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Community of Courage
Associate Professor of Music
Why the Arts are important
Few would argue with the statement that the Arts are an essential part of a vibrant community, and I would go so far as to say that Art is an essential part of life itself. It is hard to envision a world without the glorious sounds of Bach, the thought-provoking colors and images of the visual arts, the poignancy of a touching scene in a play, or the other enumerable artistic expressions we are blessed to experience. Pablo Casals might have said it best when he wrote that the music of Bach "fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being."i
The courage to embark on a journey
Sadly, we live in a culture that tends to disregard the value of art. Popular culture lives on a diet of artistic Wonderbread where music and other forms of art are often relegated to a type of aural or visual wallpaper. I see incredible courage in our students when they begin their journey as artists, actors, dancers, musicians, or poets, knowing full well that their work may never be appreciated by a broader community. The world needs to hear and see their work, and it takes courage for a community to support these individuals. As I like to phrase it to my students, music is one of God's greatest gifts to humanity, but without musicians we are only one generation away from losing music forever. The same could be said for the other arts as well. What a beautiful way for our students to honor God and serve humanity.
The courage to make, share, and appreciate art
The process of making art is intensely personal, and it takes courage to share an artistic expression in a public venue. Composer Edgard Varèse describes it this way: "The very basis of creative works is experimentation—bold experimentation."ii Noted jazz pianist Kenny Werner describes the process as "fearless expression."iii
On the other side of the coin, it takes courage to take an active role in appreciating the Arts. Good art can make us uncomfortable. Art can challenge beliefs and cause us to look within ourselves. The Arts can have a transformative effect if we give our full attention to the sounds, words, or images of a sincere artistic expression. Art can be figuratively and literally messy and we can and should have the courage to react. As Igor Stravinsky stated: "The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead."iv
The courage to be true to one's art
Finally, it takes courage to be true to one's art. Many examples come to mind such as Bach's unwillingness to tone down his music to appease authorities of the churchv or Clara Wieck-Schumann's decision to tour as a concert pianist in the 19th Century despite being a lone female in a male-dominated field. However, I would like to conclude with two anecdotes that illustrate how artistic courage can have a transformative effect not just on individuals but on society as a whole:
The courage to make a difference
Most people are aware that jazz is an entirely American art form that combines elements of Western European and African traditions. Unfortunately, music history tends to be taught from a Euro-centric perspective, so most people are unaware that jazz had a profound impact race relations as well as the musical traditions of the country.
In 1935 noted jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman made an artistic decision to hire pianist Teddy Wilson. It didn't matter that Teddy Wilson was black or that bands of the era were segregated. It was the music that mattered most to Benny Goodman. Wilson and Goodman made music that was imbued with an elegance and sophistication and their work had an impact on other musicians and society as a whole. I would point out that these musicians started performing together nearly three decades before the civil rights movement was in full swing.
Another example of courageous performance can be heard in the music of jazz vocalist Billy Holiday. In 1939 Holiday performed (and later recorded) "Strange Fruit," a song that captures the utter horror and barbarity of the lynchings that were common in the Southern United States. Holiday was fearful of retaliation but she continued to perform the song in public throughout her career, and many feel this was the first modern "protest" song.vi Her performance is a profoundly personal expression of those horrible events and the racism that she endured on a daily basis.
In closing, I would like to share a composition that was written by the late Oscar Peterson. The piece, which he composed extemporaneously at a recording session in 1962, is titled "Hymn To Freedom," and is a reflection on the civil rights movement. I invite you to sit back and close your eyes as the music unfolds. I would stress that this performance is not about "Brent the jazz pianist"—it is my sincere wish that you will receive the piece as a gift from Mr. Peterson, and that your heart might be opened to reflect on the theme of courage and what Peterson described as "a musical salute to the brave and persevering leaders of the [civil rights movement], especially the Rev. Martin Luther King."vii
i Helen Exley, ed., Music Lovers Quotations (New York: Exley, 1992), p. 2
ii Josiah Fisk and Jeff Nichols, eds., Composers On Music (Boston: Northeastern, 1997), p. 301
iii Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery (New Albany, IN: Jamey Aebersold, 2010), p. 78
iv Fisk & Nichols, p. 284
v Karl Geiringer, Bach: The Culmination of An Era (Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 26
vi Jack Wheaton, All That Jazz!, (New York: Ardsley House Publishers, 1994), p. 202
vii Oscar Peterson, A Jazz Odyssey: the Life of Oscar Peterson, (New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2006), p. 223