Thursday, July 05, 2007

Born on the Fourth of July

Last night was another great celebration in our family, with a birthday party for our son, who is now 18. What a wonderful birthday! I still remember my excitement on having a son born on the fourth of July. We were in Bismarck, North Dakota at the time and it happened to be the Centennial Celebration of Statehood with thousands of people gathered on the grounds of the capitol. It was an auspicious day. Ever since our son has had a great day to celebrate his birthday with us and family and friends. For a long time, he thought the fire-works on the 4th of July were planned especially for him. I did nothing to disabuse of him of that notion while he was growing up. Looking out over the skyline of Omaha, Nebraska last night from our vantage point to see the fireworks put on at the capacious grounds of Boys Town, I saw fireworks from one end of the horizon to the other. It was fantastic!

The 4th of July is also an occasion to celebrate my favorite holiday, and to enjoy the meaning of our nation's founding. Lately I've been listening to jazz and reading a lot about it. I came across this wonderful quote in Ken Burn's book Jazz: A History of America's Music. The book is a companion piece to the PBS documentary Burns did a few years back. Burns includes a comment by the writer and essayist Gerald Early from St. Louis, who remarked that "when they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They're the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created."

I'm disposed to agree with Early. St. Louis is the home of my favorite baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals and it has long been a host to some of the best jazz music in America. Just think about Miles Davis, the great jazz man who was born in East St. Louis. Then there's Chuck Berry, the great blues musician who still holds forth in St. Louis. The blues and jazz were intimately related at the beginning.

Burns also quotes the great master Duke Ellington:
"Put it this way. Jazz is a good barometer of freedom....In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country."

Ellington puts forth some challenging thoughts. Reading the history of jazz by Ken Burns and listening to lots of the music recently, I've come to a far deeper appreciation of how music and jazz have reflected larger social tensions and developments in our society, particularly about issues of race and class, which have been the chief points of dispute often in our culture.

Wynton Marsalis said it well: "In American life you have all these different agendas. You have conflict all the time and we're attempting to achieve harmony through conflict. It seems strange to say that, but it's like an argument that you have with the intent to work something out, not an argument that you have with the intent to argue. And that's what jazz music is. You havae eight musicians on the bandstand and each one has his own personality and his own agenda. There's written music but then you leave that score and are left to make intelligent decisions. Decisions that have soul."

Marsalis' comments are a pretty good way to think about how we have inherited the independence granted to us on July 4th. What have we done with the freedom we've been given as Americans? How are we creatively dealing with your conflicts? Are we making decisions that have real soul? Sometimes, you've got to wonder about where things are going.

Sean Wilentz, author of the magisterial study The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln reminds us that we still have to negotiate the meaning and terms of democracy in each generation as he writes:

"Democracy is never a gift bestowed by benevolent, farseeing rulers who seek to reinforce their own legitimacy. It must alwasy be fought for, by political coalitions that cut across distinctions of wealth, power, and interest. It succeeds and survives only when it is rooted in the lives and expectations of its citizens, and continually reinvigorated in each generation. Democratic successes are never irreversible."

What a great time to be an American! Now, tonight I think I'm ready for some Cardinals baseball.


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