The Rhetoric of Jazz

By Stephanie Bahr Bentley (’14)

Seated at the dinner table, plates empty and pushed to the side, Gregory D. Clark, a BYU English professor and associate dean in the College of Humanities, watched as Marcus Roberts, world-renowned jazz pianist, was led to the piano by Clark’s 13-year-old daughter, Rebecca. She had told Roberts that she had quit piano and violin and now wanted to study jazz singing, noting she was particularly fond of Natalie Cole’s “Route 66.” With eyes that couldn’t see, Roberts sat at the piano and touched the keys.

Starting with a simple melody, Roberts brought everyone to gather around the piano. The improvised introduction led into a beat, and Rebecca found her place. With the breathy voice of a teenager, she started singing “Route 66.”

Roberts’s accompaniment pushed Rebecca along, giving her energy and strength until her voice no longer sounded like that of an adolescent. By the end of the song, she had been carried by the piano to sing better than she had ever sung before, recalls Clark.

“He knew the way to carry her in a way that she couldn’t do herself. It showed how a soloist can be made better by an accompanist and how we can’t do some things alone—how we need each other,” Clark says.

The music created by Marcus Roberts and Clark’s daughter that night is just one example of the powerful lessons found in jazz music.

Finding Hope in Jazz

Clark’s interest in jazz music began as a young boy in the ’60s. Like most teenagers his age, he listened to the Top 40 hits on the radio. But at the top of the AM radio dial, there was a jazz music station. “I liked the sound. It was peaceful; it sounded grown up.”

Over the years, Clark and his wife kept a mild interest in jazz; then, in 1995, they saw Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform at the BYU Marriott Center. Throughout the performance, Marsalis took breaks from the music to teach. “He talked about how jazz operated democratically, and at that time, I was researching democratic culture, especially how individuals work together,” Clark says.

The performance got Clark thinking. He made a few phone calls, talked to various people, and even contacted Marsalis and attended educational events put on by the Lincoln Center. From there, his new interest in what he calls “civic jazz” became a large part of his research as a rhetorician.

Clark lays it out simply: Rhetoric is about how people make arguments. One of the large parts of argument making is story. “Story works indirectly,” Clark says. “It puts a person in an imaginary experience, where there’s potential for that experience to affect how we think and feel.”

The effect of such an experience was explored by 20th-century theorist Kenneth Burke. Burke questioned how aesthetic experiences, especially experiences outside of literature, affect people. With Burke in mind, Clark began researching rhetoric within landscapes, giving particular attention to tourists’ experiences in American national parks. The research culminated in his 2004 book Rhetorical Landscapes in America, which discussed the national parks as places where Americans from diverse backgrounds can have the same experience.

Clark’s national parks book built off Burke’s argument that rhetoric is about identification—using arguments and stories to get people to identify with each other. When Marsalis and the big band came to Provo, Clark recognized that the rhetoric behind jazz music carried similar themes.

“Good jazz is made as unique performers find in their very differences musical ways to get along,” Clark writes in his upcoming book, Civic Jazz, American Music, Kenneth Burke, and the Art of Getting Along. “There is magic involved in that, as together they invent on the fly music that none of them could ever create or even imagine alone. They make that music out of the diverse individualities that they come to the bandstand prepared to express, identities that come willing to develop and even change in the process of playing.”

These ideas, of course, also resonate with the principles of democratic discourse. Clark says he studies rhetoric and democracy because he has a personal interest in seeing our country work better, which makes jazz a powerful civic lesson—and a symbol of hope.

Concert Hall as Classroom

The power of music to bring people together was demonstrated at a BYU event in early April of this year. The event brought Roberts back to BYU, and he was joined by Loren Schoenberg, artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, on the saxophone.

In a dimly lit auditorium, audience members listened as Schoenberg and Roberts warmed up on their instruments. Clark, sitting to the side of the musicians, introduced the players and invited the listeners to reflect on the lessons jazz can teach: “What can we learn about our lives from the way jazz works?”

Clark’s introduction led into a sweet, soul-reaching melody provided by Schoenberg and Roberts. Playing together and soloing in a musical exchange, the artists evoked enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Intrigued by the unity of the improvised music, one listener asked during the discussion, “How do you know when to step back and when to take the stronger role?”

Turning to face the audience, Roberts replied, “It’s like a conversation. There’s playing the music, and there’s hearing it. Nothing great can happen if everyone steps on one another. Each player has to make room for the others for jazz to work.”

Schoenberg added, “When you see jazz, you are seeing two people getting along.”

Clark explained that these concepts tie into more than democracy: “The humanities are about people understanding and learning from each other, and jazz musicians do that really well.”

“It’s not hard to apply all this to social and civic life,” Clark says. “Watching and hearing it happen in jazz—it’s hard not to. That’s how this music can help people keep believing that they can live and work together after all.”