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Intellect

BYU Forum: Developing democratic character with jazz

The theme for the monthly Forums this year at BYU is “In search of democratic character," with "character" meaning the manners and virtues that enable communities and societies to function justly, according to BYU Academic Vice President Shane Reese.

For Marcus Roberts and The Modern Jazz Generation band, developing democratic character can happen through jazz music.

Roberts, a prominent jazz pianist and an associate professor of music at Florida State University, taught himself to play the piano at age five when he lost his sight. He’s performed with Wynton Marsalis, wrote two piano concertos and mentored hundreds of musicians, but what he’s most known for is the new development of an entirely new jazz trio style that reflects his dedication to the principle of equality.

“Jazz presents us with a pattern for democracy through collaboration, improvisation and listening,” said BYU English professor Greg Clark, who has performed with Roberts since 2015. “Jazz music proposes that people can live harmoniously together despite their differences.”

Marcus Roberts and The Modern Jazz Generation play their instruments to teach civic lessons


Tuesday’s Forum strayed from the traditional lecture format and instead became a back and forth conversation between musical performances and key observations from Roberts and The Modern Jazz Generation.

Watch the Forum on-demand here

Roberts explained that jazz music was initially created as a democratic art form. One of the functions of art is to propose solutions to problems by illustrating a perfect world.

“The earliest jazz musicians created a system of equality that allowed everyone’s voice to be heard and allowed every talent to shine,” Roberts said. “They created a democratic structure even though they could not fully participate in democracy themselves.”

In a jazz band, democracy and equality are present when musicians make room for one another to sound good. The bass and drums must have roles that are equal to the piano, though Roberts admits this isn’t the case in most jazz bands “because most jazz bands are imperfect, like America.”

“Every time we listen to everyone’s voice, we become stronger, better musicians and better people.”

Marcus Roberts sits at a piano while talking to students at BYU forum

Different members of the band spoke to the human nature of selfishness and promoting our own agendas. Jazz music teaches musicians to respect one another and value his or her own musical “voice” as much as their own musical “voice.” Although songs are written to be played within a certain structure, if every musician plays music exactly as it’s written, only one voice and one history survive. The structure of jazz music allows for flexibility, giving each artist a chance to add their own voice and history to the tune.

“You do need a healthy ego and personality to play jazz but that has to be balanced with an openness to other peoples’ ideas and creative power,” said Tim Blackmon, a member of The Modern Jazz Generation. “This helps us to resolve conflict in a way that develops democratic character.”

Greg Clark speaks about civic jazz at BYU forum

According to Roberts, playing jazz well also requires working in collaboration with other people, trusting each musician to act in the best interest of the music rather than acting in self-interest.

Clark helped synthesize the civic lessons of jazz that will better our society in four key points:

  1. We must acknowledgment and accept everyone's essential equality.
  2. We must be willing to sacrifice elements of our own agenda.
  3. We must commit to resolve conflict through listening and communicating.
  4. We must be willing to practice and pass along these principles as we mentor others.

"Working together to develop and nourish democratic character will make each of us a better person than we ever could have imagined on our own," Clark said.

Next Devotional: President M. Russell Ballard, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will deliver the BYU Devotional on Tuesday, March 3, at 11:05 a.m. in the Marriott Center.

His remarks will also be broadcast live on BYUtv, BYUtv.org (and archived for on-demand streaming), KBYU-TV 11, Classical 89 FM, BYU Radio and will be archived on speeches.byu.edu.

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