James on Jazz: Compassion in the age of social media Part I

JamesOnJazzsquareEditor’s note: This is the first of a two-part article

Billie Holiday, Twitter and…Monica Lewinsky?

Spring, the season of rebirth and renewal is upon us. Hallelujah! If you’re from the Midwest, specifically Minnesota, you can feel my joy. Much has happened and is happening in the world, and in particular, the world of music.

March was National Women’s History Month. April is National Poetry Month, and Jazz Appreciation Month. There’s so much to celebrate, yet so little time to properly acknowledge key individuals and major historic events.

Women, poetry, and jazz. I like the sound of that.

When I think of these three words, I think of the late great Billie Holiday who would have been 100 years old on April 7. Her music was pure poetry for millions of people who loved her, and continue loving her.

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday, 1947

Many artists on the jazz scene are paying respect to Holiday with timely tribute concerts, and new recordings. Vocalists Jose James, Cassandra Wilson, and Molly Johnson are just but a few. All three artists, who have repeatedly said publicly that she was a major influence for them, are paying a debt to Holiday by continuing her beautiful, yet complicated legacy and making inspiring new music based on her life and work. I salute them for their passionate efforts to pay it forward.

There’s something to be said for artists like Holiday who nurture generations of artists. While I believe it’s important to honor those who have passed on, it’s equally important to show our love for the living artists who, like Lady Day, have this gift.

Depending on where you get your news, you may know more about Holiday’s tragedies than her triumphs. Every detail of what she stood for is valid, as it shaped the lady that we’ve come to know as one of the most influential women in music history. That will never change. Artists from every genre of music adore her for her exceptional originality, which offers a great lesson in the art of freedom of expression. It’s all about freedom of expression.

Recently, I took notice of a light that was shined on that very subject, and by an unlikely source: Monica Lewinsky. Yes, Monica Lewinsky.

As I watched Lewinsky’s  2015 TEDTalk online entitled “The Price of Shame,” I was struck by the candidness and courageousness she displayed. She detailed her unique and singular dealings with explicit public humiliation and cyber-bullying on the Internet regarding an intimate relationship that she had with President Clinton. She described herself as “Patient Zero.”

(View Lewinsky’s TEDtalk below)

What resonated with me, was the timeliness of what Lewinsky said about our right to freedom of expression. She said a lot of things that made sense in terms of what’s happening with social networks like Facebook and Twitter. “We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard. But let’s acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention.”

Lewinsky went on to discuss the importance of empathy, compassion, taking back your narrative, and in the process, insisting on a different ending to your story. Now, 41 years old, she said, “Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.”

After watching her speech, my thoughts turned back to Holiday. I wondered how one of the most celebrated vocalists of her time would have been treated in this era, where technology is King and the news cycle is 24/7. When I see photos of Holiday in gowns, smiling, I think about the profound courage it must have taken to get on stage and sing in front of crowds, all the while newspaper reporters were repeatedly chronicling explicit and unpleasant details of her life, instead of focusing on her amazing talent, and serious devotion to her craft.

The same sort of thing happened to extraordinary artists like Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, to name a few. During a once-in-lifetime interview with the late great Jackie McLean, whom we lost on March 31, 2006, I can recall how thankful he was for having the opportunity to vent about how Bird, like Holiday, was mistreated in the similar fashion, and how sad that made him.

How successful would Holiday, Bird, and Monk be in the age of Twitter or Facebook and the 24/7 news cycle?

Robin James welcomes reader responses to jamesonjazz@spokesman-recorder.com. You can also find James on Twitter at @Robin_James1.

Next week:  “James on Jazz: Compassion in the age of social media” continues with a focus on Vijay Iyer, Twitter and the art of speaking your truth.