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Bill Clinton, Jazz Man from His Head and His Heart

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @i_ADH

Tom Junod of Esquire compared President Bill Clinton to John Coltrane today. As the 42nd U.S. president addressed the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Wednesday night, reportedly going off script by around 2,500+ words and over schedule by maybe 20 minutes, delegates inside the Time Warner Cable Arena and people all over the country were engrossed with very complicated bits of information doused with improvised Southern charm. I tuned in twenty minutes late and still was completely engrossed (though it helped that I knew much of the basics of the figures).1 I've always said good writing (nay, good communication) is about making the uninteresting interesting and the complicated uncomplicated, and Bill Clinton is able to do so, as Tom Junod and others like him so astutely note (and if you didn't read the aforelinked Junod piece, you really should), because Bill Clinton lives in the language of jazz.

A common complaint I hear about jazz music today is how musicians are making music for other musicians or how they're making music with their heads and not their hearts. To a certain degree, I can understand these faults. Sometimes the need to impress colleagues may overrule the desire to impress the general audience. However, as a thinking person, I'm a little confounded that there are so many people who are content with such overly simplistic answers. A music that involves making decisions in the moment, that is more and more producing its practitioners in the midst of its own academic enclaves, that is steadily being enriched in its own bubble of New York City -- itself its own intellectual pressure chamber of all sorts -- would naturally lend itself to being made in the head. However, I'm questioning whether that's all that bad a thing. If anything, jazz should be the ultimate creative form involving the intermingling creative process of the head and the heart. The heart without the heat could be earnest but sloppy in the same way that the head without the heart could technical but inaccessible. It's through the passionate expression of the thoughts in our heads that great art is made. It's through Miles knowing what notes to play and what not to play, it's through the punch Ali never gave Frazier, it's through Christopher Nolan making tight yet complex narratives about small details and big ideas that we marvel in the art of passionately organizing man's disparate thoughts.

When I encounter those who lament composition coming from the mind, I wonder when did thinking about things become such a bad thing? When did thinking about a lot of things become even worse? When did heartfelt emotion become the end all and be all of creation, with such aspersions cast to toward the intellectual nature of a music that has always required some degree of pontification in the first place, even if it's pontification on the fly? When indie bands like Animal Collective or Dirty Projectors can move a crowd with complicated music (although their recent 2012 efforts are admittedly more concise [and slightly less moving this time out]), compellingly melding the cerebral with the booty-shaking, how can we time and again fault thinking as an obstacle to creating? It's in the assignation of (ahem) body and soul (I know, I know) where truly marvelous works of art are made.

So when I think again about how I was awestruck Wednesday night by watching a man take an already well-written composition and turn it into something much grander on the fly, I know it takes a shrewd mind to do so as well as a swelling heart. I know it takes a man who can empathize with people on any level but still think about how to explain data from the policy wonks. It requires a man who can compose his thoughts both with his mind and with his emotions and to do so in the moment. As a writer and as a person who speaks regularly in public (though clearly not on that scale nor in that sort of medium [yet {not politics, but there's a stage out there for me I'm working on building}]), I find that kind of talent admirable, but even moreso I find it to be an inspiration to us all in this jazz life. Bill Clinton took a speech that was already laboriously poured over and added to that composition both with his heart and with his head. It takes a master jazz man to pull of something like that, and he did so without sacrificing one for the sake of the other. So when it comes to the claim that we have too many musicians out there making music from their heads instead of from their hearts, I'll continue to consider these claims simplistic claptrap. Those claims just don't add up to me; Bill Clinton, over the course of a 50 minute-30 minute speech, taught us all better than that.

1. I'd like to preface that I wasn't really planning on watching the Democratic National Convention, but after my talk with Vijay Iyer, I sort of fell into th habit of lingering on the primetime speeches. I'll probably break down and watch President Obama speak tonight. Oh, wait, is Louie on at that time?

Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.