Monday, July 7, 2008

Jazz, the universal language

This is a Post-script to my entry on Universality.

Last night, I went to the Checkerboard Lounge in its new Hyde Park location with two friends, one of them having been there when we went to its old location as undergraduates. Then, the lounge was literally in a Chicago ghetto, and the audience was a mixed between intensely dressed up black folks (suits, high heels, gold chains, hats) from the neighborhood and frumpily dressed white tourists (a bus full of Germans came to occupy a very long table, clapping not quite on beat) and white undergrads. By the time we came out of the lounge, there was no bus anymore in a neighborhood where no taxis visit. We got home thanks to a catering man, who knew that we needed a ride. He sometimes swung by the neighborhood for precisely folks like us, just to make some cash.

Here, in a Harper Court now owned by the University of Chicago, Checkerboard Lounge has undergone a makeover. It has clean floors, clean bathrooms, a very spacious main room and large stage. Most importantly, however, it was no longer clear who is from the neighborhood and who is not. In fact, I would venture to say that everyone in the room - white, black, Asians, old, young - was probably from Hyde Park or the vicinity. The place is now the heart of the Hyde Park Jazz Society, and organizers urged people to join and leave their addresses. In the new Checkerboard Lounge, it is no longer the black regulars and the white tourists (including urban tourists from Evanston like ourselves), but a neighborhood where blacks and whites took civic responsibility together.

As to be expected, the musicians on the gig last night were all African Americans, but toward the end of the second set, they invited their friends to come and play, namely, the white folks sitting in the front row who turned out to be bass and piano players. I was rather moved to see all of this, having been away from the US for the past two years. It is perhaps one of the few places in this country where black and white Americans can be seen interacting in a healthy and fertile relationship. This does not mean that race does not matter or disappears. The scene much resembles the congregation in St. Paul (my local Episcopalian church), where the white folks came in beach sandals and shorts, and the black folks came in bright colors, slick suits and panama hats. The cultural difference is glaring. It is also clear that jazz is a shining feat of African-American culture, and the whites in the audience are perfectly respectful of that. It is as if the whites knew themselves to be guests in a black household - but wanted guests.

However, as soon as the white jazz musicians get on stage, it becomes clear that jazz is a universal language, too, that transcends race. The African-American musicians very visibly have enough respect for their own music to want to share it with others. It also becomes clear that it would be impossible for the white musicians to remain white if they want to be good jazz players. Just like non-homosexual men of the theater are not quite straight either, the white jazz players are not quite white. This was just affirmed by a show on PBS mentioning the African-American troops fighting the Germans in France (under French command, too, because the American command could not deal with their race), and the French were utterly transfixed by the music they brought. It makes complete sense that jazz in the 1920s and 1930s was to transform modern French culture; Duke Ellington was featured in avant-garde journals as the new hero.

In short, I simply want to affirm that, not only is it possible and imperative that we speak of universality in the arts, it might be the case that the arts is the only place where we can truly speak of transcending identities. The arts is the locus of human life where the leitmotif is metamorphosis, and things are never what they quite appear.

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