Let the Dead Bury the Dead
How a Jazz Festival illustrates Life’s Eros
Let the dead bury the dead, but you proclaim the kingdom of God.
Let them give you some ideas, but don't be afraid to explore new ones.
Let the aged ones cling to the past, but you listen to the call of novelty.
Let the dead bury the dead. The Lord arrives from the future.
A Variation on Luke 9:60
I have just returned from the annual Ottawa International Jazz Festival. It reminded me anew that life is an offensive against mechanistic repetition. The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe. Novelty is the Eros of the universe. It is the way we meet the Lord of whom Jesus speaks in Luke. There is something Buddhist in this, too. We can appreciate the past, but ought not cling to it as if it were a god.
Of course not everyone thinks this way. Even jazz enthusiasts can be clingers. The festival should have been called “Ottawa International Jazz and Rock Festival,” because it included rock icons such as Robert Plant, Elvis Costello & the Impostors, KD Lang, and Daniel Lanois. Some were annoyed by this. “This isn't Jazz; it's a sell out!” In other contexts I also saw a resistance to novelty, albeit to a different musical reality. The festival included several smaller concerts in which musicians were brilliant in their experimentation, and were criticized for it. Oftentimes the melody was buried deep in the improvisation, inspiring several mid-concert walkouts.
But even if you are tempted to resist novelty, a good jazz festival – like the one in Ottawa – undercuts your resistance….if you stick with it. I relished the diversity. I witnessed the intense, transforming, and experimental piano solo of Tigran Hamasyan immediately before watching the Vancouver group The Unsupervised, who “is known as the great white shark of Canadian jazz." Founded by Vancouver guitarist Jeff Younger in 2005, the group can glide along in an almost tranquil way just before opening its jaws for a deliciously avant-garde attack.”1 The evening ended with a piano solo by Vijay Iyer, whose buried melody lines pushed in a more quiet way than the first.
A night of contrasts that left me satisfied in the Whiteheadian sense. It was a satisfaction that included eros, a desire for change and difference, a satisfaction of instability. The evening of pushing the tradition drew to mind the following words of Alfred North Whitehead: “In every age of well-marked transition, there is the pattern of habitual dumb practice and emotion which is passing and there is oncoming a new complex of habit.” The evening reminded me that jazz should not be caught in the habits of the past. In Whitehead’s words: “Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure, a sense of nothing having been done before, of complete freedom to experiment; but when caution comes in you get repetition, and repetition is the death of art.”
In truth, so many human activities – artistic and otherwise- elicit a futile resistance to change, at least at first. As Whitehead suggested, the habits of the universe are so powerful there is wonder that any change occurs. A similar resistance dominates much of today's political climate. There is the continuous cry to go back to the good old days days which only exist in myth. As Whitehead once said, "Periods of tranquility are seldom prolific of creative achievement. Mankind has to be stirred up.”
This tension becomes apparent when one looks at the world of institutionalized religion. Members resist change while clinging to a fictional center. But for us Whiteheadians, the tradition they wish to adhere to is itself misunderstood. Mystics have always pushed religious tradition to seek new ways of affirming faith: “The poet, the artist, the sleuth - whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial... he cannot go along with currents and trends.”
The music that lifted us and moved us was full of exploration in a similar way. The avant-garde music of Christian McBride and Inside Straight conveyed both the breadth of jazz and what life can be. McBride presented a fat jazz full of tradition: a jazz that was, in his words, beautiful but also “full of cholesterol.” He explored the roots and reinterpreted them. Similarly, Return to Forever provided an hour and half of six pieces, guiding the audience on roads less traveled but they knew they had been somewhere near before.
My experience at the festival reminded me that tradition is the breaking of tradition itself. This was evident in the music of Canadian rocker Daniel Lanois, who broke the rock pattern and gave the audience back a new experience: “Ideas won't keep, something must be done about them.” It was the Darcy James Argue's Secret Society big band who reminded the audience of the adventure of ideas that is Jazz. Darcy James Argue, a Brooklyn-based musician who originally hails from Vancouver, who gave us a more indie sound than the big bands of our grandfathers. They melded the harmonies and syncopation of jazz with the sound processing and complex beats of electronic music, the atmosphere and expansiveness of film scores, and the intensity of adventurous rock. Rather than a succession of soloists on each turn, it was one instrument against the rest of the band with the improviser “fighting“ what the conductor calls the “ predetermined narrative” of the composition. It was complex and inviting, as though the music itself conveyed the sounds of daily life and social justice issues. The players made use of their whole bodies, moving the music forward with their own movements and inspiring the audience to move their own bodies with the music. Living is a total mind and body experience. In all walks of life, there are poets who resist the fear of innovation, daring us to let go of the dead past.
Letting go of the dead past. Wasn’t it Jesus who said let the dead bury the dead2. He didn’t mean we don’t honor the dead. But Buddhist that he was, he did mean that we don’t cling to them, when the future calls for novelty.
1 "The Unsupervised." Ottowa Jazz Festival. Ottowa Jazz Festival. Web. 28 Aug. 2011. <http://ottawajazzfestival.com/index.php/the-unsupervised/>.
2 "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God." ,New Testament. Luke 9:60.