Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


A Brave New World

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It’s almost a decade since I first heard Steve Kirby observe that jazz is not so much a style of music as a particular approach to music-making. Up to that point I hadn’t given it a lot of thought. I was more of an accidental listener, wandering through a huge field of options, led only by curiosity and the taste of people who knew more than I did.

To be freed up to think about jazz as a process, a concept, an attitude, a philosophy, an aesthetic sensibility—it’s so liberating! Suddenly there’s more permission for the artists to put their own special print on the materials everyone shares. And there’s more room for listeners to push into new territory, to experience different sounds with an open mind and heart, to discover voices and styles that are surprising, delightful, challenging, even troubling.

I’ve been thinking about that wide embrace a lot lately. I’m in my annual reading frenzy, careening through novels and poetry collections and essays and plays, deciding which writers to bring together in September to perform and talk about writing at THIN AIR 2013.

I realize it’s not a particular style I’m looking for as I read, but a compelling concept, a strong philosophy, an authentic voice, and a skillful handling of raw materials like form, language, pacing, point of view. Every good writer offers me a unique reading challenge, and it’s my job to listen with fresh ears—in a way, their work teaches me how to read again.

In these periods of tremendous social and political upheaval, when both leaders and media ramp up anxiety, there’s real pressure to retreat to what is familiar, whether that’s people or attitudes or music or books. But I think we close ranks at our peril. We now live in a global world, and it enriches us to engage thoughtfully and respectfully with people and ideas that are different from what we know.

In May and June, I’m hosting three evenings at McNally’s, showcasing three terrific new Canadian books. One is a rousing memoir by a Polish woman, Jowita Bydlowska, who learned English when she came to Canada at 17; one is a graceful family saga by Shyam Selvadurai, a Sri Lankan man who came to Canada at about the same age; one is a probing novel by an Indo-Canadian woman, Saleema Nawaz, who was born in Canada and did graduate work here at the U of M.

These three writers, along with the extraordinary writers I’m reading in preparation for the fall, offer us a picture of the actual culture of our time and place, and it’s a world of incredible diversity. Heritage, region, orientation, aesthetics, appetite—the wide range they demonstrate is a reminder that all of us have perspectives and experiences and traditions to share with one another.

Expressing and receiving: that’s the lesson of jazz too. Ultimately, the artists are out in front, inviting us all to become citizens of the world—open, imaginative, creative, engaged. They’re offering a blueprint for a brave new world. Let’s get to it.

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