Pennsylvania Priests & Bebop Jazzmen

I read two things yesterday.

I opened the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on six Catholic dioceses and the evidence of sexual abuse by more than 300 priests dating apparently to the 1950s.

I got through the introduction and the first two priests in the diocese of Allentown.

It wasn’t just the preying pedophilia. It was the craven blaming of victims, the various layers of psychological torment they endured by predators for years trying to deflect blame, and by church officials who rushed to any lie to hide scandal.

I had to stop. It was revolting, almost deadening to read.

Luckily, I’m also reading a book about the beginnings of modern jazz in the 1940s in New York City: The Birth of Bebopby music historian Scott DeVeaux.

I found refuge there.

DeVeaux chronicles all that went into creating modern jazz out of the bustling swing-jazz era. I was in the part of the book that focuses on the jazz scene that formed around the late-night/early morning jam sessions at the many clubs around New York in the 1940s.

I’ve been reading it because I’m a long-time fan of jazz – I wrote my senior history thesis on this very period and topic. But also because I’m interested in how “scenes” are created. Places where people come together with similar interests and through intense competition and collaboration over time they create something new and unexpected and change the culture.

I view Silicon Valley as a scene. [As an aside, I think we’re seeing something like this happening around the opiate-addiction epidemic in our country: people coming together, usually in counties, and immersing themselves in the problem to then find, together, solutions to it.]

Scenes of great human creativity have usually emerged when, among other things, we are held to the highest standards and when these are not bent or weakened.

DeVeaux paints a picture of young musicians descending on the city, thirsty to improve, working in swing bands during the evening, then jamming at after-hours clubs into the wee hours. Held to the highest standards by established masters. Sometimes humiliated by them and sent home to practice when they didn’t measure up.

“Jam sessions provided affirmation for those at the top of their game and a formidable barrier to those trying to reach the highest levels,” DeVeaux writes. “Individual reputations might be made or broken, but the ultimate purpose was to raise the quality of performance all around.”

He quotes Count Basie: “If you didn’t [have something special in your musicianship] and didn’t have any better sense than to go there and tangle with them cats, that was the quickest way to get yourself embarrassed. They didn’t have any mercy on upstarts in there.”

And Mezz Mezzrow: “These contests taught the musicians never to rest on their laurels, to keep on woodshedding and improving themselves.”

There were no lies, in other words. The truth came out on the bandstand and everyone could see it. Refreshingly meritocratic.

“In this way,” DeVeaux writes, “the after-hours jam session became an integral part of an aspiring musician’s musical education.”

What emerged through this clear-eyed confronting of the truth, and enforcing standards, was an artistic achievement of the highest caliber that changed world music.

I found this cleansing after wading through the swamp of cowardly abuse and the covering for low standards and base lies that the Pennsylvania report chronicles. From it, I gather that people of power weren’t forced to prove themselves. Unlike on that late-night New York bandstand, their power and mediocrity went unquestioned. They were instead coddled, provided apologies, breaks, and ominous new beginnings elsewhere – all because of their positions.

I may try to read more of the Pennsylvania report. But I’m going to keep The Birth of Bebop close by.

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