Stanley Jordan’s withdrawal, and the worldliness of jazz

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Most of us know by now that American jazz/jazz fusion guitarist and pianist Stanley Jordan has cancelled his performance at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, Israel that was scheduled for 17-19 January. This is a good thing on several levels. As Rima Najjar Merriman, an English professor at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, writes in her January 6 article for The Palestine Chronicle, “BDS activists who worked tirelessly to educate Jordan can claim this a victory.”

Indeed social media activists inundated Jordan’s Facebook page with hundreds of posts, engaging him relentlessly until he announced the cancellation on January 5. Merriman points out that “passionate well-reasoned and forceful advocacy for the Palestinian cause [was demonstrated] from a diverse group of people on several continents, many of whom were unconnected with one another or had just become Facebook friends as a result of the virtual encounter. Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Israelis, European-American settlers, Australians, Native Americans, and many others took part in the discussion which continued throughout New Year’s Eve across various time zones on the globe.”

The context of Jordan’s decision is exemplary not only with respect to the political objectives of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israeli apartheid and ethnic cleansing, but also in light of the debate itself over his scheduled performance. In turn it affirms the strategic correctness of BDS activism.

Jordan initially justified his choice to perform in Israel by insisting that his musical art generates “higher consciousness,” a state of mind he claimed transcends politics and as such may serve a liberating function for Israeli audiences regardless of the vast differences in their social and living conditions from those of most Palestinians. Jordan’s rationale, which he has not recanted, echoes that of Native American poet Joy Harjo, who did not cancel a public reading or teaching engagement in Israel despite massive BDS protest, and has likewise been echoed by Erik Truffaz, who is now also refusing to cancel a musical performance of his Two Gentlemen Quartet at the Red Sea Jazz Festival. This rationale, for which audiences are mere aesthetic “listeners” seeking to escape political concerns, is typical of discourse criticizing the cultural and academic boycott generally, and has been challenged by BDS activists, including in recent books by Omar Barghouti, Audrea Lim, and Corporate Watch. We must continue to take this discourse seriously if it is to be prevented from fostering further public misperceptions and skewed understandings of BDS.

For my part, I was particularly disturbed by Jordan’s argument because I come from a musical family—my father is a retired violinist—and I grew up knowing first-hand that there is nothing romantic about professional musicianship. My personal experience was later confirmed by philosophical writings I encountered as an adult which criticize the proverbial Western canon’s elitist, racist, and sexist positionings of art.

Take for example the writings of Hannah Arendt, whose political theory has resonated across the spectrum, from post-Marxists to libertarians—and whose own ambivalence about Zionism did not silence her harsh criticisms of its contradictions and hypocrisy.[1]

In The Human Condition (1958), Arendt takes the Western canon to task for, among other things, its denigration and obfuscation of art’s worldly character. In ancient Greece, for instance, art was considered a lesser practice than politics, because art entailed the production of “works,” objects (or, in the case of music and theater, occasions) that can be seen, heard, and/or touched. On Arendt’s interpretation, Greek art was an “objective” phenomenon, bound to the realm of mundane practice and thus charged in its skilled making to women, slaves, and the property-less, including merchants and traders. By contrast, politics in Arendt’s Greece were lent a “higher” station and permitted practice only by persons—citizens of the polis—freed by their social status of the need to produce, i.e., to perform menial work, and thus able to concentrate their energies on arguing, deliberating, and deciding the order of the day.

Rather than emancipate art and those who practiced it from their “lower” station, however, history in Arendt’s philosophical narrative unfortunately came to ensnare politics, too, in the debased “world,” as Rome and eventually Christendom relegated both practices to the status of “fallenness,” in turn reducing democratic politics to disciplinary power while elevating only those persons endowed variously with “divine right”—royalty, aristocracy—to an empowered status that also entailed an intuitive capacity to appreciate “high” art. During this epoch, art and politics might have been recognized more broadly and practiced more widely, but their respective range and scope were greatly attenuated by despotism. Art and politics, according to Arendt, have remained on the same plane through the modern epoch, even as their relationship to “work”—their value as labor—and in turn their practical and ideological positioning vis-à-vis state power have changed qualitatively with the development of capitalism.

It is clear from this brief, general (and not uncontested) overview that, at least for Arendt—and for Enlightenment philosophers like Kant who influenced her (and who, like she, are indebted to the great philosophers of Islamic civilization who have seldom been acknowledged, and whose ideas are in crucial respects reduced, by “Western” philosophy)—there appears little compunction against identifying both art and politics with worldly practice, even while the experience of art remains for them more or less tied to an ideally “disinterested,” aesthetic sensibility, and political orientation is still seen largely, if not necessarily welcomed, as the provenance of the privileged few. To do otherwise would spell a reactionary return to the sort of “medieval” practices of which Arendt was herself so critical vis-à-vis her former teacher (and lover), Martin Heidegger.

Why, then, has Stanley Jordan, who is on record allying himself with anti-racism/-apartheid vis-à-vis South Africa, become so insistent on disassociating his art from the Israeli-Palestinian situation and its political implications? Surely Jordan, a popular musical star, is well aware that his performances are not without worldly significance or objective: they take skill to enact, they carry political and economic value, and the people who attend them do so for a variety of reasons not limited to the Stanley Jordan Trio’s particular aesthetic. After all, cancelling his Israeli gig has meant sacrificing both financial gain and a degree of cultural capital—a condition to which Jordan readily acceded with respect to any invitation he might earlier have received to play in Sun City, South Africa, an ostentatiously profligate casino-resort town which anti-apartheid activists famously boycotted.

While Jordan unreservedly backed that boycott, his current rationale regarding BDS forwards the contradictory notion that, labor-value notwithstanding, he and the music issuing from his guitar and piano are, like Arendt’s Roman emperor, somehow above—exceptional to—the duties, obligations, and exigencies of the world, of which Jordan is indubitably a part. Would that Jordan would be king? Such celestial aspirations attain nothing but the height of arrogance while dissimulating the genuine, compassionate worldliness of the slavery-born jazz Jordan and his trio “fuse” to such international acclaim.

It is therefore not only commendable but also not entirely surprising that Jordan finally decided to cancel his concert in Israel. Likely realizing along with, although probably somewhat differently than, BDS the value of social media, Jordan must know, even while failing presently to admit it, that art and politics cannot be separated from one another. They are both subject to historical praxis which may integrate as well as disjoin them, for better or worse.

I do hope that Jordan’s recent and mutually very constructive encounter with BDS will compel him to continue playing his wonderful jazz/jazz fusion on the right side of history, and that BDS will persist in locating and securing means of enabling him and other artists to stay this path—especially as social media becomes further subject to regulation and control on a global scale.


[1]A Jewish exile from Nazi Germany, Arendt was veritably banished from the U.S. Jewish community after she published Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), a scathing if not unproblematic critique of Israel’s capture and show-trial of Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann, that was only exceeded in intellectual forthrightness by her later The Jew as Pariah (1978).

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This discussion is rqather complex. I am an amateur cellist, I worry about who will employ (yes, musicians need jobs) all the very talented and hard-working kids who graduate each year from America’s music schools. OK, BDS. This VERY LATE pull-out is valuable because [1] it is a pull-out due… Read more »

jeez, i love this kind of talk. not that i understand it all. on this: Jordan initially justified his choice to perform in Israel by insisting that his musical art generates “higher consciousness,” a state of mind he claimed transcends politics and as such may serve a liberating function for… Read more »

“…justified his choice to perform in Israel by insisting that his musical art generates “higher consciousness,” a state of mind he claimed transcends politics”…. Not only begs the question – but the event would “generate” worldly revenue for businesses in Israel (and therefore taxes for the Israeli Gov’t), and that… Read more »

With people who boycotted South Africa but do not do the same for the Zionist entity, I suppose all the philosophizing is unnecessary; there are is only one thing to ask in public (and force the non-boycotter to answer): what makes Zionist Apartheid acceptable, or if not, how much was… Read more »

Ethnic cleansing in Israel? Ask all the Jews that live in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Iraq about that. More Arabs live in Israel than Jews living in all those countries combined. And those Arabs living in Israel do so because they prefer it there than in any of… Read more »