Forum to explore connection between jazz and democracy

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BYU’s next forum will feature a performance from jazz pianist and composer Marcus Roberts and BYU English professor Greg Clark that will explore how jazz music connects with principles of democracy.

Other speakers have spoken on a variety of topics, from refugee camps to NASA missions, all addressing this school year’s theme, “The Pursuit of Democratic Character.” Roberts and Clark’s forum will do the same.

The forum, to be held on Feb. 25 at 11:05 a.m. in the Marriott Center, will also feature Roberts’ band, The Modern Jazz Generation, which includes a drummer, bassist and seven horn players. Roberts, who has been performing as early as the 1980s, has been praised as “a remarkable musician — perhaps even a phenomenon” by jazz journalist Michael West in the Jazz Times

Clark, Roberts and The Modern Jazz Generation will provide forum attendees with a blend of both spoken word and music. The ensemble will teach and demonstrate civic jazz, the idea that jazz music teaches about democratic character. This concept was born from Clark’s book, “Civic Jazz: American Music and Kenneth Burke on the Art of Getting Along.”

Lynn Moore
Marcus Roberts performs with The Modern Jazz Generation. (Lynn Moore)

Clark first developed the idea of civic jazz while watching Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra perform at BYU over 20 years ago. While on stage, Marsalis introduced the comparison of jazz to democracy. Clark, who was exploring democracy in his research at the time, was fascinated by this idea. He dove headfirst into the jazz world, traveling to New York to meet jazz musicians and discuss democratic themes with them.

“They were always interested,” Clark said. “They were usually just focused on the music, so it was refreshing to them to think beyond, to think what the music was talking about, what it could teach.”

Clark found that, just like democracy, jazz requires people to collaborate, improvise and listen. He explained that even though Roberts arranges the band’s music before a performance, it evolves as they play. Not only do they have to rely on and listen to each other, but each musician takes a turn guiding the music, a characteristic distinctive to Robert’s band.

“It’s not the bass and the drummer accompanying the piano — it’s everybody, equal, taking turns,” Clark said.

Clark, Roberts, and the band plan to discuss and demonstrate equality, conflict resolution, sacrifice and mentorship at the forum, according to Clark. This isn’t the first time Clark and Roberts have performed together; the two have been performing together across the U.S. and Europe since 2015. 

“I think the most important thing that jazz has taught me is that people become better people if they are working together, committed to a common project,” Clark said.

Greg Clark, left, performs alongside Marcus Roberts, not pictured, on piano. (Lynn Moore)

BYU Associate Academic Vice President John Rosenberg, who serves as the forum director, explained that he hopes attendees enjoy being immersed in live, world-class music and recognize the importance of the messages that are taught.

“The lessons I expect to hear at the forum are urgent and relevant during this election year as we debate the meaning of America,” he said. “What better way to understand that debate than by celebrating and learning from our country’s most original art form?”

A Q&A with the band will be held directly after the forum.

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