Playing jazz while towering over Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline from the 94th floor observation deck in Hancock Center is an experience that is difficult to describe. It’s certainly not an experience I expected to have – until a surprise opening and a chance conversation converted me, a History professor, into a tenor sax player in the Drury University Jazz Ensemble. I dragged the old ax out of the closet, released the dust and must, and revisited my reed collection (in the interest of reed science, I’ll share that 15 years of aging has a mellowing effect that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend). Fortunately, my playing skills came back quickly. So did memories; the experience reminded me of why I loved playing music so much in the first place. It also brought me back to a question I’ve revisited often over the years: why music matters.
Music professors probably have much more knowledge on this topic, but returning to music after years of work as a historian and humanist provided me with an unusual perspective. The arts and the humanities have a complex relationship. Both can trace their roots to the prestigious source of ancient Greece – although music (along with mathematics) was included in the quadrivium rather than the proto-humanities trivium. Today, the arts and humanities are often grouped together – including at my institution, where they recently joined in an arranged marriage to form a new college. The humanities and arts also make up many of the classic liberal arts disciplines that, in the eyes of critics, can be dispensed in favor of technical and vocational training.
What was it like to experience the arts as a humanist? First, I immediately perceived that playing in an ensemble is a
profoundly social experience. It puts you into a cooperative relationship with others that goes beyond typical classroom group work. When we play together, the differences between us – professor and student, different social groups and personalities – are sidelined by our shared project of creating music. While a good humanities course puts students into conversation, an ensemble demands that we combine our individual “voices” and shape them into one powerful, complex chorus. I’ve seldom seen students work together so purposefully. I’ve also rarely seen students embrace so deep a sense of individual responsibility and initiative to improve for the sake of producing quality work. To sum up, the ensemble experience is a tremendous exercise in working as a team of motivated individuals to create and express something fantastic. Irrelevant to the marketplace? Not according to more than 80% of employers.
Let’s be honest, though. If music gives us marketable skills, that’s not the reason we love it. I’m reminded of the craze for playing classical music for babies (“Mozart will make your baby smarter”). Indeed, there’s no guarantee that a rich musical education yields liberally educated human beings (as Blair Tindall memorably captures in Mozart in the Jungle – now a hit TV series).
But more to the point, what an odd reason to listen to (or perform) music! For most of us, music is an activity that’s worthwhile for its own sake. This brings to mind philosopher Moritz Schlick’s creative argument that the true meaning of life is to be found in play – that is, an activity that is worth doing for the joy that it brings. As any musician knows, music offers a powerful, emotional experience that is difficult to reproduce in text (here, I’m reminded of the variously attributed quip that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”). Making music is profoundly human, and learning to express oneself musically is developing a human capacity – something that virtue ethicists count as central to living a good life. If that’s true, then it’s the duty of educators to nurture that capacity as part of the quest to educate students as complete human beings. If “art for art’s sake” sounds a bit smug and vague, how about “art for the sake of a meaningful and fulfilling life, lived in concert with others”?
When I was wailing on my sax 1000 feet above Chicago, though, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. My mind was in a place that can only be expressed musically. Or, as jazz great Louis Armstrong famously put it, “if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”