Jazz and Democratic Character

Professor Greg Clark (English) and Marcus Roberts, professional jazz pianist, worked together with Roberts’ band to demonstrate the unlikely connection between jazz and democracy. 

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 25, 2020)—This semester, BYU welcomed professional jazz pianist Marcus Roberts and his band, the Modern Jazz Generation, to host a university forum with Professor Greg Clark (English)In their presentation, which was a seamless back and forth between spoken word and music, they highlighted the similarities between performing jazz music and participating in a democracy. 

Clark was first introduced to the relationship between democracy and jazz music over 20 years ago, and he became intrigued with the strong connection between these two seemingly different topics. “Democracy is about friendship,” said Clark. “It’s about how we treat each other personally, as well as how we treat each other publicly and civically.” He explained how people have the power to influence others around them, whether for good or for bad, and that “[jazz] music, just like living well together, requires of all of us equality and sacrifice.” 

Roberts, the pianist and leader of the band, lost his sight at age five. He reflected, “that was my first awareness that life is not always fair. And it was the beginning of understanding that to thrive in this world we must all depend on one another in some way.” 

As the Modern Jazz Generation strive to be a successful jazz band, Roberts stated that they’ve learned how to work and play together, “but [they]’ve also learned to depend on and trust one another in order to create something greater together than any of [them] could have created alone.” That is the essence of jazz music, and that is also the essence of a successful democracy. 

Rodney Jordan, the bassist in the band, talked about the importance of “mak[ing] room for each other” while playing. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is simultaneously in control, but that they listen to one another and create spaces in the music for different instruments to shine.  

The drummer of the band, Jason Marsalis, noted that their band “is an experiment in democracy,” and in order for it to function, “the leader has to allow everyone to share in controlling their direction of the music.”  

This concept was also demonstrated in their presentation, as different members of the band took turns speaking and playing solos. Members of the group spoke about the importance of conflict resolution, mentorship, and democratic character. 

Integral to playing jazz well and developing democratic character is the idea of communication and collaboration. And as Roberts closed the forum, he noted“Jazz still has much to teach us about how we can become a better country and a better people.” 

Heather Bergeson (21, English)