10 November 2008

Sonny and Barack

With his election to the Presidency of the United States, Barack Obama is in some ways our first jazz president. Apart from the obvious metaphorical links between Obama and jazz (his cultural hybridity being foremost among them), Obama's intellectual and rhetorical style in some ways are reminiscent of the improvisational style of one of the few remaining old lions of jazz, Sonny Rollins. He may not be able to play a blues like Bill Clinton, but Obama's prose and oratory both bring to my mind the searching, spontaneous style often associated with Rollins.

In Sunday's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote of Obama,
Mr. Obama, unlike most politicians near a microphone, exults in complexity. He doesn’t condescend or oversimplify nearly as much as politicians often do, and he speaks in paragraphs rather than sound bites.
Similarly, when discussing a series of sample answers to law exams Obama gave as a law professor at the University of Chicago Slate's Emily Bazelon observed,
Obama's exam answers offer complex ruminations on some of the most contentious social and legal questions out there.
Both on the stump and in his writings, Obama offers a thoughtfully intellectual style which attempts to synthesize competing and contradictory thoughts into a coherent whole. Instead of glossing over evidence that works against him, Obama would often tackle these subjects head-on. His speech on race from earlier this spring is a prime example. While addressing his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama tackles the complexities of race in a country where he can be considered "too black" by some and "not black enough" by others. In the speech, he notably drew similarities between his own white grandmother and Wright by commenting on acts of each that could easily be construed as racist:
I can no more disown [Wright] than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
This statement is no garden-variety observation on race. Obama acknowledges the complexity of America's tangled racial past and reveals a thought process which allowed him to view the actions of others through multiple points of view before giving his opinion on those actions.

Obama's ease with which he weaves common themes between seemingly disparate subjects resembles the manner in which Sonny Rollins could fuse varied improvisational themes within a common thematic framework. Additionally, Obama's interrogatory thought process is mirrored in Rollins' improvisational method of parsing a phrase until he has exhausted its musical potential. The opening cadenza in the video below is a great example of Rollins' improvisational style. Listen to Sonny play with his phrases, modulating into different modes and segueing seamlessly between phrases.

Similarly, the improvisational style of Sonny Rollins combines the quintessence of spontaneity with an encyclopedic background knowledge. Rollins is noted for inserting surprising quotes into his solos in a way which suits the mood of the music at that specific moment without feeling forced. Here, too he shares this ability with Obama, who could stop on a dime to deliver an extemporaneous remark or sly observation. When discussing Dick Cheney's endorsement of John McCain last week, Obama paused as it began to rain at an outdoor rally in Ohio, "You notice what happened when I started talking about Dick Cheney. But a new day is dawning. Sunshine is on the way." This, to me is the rhetorical equivalent of one of my favorite moments of the Ken Burns jazz documentary, when a musician (I forget who) recounts a Sonny Rollins performance on the night before Easter. Well into a set, Sonny sees out of the corner of his eye that the clock has struck midnight, so he works in a quote from "Your Easter Bonnet." Obama shares with Rollins the improvisational wit which makes jazz the "sound of surprise."

I should be careful not to overstate these similarities. Indeed, I could simply be more likely to make this comparison between an intellectual politician and an intellectual musician simply because President-elect Obama's predecessor is singularly infamous for his anti-intellectualism. However, I like to think that these sensibilities that Obama shares with Rollins are indicative of a thoughtful approach to statesmanship and governance that hopefully will pay dividends in the years to come.

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