Greg Clark’s Innovative Research on Civic Jazz

Many faculty, staff, and students at BYU were first introduced to Jazz and the Art of Civic Life with a presentation in 2013 by BYU professor Greg Clark and his guest jazz artists Loren Schoenberg and Jonathan Batiste (Batiste has since become the band leader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). One year later, Dr. Clark brought the great jazz pianist Marcus Roberts to campus, along with Schoenberg, to continue that conversation in a program sponsored by the Humanities Center. This year, Clark has continued working with jazz musicians to present ideas of civic jazz at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem in June, and, most recently, at the American University of Paris. The program at the American University of Paris, which took place October 23, 2015, was titled “Civic Jazz: A Conversation on American Music and Democracy.” Dr. Clark led that conversation with Marcus Roberts, Jason Marsalis, and Rodney Jordan, members of the Marcus Roberts Trio, a conversation that was built around the Trio’s music and was followed by their performance of a magnificent set.. This program, involving explanation, demonstration, and a concert with arguably one of the finest jazz trios in the world, inaugurated a new research center at the university on critical democracy devoted to fostering important conversations on democracy. As quoted from the program of the Paris event, “In their public conversations, Mr. Clark and Mr. Roberts have demonstrated how we can live our citizenship with more generosity and virtuosity than we presently do, locating the idea of democracy in learned practices of cooperation and shared leadership, of justice and mutual caring, of commitment and self-discipline.”

All of this comes out of Dr. Clark’s masterful and innovative book titled Civic Jazz: American Music and Kenneth Burke on the Art of Getting Along, for which Marcus Roberts wrote the foreword.. In this book, Dr. Clark uses Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical analysis of the ways that people are influenced by an encounter with art to explain how jazz improvisation provides lessons to those who practice it and who watch and listen carefully in living more democratic lives. Jazz, as a truly collaborative and inviting genre, requires the ability to work with others, to know when to take the lead and when to let others take the lead, and to know how to improvise and respond to situations. It also requires that people who join a jazz group have done outside work in order to play together in the band. Multiple perspectives can truly work together to make magic, which is exactly what Dr. Clark has done with his interweaving of the rhetorical work of influence and the aesthetic work of jazz music to explain the analogous work of democracy and civic jazz.

Greg Clark

Dr. Clark and the Marcus Roberts Trio

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  1. Greg is also my official jazz tutor. I’ve always appreciated the theory of jazz, but never really enjoyed its performance. (John Bennion once talked me into two successive nights at a jazz festival in Missoula during a conference we were attending that almost killed me.) I’m more drawn to folk, bluegrass, blues, alt country, cowboy, and rock. Greg (along with my wife Delys) is helping me change that by directing me to jazz forms that are more accessible. I’ve got Greg’s book as well as a Guide to Jazz (including music) that he gave me for homework. I’ve learned that for me, jazz, like kale, is an acquired taste–but one that also makes me much healthier.

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