Baby Boomers and the Death of Art
The death of Art and the birth of perpetual war
“Art has a great mission. Through great art lower feelings, cruelty, and lust for dominance, are forced out and replaced by empathy and compassion for others, which serve us better individually and collectively. This is the purpose of Art.” —Leo Tolstoy
A young modern jazz dancer once remarked to me, “Baby boomers were the death of art.” When I asked what she meant, she compared America’s baby boomers to China’s youth during the “Cultural Revolution” led by Mao Zedong who mobilized China’s youth by forming “Red Guard” youth groups throughout China. That movement led to a mass purge of intellectuals, artists, musicians, and journalists. Millions suffered public humiliation, imprisonment, torture, and even execution. Part of Mao’s dogma was that no one could prove that revered works of art, literature, and music were superior to what China’s youth could create themselves. She said that like Mao’s Red Guard, America’s baby boomers turned their backs on acknowledged great artists and replaced them with their own icons. For example, instead of regarding “The Beatles” as an exceptional pop-rock band, they were elevated above jazz greats such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane—the music she danced to.
Respected authors, journalists, intellectuals, social activists, and consumer protection advocates of the stature of Ralph Nader, Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and Chris Hedges were quietly banned from the New York Times, Washington Post, and the broadcast media. “Self-help” books replaced Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Flaubert, et al. Movies that depicted the insanity of war such as “Dr. Strangelove” were replaced by ‘patriotic’ movies such as “Rambo”, “Black Hawk Down”, and “American Sniper” that glorified the US military in wars revealed to be based on lies.
Few “boomers” know that the civil rights and antiwar movements were inspired by and preceded by jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Miles Davis. “Jazz is the big brother of Revolution. Revolution follows it around.” —Miles Davis
No less than Martin Luther King spoke of this in 1964 at the Berlin Jazz Festival:
“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”
“Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.”
“It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls. Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man.
“Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In this broad category called ‘Jazz’, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.” —Martin Luther King
Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” (Lewis Allan © 1937), a song that protests the lynching of Black Americans with lyrics that compare the victims to the fruit of trees. “Strange Fruit” has been called a “declaration" and "the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
The civil rights and Vietnam antiwar movements created a widespread public intellectual awakening and were anti-consumerism. This frightened the military-industrial-complex and manufacturers of consumer goods, so in the late 1960’s media conglomerates all but stopped programming jazz on radio stations.
Simplistic “rock” marketed to teenagers replaced modern jazz which was hitherto enjoyed by college students, university professors, intellectuals, and civil rights activists. Formerly thriving jazz clubs became half-empty and jazz musicians were forced to go “electric” to survive financially. While “jazz/rock”, “funk” and “fusion” is superior to rock musically, jazz lost much of it’s humanity, intelligence, and depth which was at it’s peak in the 1960’s (e.g. Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” (1959), and Bill Evans, “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” (1961) available on YouTube.
In August 1959, Miles Davis was at the height of his fame and artistic powers. Weeks after he recorded his iconic album Kind of Blue, he was profiled, harassed, and assaulted by a police officer while standing outside of Birdland under a marquee with his name on it. “If you’re black, there is no justice. None.” —Miles Davis
It’s informative to observe the contrast between jazz clubs which are usually small, intimate, and provide an atmosphere for critical listening, compared to stadiums that seat thousands filled by a uniform mob listening to electronic rock blasted at eardrum-damaging volume levels and augmented by light shows and special effects. This isn’t music, it’s “theater” performed by musically illiterate musicians expressing the emotional I.Q. of teenagers.
“Music is the language of the emotions”—Tolstoy, and the almost complete absence of melodic beauty, tenderness, empathy, nuance, subtlety, and poetic lyrics in “rock”, “rap”, and “heavy metal” has had a profound and deleterious effect on American culture. The extreme volume levels of much of rock, especially “heavy metal”, has a militaristic characteristic to it that has pervaded our culture from violent cartoons made for children to “superhero” movies made for teenagers that are now enjoyed by adults.
In short, jazz sensitizes, and “rock” de-sensitives; they’re social, political, and intellectual, as well as musical opposites. Indeed, helicopters blasting rock music were used to demoralize the populations of villages during the Iraq War.
Unlike boomers, jazz musicians don’t play “the music of their youth”; they often interpret beautifully written songs, many from “The Great American Songbook”, early 20th century American “standards” that have stood the test of time, often referred to as “America’s Classical Music.”
The dumbing down of American culture by the banality of popular music, TV shows, and movies was a deliberate campaign by the corporate media to negate the widespread intellectual awakening and justified political criticism inspired by the civil rights movement and Vietnam antiwar protests. In its place they wished to create an uncritical and compliant population they could convert into rabid consumers who would accept without critique racial discrimination, police brutality, extreme wealth inequality, and our murderous military “interventions” abroad.
This media campaign, led just as much by the so-called “liberal” media as well as the right-wing burlesque of Fox News, produced the anti-intellectual mindset of the now elderly baby boomers (and their progeny) as though critical thinking was “radical” and perhaps even unpatriotic. They were encouraged to listen to “the music of their youth”, watch “Super Hero” and “patriotic” war movies designed for teenagers and receive their news from propaganda spewing media conglomerates instead of acquiring a more sophisticated and enlightened understanding of the world we inhabit.
Although as a jazz musician I have an obvious bias, I don’t believe this is a simply a matter of my personal musical and political tastes. Our tastes are cultivated in large measure by the music, news, and entertainment we’re exposed to, and that’s controlled by a few huge media corporations that have all but banned political dissent, jazz, and intelligent entertainment. It’s a media created cultural and political narrative that encouraged the boomer generation to retain the naiveté of their youth by implying that this would keep them ‘young’ and to ignore the unspeakable carnage of our endless wars abroad, deteriorating standard of living, lack of basic social programs, and brutal policing experienced by the majority of citizens at home.
The Arts describe the world we inhabit, and they’ve been appropriated by powerful corporations whose agenda is to stifle political dissent, promote consumerism, and fabricate “enemies” for us to fear in service of the national security state.
“Jazz” is a broad musical genre, and like literature, various styles of jazz contain different levels of sophistication, depth, and humanity. A lot of jazz sounds too abstract and emotionally vacant—even to me. However, the best of jazz, especially “standards” by Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett can be enjoyed by almost everyone regardless of one’s musical tastes.
What’s missing when discussing music—and the arts in general—is the word, “intelligence”. The album, “Kind of Blue”, for example, has a melodic beauty, originality, understatement, and intelligence to it that pervades almost every song on the album. It’s “music for adults”, so to speak, and the fact that it was the best-selling jazz album of all time suggests how much that appeals to a wide audience.
The "message" of this article is not to persuade readers to like jazz, but rather to not allow the fashions of one’s generation dictate your tastes, and to encourage exploring all the arts, not just music, but literature, politics, movies, etc., and discover for yourself what has—and what lacks—substance, intelligence, depth, and humanity.
US presidents never present jazz, often heralded as “America’s original art form”, at their inaugurations. Jazz is just too authentic, adult, and emotionally honest for politicians. The banality of the popular music they choose matches the banality of the clichés in their speeches. Democracy at its core is love for one another, and most politicians simply don’t know what love is.
Below is a video of my music students in Ecuador performing a classic “standard”, "You Don’t Know What Love Is" (© 1941 Gene De Paul). —Jim Gala
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I liked your essay but I believe you have missed something about Baby Boomers. I was born in 1949 in the middle of the US, in the second largest city in OK with a very decent though expensive Liberal Arts University. My Primary school years and the working class neighborhoods I lived in were pretty much like the "See Dick Run," reader in 1st grade. My parents and their friends were the Artists, Poets, Writers, Singer-songwriters, Jazz and folk musicians, dancers etc., the "Counter Culture" of the 50's and early 60's. I graduated High School in 1967. We had Hootenannies in our front yard. Several touring musicians played there when driving through. My parents had a "Coffee House" with friends where Jazz and Folk Music was played. My mom helped some young poets publish a well respected poetry magazine which published the "Beat" poets from around the country and local. "The White Dove Review" included drawings by local artists. I was able to take classes in Ballet and Modern Dance from family friends.
As a baby I learned to sing and dance with an album of African music before I could talk. My first Albums were famous Folk singers like Judy Collins and Joan Baez, Pete and Mike Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe. My mom bought me West Side Story. At home my parents played Black Blues, Folk and Jazz.
Remember, people my age eventually formed another version of counter culture. Basically the Hippy counter culture, with some of my friends coming and going between here and CA and others to NY. I had friends who were in San Francisco for the "summer of love" and\or New York for "Woodstock." Yes, Rock and Roll was a bit light weight. I did love Simon and Garfunkel though. I never got into Hard, Acid or Metal Rock. Many of us were still involved with Civil Rights and definitely the Antiwar movement. AND there was a movement in my state against building a Nuclear Power-plant. (Instead we got coal.)
Remember the Whole Earth Catalog? We have a good friend who moved to North Carolina to work with Mother Earth News. We also brought back do-it-yourself, and back-to-the-land, grow you own food, "Think Local," literally build your own home or remodel an old one. We revitalized the Craft Arts, quilting, sewing, knitting, ceramics, weaving, glass arts, jewelry and metal art, making and repairing our own clothes and everything else. Also, we promoted Organic gardening, invented Permaculture and voiced concern about the health of our food system, concerned with toxins used in factory farming. Most of all this sort of thing stemmed from a desire not to overwhelm the planetary Ecosystem by over consuming, over producing and pollution.
Don't forget, we and our mothers started Women's Liberation, promoted birth control, legalizing abortion, "Natural Child Birth," and home delivery as well as encouraging breast feeding.
Each counter culture does the best it can, accomplishes as much as is possible and produces whatever art it does as an expression of the change hoped for. But I'm not sure how logical it is to say the movement failed because it didn't have good art forms or artists. I think the Hippies were trying to promote among other things a return to simple living and an enjoyment of caring for ourselves and our communities instead of over consuming and deriving your sense of worth from competition and power. Not sure what went wrong with what the various counter cultures were trying to do. I guess we scared the oligarchs and they worked harder to promote what they thought was good for them.