Monday, March 05, 2007

Fire Music Sans Dissent

In a telling interview with Charlie Rose, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone told the PBS host, they only way to shock and rebel in Hollywood was to say nice things about Bush and declare themselves proud gun owners. In a liberal, one party town, that constitutes real dissent. So when John Murph’s article in the April Downbeat titled “Fire Music Renaissance,” speaks of “a surge of political dissent” it begs the question who are they dissenting from?

Profiling recent politically themed albums from the like of Vijay Iyer, Wynton Marsalis, and Soweto Kinch, Murph writes: “In the wake of such decade-defining events as the 2000 presidential election, 9/11, the Iraq war and overall war on terror, and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, a sizeable number of jazz albums voicing sociopolitical angst have emerged.” However, throughout the piece there is not one single word spoken in favor of President Bush or the War in Iraq. This is wholly consistent with the opinions I have heard expressed at IAJE’s jazz and politics forum and other public events, like forums at Vision Fest. To qualify as dissent, your opinion must be contrary to that which prevails in your community. Again, where is the dissent in criticizing FEMA? It’s more like shooting fish in a barrel.

There are repeated suggestions that artists might be risking their careers by making politicizing statements, but as Murph concedes: “a number of the aforementioned albums were released on major labels.” Indeed, Blue Note released Marsalis’ From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, what was then Universal’s Verve label released Charlie Haden’s Not in Our Name and Savoy released Iyer & Ladd’s Still Life With Commentator, all at the time were major players on the jazz scene. One vocalist did flatly claim she had faced resistance to a song from station managers for its politicized content, and that could well be true. Of course, it is also easier to say the boss does not want to play anything political than admit you just don’t like someone’s song.

Marsalis’ Penitentiary sounds like the closest album to being legitimately controversial within the jazz community. In a sidebar, Murph describes it thusly: “The trumpeter addresses the current crisis in Black America and tackles such touchy issues of capitalism, misogyny, drug addiction and incarceration. The uncompromising piece positions Marsalis alongside other pundits such as Bill Cosby and Juan Williams.” Later in the same issue, James Hale reviews Penitentiary, giving it one star, writing “it’s so dogmatic that it puts good taste on the run.” So much for dissent in fire music.

I have not heard Penitentiary yet, so I cannot assess its artistic merit. Marsalis and all the other featured artists have a perfect right to make any statement they wish. I only take issue with applying the term “dissent” to expressions of political conformity.