet in 2004, Reading at Risk, a report from the National Endowment of the Arts, claimed our nation of readers was in decline–“among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy”–with the rate of decline for 18-24-year olds down by 55%. What are we to believe? What is reading–print or electronic? “literature,” newspapers, or cereal boxes? And, again, what about those early years, the “gap” where reading supposedly falls off, often when kids begin using multimedia?

 

 

One of the library program’s jobs is empowering kids to make good choices in their media, especially in the early years. How do I find something that is interesting and meaningful to me? How do I find something in such a large room full of materials? What do my friends like and how can we share these likes with each other? This is preparation for what lies ahead–the flood of information sources kids gain access to in the middle years–and a chance to give them guidance on how not to get lost in the ocean of resources we adults manage on a daily basis. Fifth graders are searching through public library databases to work on their historical newspapers. Many students have begun to do their own searches, use the self-checkout system alone, and return their books without visiting the library each week. The library becomes more of a backbone, something you call rely upon but maybe don’t think about too much until it’s not there. A sense of independence grows, but learning when you need to know more and how to find it becomes more significant.

 

As our library grows, we’ll begin to incorporate digital media tools for the middle school–a plasma screen, a photocopier, computers, databases for research geared toward younger students. Reading for information and research will become an acquired skill; learning keyword and phrase searching becomes an important skill to learn; recording and documenting your work well becomes more significant; deciding which sources to use and how to apply them is a complex set of decisions that is introduced and reinforced throughout these years as the Internet takes over print as the primary source of learning and information berry-picking. The Internet and the digital worlds become a larger part of the upper grades and a blending of the library’s physical and digital collections will begin to emerge.

 

So what can be done to keep kids reading print during these more scholarly “middle years”? Offer up some “hard” books dealing with tougher topics (Chris Crutcher, Judith Krug, and Carolyn Mackler are great authors for mature readers) and react to it with them; pick up a book you can read aloud together or listen together on CD/mp3; play role-playing games to keep your imagination running (Dungeons and Dragons is making a strong comeback!); visit the Guys Read website (www.guysread.com) for how to keep boys, in particular, reading; continue to take trips to the library for fun rather than “to do some research.” Try keeping a media diet balanced more heavily toward print with a variety of magazine subscriptions (very cheap these days), comics, board games, photography, or artwork; share your thoughts and ideas on what your media habits are like with the community on CommonSense Media’s website (www.commonsensemedia.org).

Remind your young ones that it takes time, patience, and perseverance to learn and engage with the world, not just a fast Internet connection or a large video collection. Print media is often a calming environment filled with imagination, wisdom, and depth that takes time to explore and discover which can be complimented by the web, television, or movies. Read that first 50 pages of a chapter book before deciding you don’t like it! Ask a friend for a recommendation, or share your reading lists online with your friends (check out LibraryThing [www.librarything.com] or GoodReads [www.goodreads.com]). And keep an eye on the clock–set time limits on interactive media (such as email, online gaming) or media that promotes stimulation (watching t.v.) rather than relaxation or creative media. The jump from print to digital and back requires you to help “mind the gap” as we board the train from the stationary platform or step off into a station to take a break.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prius, sooner than we thought but better late than never

Prius So the new car is…a Prius!  It was a lot of compromise, and it’s our first new car ever.  I’d only heard about how challenging dealing with car salespeople can be and it didn’t turn out to be totally false–we were practically ushered into a sale every time we took a spin in a vehicle, but when we were finally serious about purchase, the haggling was pretty merciless.  With a combination of Consumer Reports’ Car Guide (overview of reality), the Internet (for details), and some basic shoe-leather (test-driving), I came up with a ballpark figure for several models and packages to go in with and I think we got away with a good deal for what we wanted.

There were a lot of shocking upgrades to cars that I was surprised at, especially in terms of providing a safe ride: built-in Bluetooth connectivity (we could pair our phone with the car mic-system, plus import our phone address book), automated climate-control, airbags all over the place, ABS and other computer controlled guidance systems for load-balancing in bad driving conditions, and digital key locks, plus a programmable button for our garage door opener (no more fat little dongle that costs $100!).  And, as part of our package, a built-in GPS with audio announcement.  Apparently, a lot of features are voice-activated, plus lots of controls are on on the steering wheel, so your eyes are on the road a lot more often.

Our purchase really erred on the side of caution–a great, long lasting vehicle with lots of features to provide a safe ride.  I think we’ll stay together a long time…