Music is very important to Cornel West. Every time I have heard him speak he brings music into the conversation. Music and religion is where his religious quest leads him.
He always comes back to music as being the root of his philosophy. While he says he likes classical music, Jazz and the Blues are both deeply embedded in the black tradition in America and that is where his heart and soul lies. West identified with Ella Fitzgerald, Mohammed Ali, and John Coltrane among others. West called himself, “A Jazzman in the world of ideas and a bluesman in the life of the mind.”
The black musical tradition had to deal with the catastrophe of slavery and the catastrophe of Jim Crowe. That was the cradle of that musical tradition giving birth to both jazz and the blues. That is what West identifies with. Out of that was also born his prophetic rebellion. The response to being hated and haunted, he said, was the love supreme of John Coltrane, clearly one of West’s heroes. I like him too.
When West spoke a the University of Winnipeg he was asked by a student at the U of W why he was not more actively engaged in practical politics of rebellion. West, said his calling was to be a “Jazzman in the world of ideas, which means that I have to sing my song.” He had to raise his voice there he said. If he does that he said he believed he can “put pressure on the status quo that could generate concessions and reforms.” He wants to have impact on the ground but thinks he can do that both from the inside and the outside. Running for office is not what his calling is. “Asking him to run for office is like asking a jazzman to join the military band,” he suggested. Though he likes classical music, he would rather play body and soul. “You have to be true to who you are,” says West.
“How to we respond to catastrophe, that is the fundamental question,” says West. Do you respond with critical reflection? Compassion or courageous action? Those are all important and valuable. Or do you respond with callous indifference, dogmatic thinking, and a very tribalistic orientation? Those are not productive. Your reaction to the catastrophe is what counts.
He also identified with the love ethic of a James Baldwin or Marvin Gaye or Nina Samone or MaryLou Williams. According to West, “that is precisely what is needed because the whole planet has the blues.” He wants to be a small part of that grand tradition that leads to critical reflection, love, compassion and courage. But that is not a black thing. Anyone can join that tradition! We can join it too. He mentioned a long list of names of people that inspired him. Many also inspired me. West said, You get that from Rabbi Joshua Heschel, George Gershwin, Steven Sondheim, and Margaret Atwater. I could many to that list: Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, Christopher Hedges, Slavoj Zizek, Arthur Schafer, Woody Guthrie, and Cornel West himself. Among many others. There are many who sing in that choir.
All of them deal with catastrophic consciousness and how do you deal with such catastrophes. You generate some kind of love, some kind of connection with others, mediated with kindness, sweetness and gentleness. Fellow feeling I call that. You have got make such a response a matter of heart and souls says West. That is what the blues are all about.
It’s a human thing. The black musical tradition brings it together in such a powerful way. “It is not just cerebral it is visceral,” says West.