Serious Jazz

Walking with my dog this morning, I saw a bumper sticker: “I love Serious Jazz!” I can’t quite infer the driver’s feelings on Casual Jazz or Irreverent Jazz, let alone Flippant Jazz. Perhaps they tolerate those lesser forms, perhaps they resent their bebased corruption of the serious form. They had no such sticker declaring their emotional affect with regards to the less stringent spirits. But their feelings couldn’t be more clear about Serious Jazz. They love it.

I’ve never been much of a jazz man myself. Perhaps I’ve never been serious enough to connect. I like some, but I’m basic. I have “Kind of Blue”. I’ll listen to a generic jazz station occasionally and skip the songs that go too far out there. I know the names Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, but if one of their songs came on, I wouldn’t be able to tell you who was playing. In fact, if a jazz song came on and you said name the artist, I’d probably just shout out one of the few names I know and hope I got it right. To be honest, I don’t know what would be distinguishing features of serious and un-serious jazz. 

I imagine my bumper sticker neighbor wouldn’t approve of my unserious lack of devotion. I am not a real Jazz fan, certainly not a serious one. I don’t have the pure adherence to the truest form. Within my heart, I don’t adhere to the principles. I don’t hold the foundations. I am casual, not devout. My soul is not pure. I’m sure my neighbor would not cast me into the flame for my sins, but I would receive judgement.  

In thinking what it means to Love Serious Jazz, I remember the Oxford Group. I am only familiar with the Oxford Group due to their influence on the foundations of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Oxford Group was an evangelical Christian group who sought to purify the souls of humanity through four principles, known as the “Four Absolutes”; absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love (the precursors to AA’s twelve steps). Along with these absolutes were standard practices that led one to clearing out the moral failings that had previously been blocking one’s spirit from a closer relationship with the divine. 

Bill Wilson, one of AA’s co-founders, was exposed to the teachings of the Oxford Group and found recovery from his severe chronic alcoholism. In Wilson’s effort to help fellow sufferers of the addictive affliction, he brought many to Oxford Group meetings. While there are definite overlaps between what would become the AA program with the practices of the Oxford Group, these early efforts were unsuccessful. Many alcoholics were unable to connect with the evangelical group. Likewise, the drying out drunks were not the typical targets of conversion for the Christian practitioners. 

Wilson was eventually successful when he connected with the failing physician Bob Smith, AA’s second co-founder, Dr. Bob. Along with other early recovering individuals, the founders set forth the program of recovery in AA’s “Big Book”. While maintaining a heavy influence, AA departed from the tenets of the Oxford Group in a few important ways. First, most notable on its face, AA proposed a twelve step plan of recovery and opposed to the four absolutes of the Oxford Group. Second, these steps were put forth as a “suggested program”. Anyone who has a desire to stop drinking is free to attend or join AA; the adoption of any belief is not required. Lastly, at the urging of then addiction specialist Dr. William Silkworth, alcoholism was presented as a possible “allergy” or disease, not a moral failing. 

You can travel around the world and find AA meetings in many different languages. The Oxford Group doesn’t exist anymore, though it does have some spiritual successors active under different names.

I’m sure that Serious Jazz is a paragon of musical mastery, tremendous technique fused with impeccable improvisation. Likewise, aspirations of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love seem laudable to me. However, the enduring prevalence of AA over the Oxford Group highlights an important component for success: recognition of human shortcomings as natural, not moral. Compassion for the compromised over exaltation of the exceptional has saved more lives and spirits than a more rigorous form. We should love more music and care less about it fitting our serious standards.

If I thought these principles were only applicable to music snobs, I wouldn’t write about it. If I thought it was only of interest in anonymous groups, I’d keep my words private. What I see daily, though, are constant assessments and presentations of a person’s seriousness or absolute commitment to purity. Every aspect of personality, personhood, and social convention has its ideal of the perfect form. Has one fit the new standards and forms? Have they sufficiently condemned the previous ones? If not, we must cast them out. This does not seem to me to be a recipe for salvation, but one of exclusion and castigation. Success will come through compassion not expulsion. Human failings are natural, to be improved, not perfected. No one can fit that form, meet that standard. You absolutely can’t be serious.