Home » Facing the Music — 4 Essential Lessons Congress Can Learn from Jazz Musicians

Facing the Music — 4 Essential Lessons Congress Can Learn from Jazz Musicians

by Louis J. Wasser

“As long as there is democracy, there will be people wanting to play jazz because nothing else will ever so perfectly capture the democratic process in sound. Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don’t agree with what they’re playing…. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all.”

— Wynton Marsalis

Consider the word “session!” A harmless, unassuming word at first blush.  It derives from a Latin word meaning “act of sitting” or “to sit.”  Over the centuries, we’ve come to associate the word with a group or assembly of people sitting together to accomplish something.  In professional jazz circles, the words “session player” have taken on a very specialized — and special — meaning.  A session player is the musician called in to give a recording life and excitement. He or she is noted for being able to read an arrangement rapidly, and to delve into the heart of the music with minimal rehearsal.  In the world of jazz, a session player commands nothing less than the ultimate of professional respect from his or her fellow musicians.

Now think of what comes to mind when we hear the statement “Congress is in session.” In the last two years especially, we’ve come to associate a session of Congress with stubbornness, self-interest, petty bickering, and mean-spiritedness.

We’ve come to associate a session of Congress with stubbornness, self-interest, petty bickering, and mean-spiritedness.

What if Congresspersons were more like jazz musicians?  Let’s look at four lessons our self-serving senators and representatives can learn from the seasoned practitioners of our quintessentially American art form.  Harry Reid, Ted Cruz, and Nancy Pelosi:  are you paying attention?

Timing: Jazz musicians set the beat right at the very beginning of a piece.  And they stick to the beat throughout. Congress, on the other hand, dilly-dallies, delays, argues, and waits till a government shutdown, then pulls a couple of all-nighters to push half-baked legislation through to keep the country from falling over the proverbial fiscal cliff.

Ability to Listen: Jazz musicians listens closely to their fellow players during a jam session before setting out to improvise.  And members of Congress?  Not only do they not listen to one another, none of them listens to their constituencies. Voters are concerned with an economy that’s been flat on its back.  The most recent government shutdown leached $24 billion from the economy. Does everyone on Capitol Hill have a tin ear?

Taste: Saxophonist Stan Getz and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie both claimed that a show of taste is a prerequisite for a jazz musician.  Members of Congress would do well to make taste their personal mantra in the coming year.  A few months back, CNN reporter Dana Bash asked Democratic Senator Harry Reid why he wouldn’t throw his support behind a Republican spending bill that provided funds for the National Institutes of Health to help kids with cancer. Reid’s answer:  “Why would we want to do that?”

It gets better.  Disgusted with Senator Reid at the end of a long and unproductive fiscal cliff debate, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner flipped the bird to Senator Reid and told him:  “Go f___ yourself.”  C’mon guys and gals, the American people expected better from you when they pulled the lever next to your name. You’re in the people business.  Learn some elegance.

Ability to Work Together:  There’s nothing like the sound of a twelve-bar blues.  Everyone has to back up the soloist.  And when his time comes, each player who backed up the soloist gets to be a soloist himself.

The lesson for member of Congress?  Give an inch here and there.  Your time will come. It’s not either tax increases or cuts in government expenditure.  It’s going to take both to keep America sound.  Work it out with each other.  That’s what we hired you to do.

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