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  • Writer's pictureJeff Lederer

Truth is Marching In....Truthing and Lying in Politics, and Jazz.

Updated: Jul 9

Truth is Marching In – Truthing and Lying in jazz, public discourse and in life. 


Jeff Lederer, Bklyn July 2024




As jazz musicians, we inherit a long tradition of storytelling –---and that story is presumed to be the truth.  Sure, we can play different characters in different situations – a scorned lover on a tender ballad, a swaggering boss on an up-tempo performance of “rhythm changes”.  But in the end, there is an expectation and a long-standing sacred obligation to tell the truth.  That truth comes from an individual perspective, and the “truth” I might have told as a 16 year old musician trying to find his way on a slow blues at a jam session would be very different than the truth I might tell in the form today at 60 years old, but at least there was  always an expectation and a striving for “honesty” in this musical form that I believe holds true in the music today. 


In the sphere of public discourse, “Politics” if you will, there is also historically a basic presumption about telling the truth, but this narrative has become a kind of running joke, and that is not a recent phenomenon.  In some ways, lying in public discourse has been the norm and the truth tellers are few and far between.  But I think that there has been a sea change in the normalization of public lying in recent years, spurned on primarily by the Orange One and his extremist followers for whom truth is something to be molded like Play-Doh to suit the needs of the narrative in the moment.  This tendency towards the normalization of lying has been strongly reinforced by social media and AI technologies in the last few years.


It is not too difficult to tell when someone is lying in public discourse – it is called fact checking.  But how can we tell when a jazz musician is indeed, telling the truth in their improvisations? Despite the efforts of jazz academia to codify the language of jazz into right and wrong choices of notes, rhythm, and harmonies the heros of the music like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler (in his seminal “Truth is Marching In”) were constantly creating new narratives in the music, and yet each time it is pretty easy for us to hear clearly that what they are offering is the truth.  Not their version of the truth- but the truth.  When Kenny G plays,  many of us can agree that there is something there that is disingenuous, insincere, and contrived---he is lying.  What is the difference? And what does that difference have to teach us about truthing and lying both in music making and public discourse?


We can find the beginning of an answer in the illuminating documentary film “Listening to Kenny G” in which he lays out his intentions and motivations in playing the saxophone as a kind of blood sport or competitive event in which he clearly wants to be the best.  The parallels with Trumpism are clear (ironic given the documented encounter between the two men in an elevator in which Trump famously says “I hate jazz”).  But rather than focus on that, I want to focus on the act of truthing, and how we can infuse our daily lives, and music making with that. 


I think the quality of “truthing” in music can be linked quite directly to the intentions of the performer so poignantly summed by John Coltrane in his quote that he would like his music to be a “force for good”.   I believe that there is a moral component to music making, the desire to leave the world a better place as the result of the act.  I could go even further to suggest a “spiritual” component of this to many performers but there’s no need to go there, the act of creating music that benefits the community is grand enough alone.  And that is where this power of truthing, and the threat of lying in both music making and public discourse become so important and potentially dangerous. 


Last spring I gave a workshop/performance at a prestigious preparatory high school in Washington DC called “Politics as Usual” for an audience of young people, many of whose parents are involved in truthing and lying daily in the halls of Congress.  As young jazz musicians the students were eager to gain some knowledge about the language of jazz (the chords/scales and forms that make one sound “authentic”).  But instead, I posed the more direct and difficult question to them – what does it mean to tell the truth in music making? What does it mean to be lying in music making? How can you tell the difference?


It's a hard question, and for young people who have grown up as children of social media and now the ever-increasing encroachment of AI, and the acceptance of lying as part of the narrative of public discourse the issue is even harder, and more important.  I believe that helping students to tell the difference between truthing and lying in music or in life, is the prime mission of educators now. 


My upcoming recording “Guilty!!!” (scheduled for a pre-election release) explores these ideas of truthing and lying in music as well as we incorporate digital samples of untruthful political speech into the fabric of our music.  I have described this juxtaposition of lies and truth as a kind of bi-textuality in which multiple narratives are presented simultaneously and it is the job of the listener to discern truth from lies.  With AI now a real part of the much of the new music being produced (I see this as a continuum that has been happening for quite a while already through digital sampling, auto-tune and various other creative lies in music production) the ability to discern multiple narratives is going to be a part of daily life for all of us.  This is a challenging scenario, and not one I would have wished for future generations.  But I can still rest assured in what I know to be true, that John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Albert Ayler played the truth, and were a force for good.  And I am confident that as Ayler stated, “Truth is Marching In”. 

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