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Freedom of Choice: Jazz, Improvisation, and Liberal Democracy

Freedom of Choice: Jazz, Improvisation, and Liberal Democracy

Jazz music’s status as a uniquely American cultural practice is rarely questioned, but is nonetheless continually reaffirmed. Speaking in Ken Burns’s 2000 miniseries, Jazz, Wynton Marsalis explained, “Jazz music objectifies America. It’s an art form that can give us a peerless way of understanding ourselves.”

Crucial to this nationalistic discourse is the metaphor of freedom. For example, numerous African American cultural critics have read jazz against the backdrop of slavery and oppression, understanding the music as an aestheticized practice of freedom. At the same time, several generations of American governments have also drawn on the freedom metaphor, linking jazz to neoliberal democracy. The metaphor was officially enshrined in US government legislation with Rep. John Conyers Jr.’s 1987 congressional resolution. Conyers’s wording emphasizes the link between jazz and democratic freedom: “[Jazz] makes evident to the world an outstanding artistic model of individual expression and democratic cooperation within the creative process, thus fulfilling the ideals and aspirations of our republic.” Hence, jazz’s status as America’s music runs deeper than mere indigeneity: through the discourse of freedom, jazz has been knitted into the fabric of American culture, civic society, and politics.

This discussion will focus on two short pieces: Stanley Crouch's article, "Blues to Be Constitutional: A Long Look at the Wild Wherefores of Democratic Lives as Symbolized in the Making of Rhythm and Tune" (copies of which will be available at the ICASP office), and the House Concurrent Resolution 57, the 1987 congressional resolution wherein jazz was officially designated a "national American treasure" (available at

Joining us for this discussion will be Dr. Chris Alcantara, Associate Professor of Political Science at Wilfred Laurier University, and jazz trumpeter.

Broadly speaking, Chris Alcantara's research interests are in the fields of Canadian politics, public policy, and Indigenous-settler relations in Canada.His most recent book, Negotiating the Deal: Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements in Canada has been accepted for publication by University of Toronto Press and is forthcoming in 2013. He has also co-authored a book entitled, Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010. This book was shortlisted for the 2010-2011 Donner Book Prize. In addition to his books, he has published in the following academic journals: Alberta Law Review, Arctic, Canadian Journal of Law and Society, Canadian Journal of Native Studies, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Canadian Public Administration, Canadian Public Policy, Journal of Canadian Studies, Polar Record, Public Choice, Publius: Journal of Federalism, and Queen's Law Review.

As always, please spread the word to your peers, students, fellow artists and friends.

We’ll all be more innovative if we participate in collaborative webs and share more openly. Creativity is always a collaboration and it’s always a form of improvisation, written large in the social world.

– Keith Sawyer