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Jazz, the Omni-American Ideal, and a Future Beyond Bigotry
An interview with Greg Thomas, CEO of The Jazz Leadership Project
JAZZ, THE OMNI-AMERICAN IDEAL, AND A FUTURE BEYOND BIGOTRY
The editors of JFBT converse with Greg Thomas, CEO of the Jazz Leadership Project, about his upcoming event, COMBATING RACISM & ANTISEMITISM TOGETHER: SHAPING AN OMNI-AMERICAN FUTURE, scheduled for Oct. 24-25. Register here.
Note: this event is now over but it can be viewed on YouTube. The links to the recordings may be found at the end of this post.
Please tell our readers about your background: a short biography of Greg Thomas.
I'm a father, a husband, a son and a brother, an uncle and cousin. I'm also an entrepreneur, a writer, educator, and producer.
I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1963 to two Black American parents from Georgia. I attended high school in Staten Island, New York, and graduated from Hamilton College in 1985. I majored in Public Policy and minored in Music there.
I attended graduate school in American Studies at NYU in the late 1990s and I'm currently the CEO of the Jazz Leadership Project.
My love of jazz was sparked in high school and nurtured at Hamilton College, where I had a life-changing experience: I had the honor of playing a song, on alto sax, with the legendary trumpeter Clark Terry. We played Duke Ellington’s “Squeeze Me But Please Don't Tease Me” and it changed my life.
That incident that changed your life: were you originally planning to do what you have ended up doing? Or did this jazz experience take you in a whole new direction?
Like a lot of young people, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. What are you going to be? A lawyer? A doctor? I said “I’ll become a lawyer.” I majored in Public Policy because I thought it would help prepare me for law school. At Hamilton College, a Public Policy concentration combined Philosophy, Economics, and Government. But my minor in Music ended up being more crucial for my ultimate career direction.
My life went in the direction of music, but I would say that my father was the foundation for my becoming an entrepreneur. My dad, Horace Thomas, Jr., has been an entrepreneur and small business owner for most of his adult life. While I was in high school, he inculcated in me, very strongly and deeply, the power and necessity of owning your own, having your own, and being in control of your own destiny. That laid the foundation for my becoming an entrepreneur.
What is the Jazz Leadership Project and how did it come about?
The Jazz Leadership Project is a for-profit business that uses the principles and practices of jazz music as a foundation for leadership and team development and training. We have done work with a variety of organizations, from Verizon, to JPMorgan Chase, to the Center for Policing Equity, to NYPD and TD Bank. First, we demonstrate how everything is built upon the foundation of individual excellence. If you play jazz, you must develop your chops, your sound, and your technical skills. You've got to have your skills down on your musical instrument, so, by analogy, or by extension, in the workplace you've got to really know what you're doing; you have to have your skills down just to be able to interact with colleagues on projects. And that's true not only in the workplace but also in civic life, in social and political life.
Shared leadership is a foundation for jazz. So, even if you have a band leader whose name is on the marquee, each person on his or her instrument has a responsibility to be the best they can be, to contribute to the whole. That's the foundation for understanding how we should be working together and communicating together, where each individual is respected and honored. Shared leadership means I respect and honor your role and your capacity for leadership in your area.
Another principle in JLP is antagonistic cooperation, which comes from the hero’s journey. It basically means that rather than considering challenges and conflicts in a negative light, we accept them as opportunities for growth and learning.
In jazz, we also have what we call an ensemble mindset. Jewel Kinch-Thomas—my partner in life and business—and I coined that term. It means high performance collaboration and swinging at a very high level. So, you have individual talent and skills, yes, but you have them flowing together in a way that leads to collaborative co-creation. We look for the collaborative emotional and cultural intelligence coming through the interaction.
This is an ideal for working together on teams at work, but it also, I think, has social applications, though the issue of scale arises as a question. So, ensemble mindset is a useful analogy or metaphor, but there are limits to all analogies and metaphors.
It's fascinating that you see shared leadership as flowing from the way jazz is performed. Is it true that, at a certain point, the rhythm section was considered subordinate to the leaders—the horns and the soloists—but then, maybe in the ‘60s, a much more egalitarian framework developed, where each and every instrument was on an equal playing field?
I'll try to be concise. I'm going to equate it to what’s called Big History, not just American history or the history of jazz. Throughout history, there are movements from a more communal orientation to a more individualistic orientation. The same thing has happened in jazz. Take New Orleans jazz, for instance. Right at the start, at the dawn of the 20th century, New Orleans jazz was oriented to collective performance via polyphony, the clarinet, trombone, and cornet playing different lines simultaneously. That was certainly shared leadership. No one horn, per se, up front. But then in the 1920s, the Prometheus of the art form, the New Orleans born and bred Louis Armstrong was so incredible as an individual soloist that no matter the group he played in or with, Louis Armstrong stood out. This initiated the age of the individual soloist.
But check this out: the collective reemerges again in the big bands of the 1930s. The big bands were adopting and adapting the stylings of Louis Armstrong. They have a collective orientation coupled with some individual improvisation or solos. In the 1940s, the bebop era, with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, you have a small group dynamic where individual soloists were virtuosi. That’s when the rhythm section of the piano, bass, and drums served in a definite support capacity for the soloists. It’s a continuum, though, because they were influenced by the role of the “Great American” rhythm section in the Count Basie Orchestra that supported, incredibly well, the larger ensemble. Then, in the ‘50s, you've got the Cool jazz school, and Hard Bop, which had elements of collective and individual orientations to varying degrees. Then, as you say, in the ‘60s with so-called Free Jazz, it was strongly collective, which actually was a throwback in some ways to the collective improvisation of the earliest era of jazz.
American Studies and jazz scholar John Szwed wrote about this in his book Jazz 101. He also wrote a biography of Sun Ra. I studied with John Szwed in grad school, and was a part of the Jazz Study Group at Columbia University that became the Center for Jazz Studies. Robert (Bob) O’Meally, the founder, asked me to join in the late ‘90s. John was a part of that study group and the resultant Center, also. I’m happy to say that Bob is one of the speakers at the event we’re about to discuss.
So, there are these cycles, but shared leadership is a general orientation that provides guidance. So, even though the rhythm section may be in a support capacity, or behind the front line, where a trumpet or saxophone is out front, it's still shared leadership. Without the bass, which is “walking,” without the drummer “riding” the cymbal—those two together are the rhythmic foundation that makes what’s called swingin’—and without the piano player comping, accompanying and complimenting, without those elements, the soloist doesn't have a magic carpet of rhythm upon which to fly. So you need all of these together.
I hadn't intended to do a short jazz history, but that’s cool.
What is the Omni-American event and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
The Omni-American event is a collaboration among the Jazz Leadership Project, the American Sephardi Federation and the Combat Antisemitism Movement. The full title is “Combating Racism and Antisemitism Together: Shaping an Omni-American Future.” We are bringing together artists, scholars, writers, editors, and thinkers who share in a common value system of being against bigotry and for a better future, which we're calling an “Omni-American future.”
The idea is to fight bigotry through culture by coming together around shared values, meanings, and practices. It takes place over two days: October 24 and 25th, 2021. The first day is being broadcast from 6:00-7:30 pm EST; the second, from 6:00-8:30 EST.
The subtitle “Shaping an Omni-American Future” is derived from a book by a writer and thinker who happens to be a mentor of mine—Albert Murray (1916-2013), author of about 15 books. His first book was The Omni-Americans (1970), followed by South to a Very Old Place (1971), The Hero and the Blues (1973) and Stomping the Blues (1976), as well as the autobiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray—Good Morning Blues (1985). His nonfiction, memoirs, novels and poetry have been collected into Library of America volumes.
The Omni-American ideal, derived from The Omni-Americans, is that the nation's motto, E pluribus unum—out of many, one—is what the nation is and can be. Murray said there's probably no greater image of E pluribus unum than that of a “mainstream fed by an infinite diversity of tributaries.”
It would not be wise or accurate to act as if America just comes out of, for example, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition. It certainly is partly that, but my goodness, if you talk about American democracy, then you can't forget the Iroquois Confederacy. You can't not include the contributions of Black Americans who were enslaved and didn't have social, political, or economic freedom, but yet and still were able to build a culture which has had a profound impact upon America and the world, in spite of enslavement. You can't not include folks from New England as well as the South, the Midwest, the West, and so forth. You have all of these various influences on what we call “American” culture. All these should be taken into consideration.
One of the things we intend to do is to draw attention to the work of Albert Murray (who I’m glad to say is featured on the webpage of Free Black Thought and in the Compendium of Free Black Thought), and of his friends Ralph Ellison, Stanley Crouch, and his best student, Wynton Marsalis. He’ll receive an award at the event. We would like Murray’s ideas regarding American culture and this Omni-American ideal to become a part of the conversation as a “both/and” alternative to the currently dominant “either/or” orientation, where polarities battle, oftentimes without nuance or depth. With Murray, we can bring some light of wisdom, not just heat, to our current situations.
I'm glad you brought up some of these other names—Ellison, Crouch, the Mouth from the South Wynton Marsalis—because there are traditions here. We often think of jazz stars as idiosyncratic individuals, but all of them studied and learned from someone, just as you talked about with yourself and Clark Terry. People need to understand that this is a real tradition, with a real pedagogy.
Yeah, this is not ex nihilo, not something coming out of nothing. There are profound traditions and models and archetypes that laid the ground for this. The event is also a cultural continuation of a foundation of Black-Jewish collaboration from the Civil Rights movement.
It's a continuation and complement to that work of trying to make America a truly better place. There are today existential risks, not only for America, but for the world. If we bring some of these traditions into play we can resolve some of these problems, or, at least, avoid total catastrophe.
Can you explain the relationship this Omni-American project will have to contemporary ideas of identity and social justice held especially by younger people?
The aspiration for social justice among the young is something that I, approaching 60 years of age, feel good about. The young must fight to make things better during their lifetime and for afterward. The values of the Omni-American project speak to their identities because I find that many young people, say, Millennials like my daughter Kaya Thomas, know that racism and antisemitism and bigotry are wrong and counterproductive.
I’d add, though, that many young social justice advocates would do well to be more open to the wisdom and experience of their elders. The Omni-American project is a mature perspective that not only fights against bigotry, but also fights for an America in which the foundational values contained in the nation’s sacred documents—Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address—are maintained. Of course, the men who created those documents were flawed and didn’t live up to those principles themselves, as most were slaveholders.
A mature historical perspective will point to “man’s inhumanity to humankind” all through recorded history. Add to that what’s called “the human condition,” in which the very worst and best of human reality is expressed, sometimes in the same person or group of people. In fact, as Stanley Crouch points out in his work, the founders created the balance of powers taking into consideration the downside of the human condition.
I'm hoping that the young will be open to doing more listening. In jazz and the Jazz Leadership Project, we talk about “Big Ears,” which is deep listening. This is fundamental to communication and I'm hoping that as we listen to the young and their concerns and their perspectives, they will also listen to some of their elders who actually have some experience that they could draw upon and learn from.
I think that's the wonderful thing about jazz: it has a culture of going back to the past and looking at something and saying, “Okay, this is my take on it.” Think of jazz standards. Young people can take the standards in their own way, and they certainly do that in hip hop where they're sampling, you know, a favorite track or even a small lyric. So, I think that the younger generation is down with that. I think there definitely are young people with “Big Ears” and we're going to be impressed by their mastery when we listen closely to them, too.
Now let me ask you: What is special about jazz? I mean, is it just that Albert Murray liked jazz? Or is there some fundamental connection between jazz and Omni-Americanism?
Yes, there’s an intrinsic connection between jazz and the goals of the Omni-American event. Jazz, and one of its source tributaries, the blues, were central to the work and thought of Albert Murray as well as the body of work of his friend Ralph Ellison. Following Murray and Ellison in this vein are the cultural critic Stanley Crouch and the world-renowned trumpeter and cultural icon Wynton Marsalis, who will be the recipient of the first annual Albert Murray Award for Omni-American Excellence during the event.
Jazz is the deepest and most profound musical form that comes from America. Jazz, like the blues, was created and innovated by Black Americans, and then became a spiritual gift to the world. “The blues idiom” is what Murray called this tradition. I’ll quote from Ellison and Murray on this tradition:
From Ellison’s essay “Richard Wright’s Blues” in 1945:
The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near tragic, near comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
In 1996, Albert Murray was asked: “What is the blues idiom?” His answer:
It’s an attitude of affirmation in the face of difficulty, of improvisation in the face of challenge. It means you acknowledge that life is a low-down dirty shame yet confront that fact with perseverance, with humor, and above all, with elegance.
So blues and jazz are profound. As an art form, jazz embodies the values and aspirations of Black Americans for freedom, within form. Speaking of form, the great writer Charles Johnson, who’s also in the literary extension of this tradition along with Ellison and Murray, called the quest for freedom the Black American eidos, a defining essence or meaning that “runs threadlike from the colonial era through the post-Civil Rights period.”
So jazz is a great art form, in which the style and ways of being of the souls of Black folks are expressed. But freedom is a foundational value for America as a whole also. So jazz expresses an overall American aesthetic. In my opening remarks this Sunday, I’m going to riff on freedom as core, in fact, to Western culture overall.
Furthermore, jazz is a cultural technology, with procedures, processes, principles, and practices to solve fundamental problems, such as the tension between the individual and the group. In the Jazz Leadership Project, jazz is a cultural technology through which leadership and high-performance team development is modeled.
So jazz is central to Black American culture, American history, and is a way to hear and feel E pluribus unum enacted, not just be understood intellectually or conceptually. That’s one connection to the Omni-American ideal. Finally, in jazz if you can play, you can play, no matter your gender, so-called race, or ethnicity. Though jazz isn’t immune to bigotry, its high standards of improvisational excellence focus on a higher order of being than one of racial essentialism or tribalism.
What kind of pushback do you get when you talk about the Omni-American project, perhaps especially from Critical Social Justice activists? What are some of the things that your critics are saying and how do you deal with them?
An Omni-American future means being against racism and antisemitism, so some might automatically think that it's a part of an “antiracist” ideology from the likes of Ibram X. Kendi or Robin DiAngelo. It’s not. I've heard some rumblings of criticism, but the project is very new so it's not yet in the crosshairs of the cultural wars. I would like you to share with me some of the pushback that you think might come. Let me respond to that.
There are some people who draw a line between Branford and Wynton, and say that Wynton, at Lincoln Center, doesn't have very black audiences. You know, he plays classical music and he's all about the money, so you know, Is he really black? Is he really down with the people?
You gave me a softball question, man! I’ve known Wynton since 1993. If you look at and listen to interviews with Wynton talking and can't tell that Wynton Marsalis is a straight up brother, I don’t know what to tell you. He’s from Kenner, Louisiana, a hop and a skip from New Orleans. He grew up dealing with racism in school; he inherited a 60s-derived pro-black nationalism of sorts—until he met Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray. They helped to expand his horizons of understanding and range of reference considerably, which, along with his talent and incredible work ethic, makes him down not only with his own idiomatic group, but to Americans overall. He’s an example of what I, borrowing from Anthony Appiah and Danielle Allen, call a rooted cosmopolitan.
But I can tell you from knowing him personally that he is one of the highest representations of a Black American ethos and living value system. The idea that his playing classical music is outside our tradition is just ignorant. I'm sorry: it's just ignorant. Murray said that as Americans, we are heirs of the entire legacy of world civilization. We've certainly had great Black Americans who have performed other musical forms at very high levels. So in classical music, we can mention the divas, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle . . .
All those people are dead or old. How you going to deal with Twitter and TikTok, where young people's attention is? We're living in a post-modern society. We don't care about traditions. You don't have influencers standing around with horns and mutes and plungers. Where does jazz have any relevance in the way society is going?
Let me just start by saying that jazz is what Murray called a fine art. It’s not one that is evaluated based on pop culture standards. Its relevance is not based on whether or not it is popular. Its relevance is based on how it embodies and expresses the best aspects of Black American idiomatic culture and American culture overall.
When I was young, when I was learning to play saxophone, I would listen to people like Sidney Bechet, who was the first truly great individual soloist on saxophone. Duke Ellington loved him. He was from New Orleans, like Louis Armstrong. I actually had the audacity and ignorance to think that, because he played with a wide vibrato, and sounded old-timey and out of fashion, to my young ears, that it was corny, and even easy to play. But as a horn player, try to play what Sidney Bechet played and you'll be disabused of that ignorance.
So, a lack of historical grounding and understanding is not something to be proud of. Young people should be open to history and the wisdom of their elders—when I say their elders, I don't mean just their living elders, I mean elders across time—and learn the lessons from those elders and from that history, because if you don't, it's not just that, as they say, history will repeat itself. It's not actually true that history repeats itself per se. But there are lessons that have been learned, there are advances that have been made. There are solutions to problems which have been developed and presented—if you don't learn about them, you could end up making the same mistakes or going down a road that your ancestors already realized is a dead end.
For example, racial essentialism: that's a dead end. Evaluating people based on race or their skin color and phenotype, and imputing negative attributes to them—I don't give a damn who's doing it—that's racism. That's racist. If I'm saying that because J. has light skin or you Mike, because you have darker skin—all of the stereotypes that were put on black folks back in the day—if I'm going to put that on you just because of the color of your skin or I'm going to put all the negatives of “white folks” on J. On the face of it, that is ludicrous.
But people still do it.
Some don't understand the battles that have been waged to move beyond that way of seeing things, which Ellison called “blood thinking.” And I think some are vulnerable to the information warfare out here. There's information warfare being waged in mainstream media, in social media. Some of it is coming from outside of the United States but there's a bunch from inside the US, too. I urge people to check out The Consilience Project; they delve deeply into this. I’m a member of their Board of Advisors.
So people end up becoming a part of groups—on the right, white nationalists who are taken with “replacement theory.” “We will not let the Jews replace us!” That kind of nonsense. But I’m also talking about on the left, where folks will, in some of these diversity training sessions, either literally or metaphorically put different groups of people, based on race, in different corners, with a dunce cap on.
The dunce cap has their “race” on it and underneath WHITE will be OPPRESSOR and underneath BLACK will be VICTIM. I'm sorry, that's ridiculous. Through our history and through the advancements of our political movements, we should have learned enough to not fall into those traps again. I think we have to be strong and speak out against that regressive tendency, because we know where that leads. Why would we fall back into that kind of thinking?
Certainly, there are aspects of the postmodernism that you [Mike] mentioned that are important. It's important to take a look, as postmodernism does, at modernity, and be honest about disasters of modernity. You had slavery during modernity. You had it before, but we're talking about chattel slavery and we're talking about settler colonialism. That's different than pre-modern slavery, where you might have someone that was sold to a family, and becomes a part of the family and so forth. (I'm not saying that pre-modern slavery was anodyne nor am I saying that it was right. What I'm saying is that it was a different form of slavery.) It's one thing to critique—and it’s important to critique—the downsides of modernity, which, in large part, is what postmodernism does. That is important.
But modernity wasn't just a disaster. Modernity also has dignity. There are advancements in terms of liberal, universal values, particularly as related to the individual, that we cannot afford to let go of. So, as we go from—and this is Big History again—a pre-traditional, say, indigenous society to a traditional society, where religion and myths were prominent, you always have a move against the previous stage. There are different developmental theories that focus on these stages and transitions. With modernity and the scientific revolution, the mythological and religious aspects are critiqued: it's not empirical, it’s based on non-rational, magical thinking. With modernity there are scientific advances, and advances of liberal humanism, and so on.
For us to move forward, for us to shape an Omni-American future, we have to envision how we can reconstruct, not just deconstruct, and we should evaluate what we want to accept and integrate from earlier phases and stages of human development. What can we take along and bring along? That's wisdom! Don’t just throw out what came from the past.
Let's go to indigenous knowledge. My wife Jewel Kinch-Thomas, my beloved, and I maintain a blog together. Her post, this very morning we’re doing this interview, is about her seeing two indigenous men, two Native Americans, who both spoke about indigenous wisdom. They look seven generations ahead. Think about that. In separate conversations, on different shows on the same day, Jewel heard them say that they plan their society seven generations ahead.
What do we have in our supposedly more advanced society? (Of course, in some ways it is more advanced, in terms of technology.) But in the corporate sphere, it’s often about quarterly returns—every three months. That ain't no long term perspective. We have existential and civilizational threats to humanity, so it’s imperative that we develop a longer term view based on wisdom. So that's an example of something that we can take from the indigenous perspective. There are examples of similar value through each stage. So the postmodern critique is important, but it's not the be all and end all.
There are movements called Advanced Modernism, Meta-Modernism, Integral Theory. There are different models under development beyond the postmodern. There’s the Post-Progressive movement that I’m part of, for instance. I have an essay titled “Why I Am a Radical Moderate,” in which I discuss this perspective.
Another example. Jim Rutt, the past chairman of the Santa Fe Institute, talks about how our current social predicaments can be thought of from the perspective of game theory. He and those in his circle study and explore how we can move from the extractive, exploitative Game A to what they term Game B, a more generative social dynamic where more of us can thrive, not just survive. There are all kinds of different models, where people are investigating how we can move forward in a way that appreciates the wisdom of the past, while striving to leave aside its downsides. That's what we're trying to do with this Omni-American movement too. That's part of the orientation.
So, here's one thing I could imagine some of my students saying. They would say look, we admire the intentions behind the Omni-American project. It's very important that we connect oppressions, the oppression of racism with the oppression of antisemitism for example, so that we unite in a common fight. However, we take issue with this concept of the “Omni-American.” That sounds a lot like “All Lives Matter,” a lot like “I don't see color,” a lot like “there's only one race, the human race.” But the fact of white supremacy means that we don't live as if there's one race, the human race. We assign different values to different people, based on their race, and we lift up some at the expense of others, especially black and brown people. So, to talk about “Omni-Americans” is to let the oppressors off the hook, because it's telling them we're all one big family, so let's just have a hug and forget about oppression. You don't have to give up any of your privilege, racism is over, you’re off the hook.
They might say, as well, that “Omni-Americans” erases the specificity of the black experience, the specificity of the Jewish experience—we’re all just Omni-Americans—and that in itself is white supremacist.
We're talking about young people, so first I want to acknowledge their sincerity. I would say a few more things, however.
I would say: you are assigned to read The Omni-Americans by Albert Murray. Once you read The Omni-Americans, you will see that one subtitle of that book is Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy. Not only was Murray critical of white supremacy, he went to the root of what it is: folklore. And he had a phrase: “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology.”
So, he's critical of those who focus on Black folks and only pathologies, as if such phenomena were confined exclusively or primarily to Black folks. And after exposing what he calls social science survey technicians as the promulgators of this folklore and fakelore, he asks: why is it that so-called white middle-class norms are the basis of evaluating this “black pathology,” but the “control group” is never asked this: why isn't the behavior of the so-called white middle class in alignment with the values found in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights?
Isn’t that where optimal American behavior is described? We know that we’ve got a long way to go to fulfill the social contract contained in those documents, right? So if folks who are ascribed as white are the measure of behavior, but don't match up to that, why aren’t they judged thereby? There are all sorts of passages in The Omni-Americans where he is highly critical of those who identify with “whiteness,” as it's called today. So, not only does this event not erase a critique of what he called the folklore of white supremacy, not only does it not erase Black American history and culture, it’s founded on and grounded in that history and culture!
And it certainly doesn't erase Jewish American history because we’re against antisemitism and embracing another stage in the relationship between the two groups of individuals. Our movement is a cultural complement to a period of American history—the Civil Rights era—where there was a close collaboration between Black Americans and Jewish Americans. In jazz, there was and is a close collaboration also. We'll talk about that throughout the event. Here are some examples: Louis Armstrong wore a Star of David throughout his life. I’ll tell the story of why on Sunday, October 24.
There’s Jewish American Benny Goodman, who had Black American jazz greats such as Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson in his small group, and even in his big band, at a time when integrated bands were not the thing. There are example after example of this within jazz. And the influence isn’t uni-directional; Itamar Borochov, an excellent jazz trumpeter, will feature his quartet for the two days. The live studio, where the full-scale production is happening, is based in Israel. Itamar lives in the US but is in Israel especially for this event. He’ll discuss the profound influence of Black American jazz masters on his own development.
So I would disagree with and counterstate those claims. I would insist that they read the book for themselves. I’d end by saying that it goes back to E pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” You've got the many—the many are real and the many are important. You're not going to erase the many and only consider the “one” human race or American identity that erases distinctions and differences. Yes, there’s one human race, but we've got what Murray called idiomatic variations in culture. So different groups of people in different places at various times develop different idioms and ways of being and speaking and living and eating and dancing and making music, and so forth. That's culture. So our emphasis is on culture over race and racial essentialism.
Positive relationships between people of different cultures, such as myself and Aryeh Tepper, a lecturer at Ben Gurion University in Israel—the two of us put this event together—are the foundation of the Omni-American ethos. How are you living your life and what are the relationships that you have with other people?
In grammar, there’s first person, second person, third person. First person is individual, subjective. The second person is dealing with more of “we” space and interactivity or intersubjectivity. Then there's the third person, which is an “it.” So we could say that the third person is where the structural and the systemic exists, objective reality. I would caution and urge young people to not only focus on the structural and the systemic. The interpersonal and intersubjective, which is where culture lives, is crucial too. And there’s your own development of your individual self to be the best you can, in communication with others, in dealing with intergenerational trauma, in learning emotional intelligence, and what I call cultural intelligence. That is your individual responsibility, but also you strive to have mentors along the way. You need that, for sure. That’s why top executives, even once they’re in the C-suite, have coaches. As great as Wynton Marsalis is, I once went to his apartment near Lincoln Center, and he was taking a composition lesson from a classical composer.
I am well aware of where so many young people are coming from because I studied Critical Race Theory in grad school, at which time agency was key. Folks who are marginalized need agency. The difference between now and then, it seems to me, is the implication that, according to some leftist activists and academics, so-called marginalized folks have little or no agency.
Up to now, in terms of my own public profile, I've been more in the rhythm section, in a support capacity. I still am, in terms of pushing the ideas of what I call the Ellison-Murray Continuum, but it’s time for me to take a more of an out-front lead instrument stance moving forward.
You're ready to do your solo.
Hell yes. In the jazz tradition, it’s not just playing and sounding like someone else, it’s about you making your own statement and expressing your unique voice. But this is far from being about me. Take a look at the partner list on our event website. We’ve got a long list of partners, including Free Black Thought, FAIR, Braver Angels, Institute for Cultural Evolution, the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and many, many more. This is a collaborative effort.
This event will be an annual occasion, with other content and events in between, so we can really start to move together as a coalition and movement. This event will live far beyond October 24-25, which is our maiden voyage. But we’ve got a long-term vision that we're enacting. I hope folks reading this will register and have this experience together. I appreciate FBT for giving me a platform to share my thoughts…as a free Black American man.
The event is over but the recordings of it may be viewed here.
Part 1, “Shaping an Omni-American Future: Stomping the Blues of Racial Essentialism,” is here:
Part 2, “Shaping an Omni-American Future: The Omni-American Vision: Culture, Not Race,” is here: