Understanding vocation, humanity, and politics through the metaphor of music

Maya Angelou says he “thinks like a sage, acts like a warrior and writes like a poetical prophet.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says he is “the pre-eminent African-American intellectual of our generation.” And Marian Wright Edelman says he is “one of the most authentic, brilliant, prophetic and healing voices in America today.” This is all praise for Cornel West, the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University and author of many books, including Race Matters, Democracy Matters, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, and Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America.

Cornel West’s passion for jazz is infectious. Music becomes the metaphor for his vocation as an intellectual, his humanity as a black man, and his politics as a radical democrat. Reflect on the incisive musings below from his book, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom.

The human voice itself is the greatest instrument. Black folks’ tradition begins with the voice. We try to make the instruments sound like our voices. Art Tatum vocalizes the piano. John Coltrane vocalizes the saxophone. Miles Davis vocalizes the trumpet. It’s the human voice you hear in the instrument. The human voice goes beyond technology, the poetry of the written page, and instrumental music.

The irony is that you can’t find your voice unless you’re bouncing off the voices of the dead. That’s where tradition plays a role. Everybody knows that Jelly Roll Morton is gone. Buddy Bolden is gone. But their voices are still here.

There’s no Wynton Marsalis without Duke Ellington. Duke is the voice of the dead. Now Wynton is in deep conversation. He’s in relation so he can create by finding his own voice. He is relating to someone who has expressed his voice in such a profound way. You get this wonderful interplay between past and present, which creates a new future musically.

Music has been our most powerful creative expression. Of course, the music itself is based on the communal links of church, family, and social education. Our music reflects our unique sense of rhythm, harmony, and melody.


For me, the deepest existential source of coming to terms with white racism is music. In some ways, this is true for black America as a whole, from spirituals and blues through jazz, rhythm and blues, and even up to hip-hop. From the very beginning, I always conceived of myself as an aspiring bluesman in a world of ideas and a jazzman in the life of the mind. What is distinctive about using blues and jazz as a source of intellectual inspiration is the ability to be flexible, fluid, improvisational, and multi-dimensional––finding one’s own voice, but using that voice in a variety of ways.

The motif for my work has always been to sing in spoken word and written texts like Duke Ellington played and Sarah Vaughan sang, to swing, to create an intellectual performance that has a blues sensibility and jazzlike openness, to have the courage to be myself and find my voice in the world of ideas and in the life of the academy.

American musical heritage rests, in large part, on the artistic genius of black composers and performers. This rich tradition of black music is not only an artistic response to the psychic wounds and social scars of a despised people. More importantly, it enacts in dramatic forms the creativity, dignity, grace, and elegance of African Americans without wallowing in self-pity or wading in white put-down.


Blues sensibility is tragicomic but not sentimental. There are no pure heroes or impure victims. Good and evil are locked in all our souls. The question is, what kind of choices do we want to make?

Blues––the elegant coping with catastrophe that yields a grace and dignity so that the spirit of resistance is never completely snuffed out.


What is jazz all about? It’s about finding your voice. It’s about that long, difficult walk to freedom. It’s about mustering the courage to think critically. It’s about mustering the courage to care and love, and be empathetic and compassionate. But it’s also about being in a group with antagonistic cooperation, which means bouncing against one another so that you’re giving each other more and more courage to engage in higher levels of collective performance.

Jazz is a mode of democratic action, just as blues is a mode of deep, tear-soaked individuality.

Jazz is the middle road between invisibility and anger. It is where self-confident creativity resides. Black music is the paradigm for how black people have best dealt with their humanity, their complexity, their good and bad, negative and positive aspects, without being excessively preoccupied with whites. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Coltrane were just being themselves. And for whites interested in the humanity of the “other,” jazz––a purely American form––provides them with examples of sheer and rare genius.

One of the reasons jazz is so appealing to large numbers of white Americans is precisely because they feel that in this black musical tradition, not just black musicians, but black humanity is being asserted by artists who do not look at themselves in relation to whites or engage in self-pity or white put-down. This type of active, as opposed to reactive, expression is very rare in any aspect of African American culture.

Louis Armstrong was an existential democrat, which meant that he believed in the dignity of ordinary people, and the potentiality of everyday people.

If you have enough courage to lift your voice, become an agent in the world connecting with other voices, you can democratize your situation––because democracy is about voice lifting, and lack of democracy is about lack of voice.

In performance, it’s your body as part of your voice, your critical intelligence as part of your voice, your feelings and passions as part of your voice. It’s a matter of mind, body, and soul.





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