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In tune with the times

The story goes something like this: back in the 1920s, when jazz was just getting into its stride, someone asked Louis Armstrong, “What is this thing called jazz?” “If you’ve gotta ask,” the musician replied, “you’ll never know.” I relay this anecdote,...


The story goes something like this: back in the 1920s, when jazz was just getting into its stride, someone asked Louis Armstrong, “What is this thing called jazz?”

“If you’ve gotta ask,” the musician replied, “you’ll never know.”

I relay this anecdote, not just because I love jazz, but because Armstrong’s response raises the issue of empathy. An issue, in my view, which should be of great concern to the Labour party.

Some may see his reply as flippant, too clever an answer to a genuine request for information on, what was then, a new, popular and rapidly evolving art form. His answer was clever, but not for that reason. He was making another more astute point.

Louis Armstrong could have gone on to explain the music, its foundation in the blues, its ability to swing, its moves into daring improvisation.

But he didn’t. He wasn’t that pretentious. He knew an attempt at such an explanation would be as nothing, if the person asking the question didn’t have an emotional attachment or empathy for jazz. From his perspective, without that feel for the music, any explanation of its technical attributes would fall on stoney ground. How it feels is just as important as how it works. If you have empathy the rest follows. If you don’t, you’ll never really know. There are lessons in this for the Labour party.

Jazz is a musician’s music because of its emphasis on improvisation, but it starts to lose its way when it seems that’s all it is. The more inaccessible, the more esoteric the music becomes the more people leave it behind. When music, any music, starts to talk to itself and ceases to be listened to by the audience, its way is lost. The same is true of politics.

I must confess I still like jazz even when it becomes inaccessible, but even I can see why many people don’t. Even I can tell some of the music is drifting off into ‘emperor’s new clothes’ territory. So, with this in mind, I still seek the endorsement of the music from others without forcing it down their throats. I would never say, ‘if you don’t like what I like, you are just plain wrong.’ I like my friends and I want to keep them.

Self-awareness is important. Taking your audience off somewhere niche is fine. Nothing wrong with that. The problem arises when those who are niche believe they are more popular than they are. As if their nook and cranny is the world complete, when in reality they are viewing the world through the wrong end of the telescope.

My musical tastes are niche, but at least I know they are niche. Unlike Labour’s leadership. In their niche world, there is no self-awareness. Questions are never asked because the leader doesn’t want to know.

He’ll only enter the stage if he knows the audience will like what he plays. If the audience is more demanding, wanting to hear something more in tune with the times, he doesn’t turn up.

The leader’s band never plays anything new. And why should it? The adulation from the niche and the applause from the alcove of the speak-easy continues regardless, where the sweet song of narcissism is everything and the quest for innovation is heresy. Progress falls on a tin ear and the constant beat of moral vanity is all that can be heard. All Labour music becomes toneless, without melody. And as for being in rhythm with the twenty-first century, two left feet would be a blessing.

In the auditorium where the Labour party now gigs, social democracy has become the pastime of the connoisseur but the band just plays on.

Louis Armstrong also said this: “We all do ‘do, re, mi’, but you have got to find the other notes yourself.”

So come on Jeremy. Find the notes. Knock out a tune we can all tap our feet to. That’s what leaders do, and if they can’t, they leave the stage.

The Labour creed, like jazz, is from the streets. Continents apart, but still from the streets. We are insurgencies. One has entered the concert hall, the other government. Jazz is a beautiful music and has enriched our lives in more ways than we know. Labour is different. Labour can not only enrich lives, but change them. There is nothing niche about that. Unless, of course, we continue to turn our back on the audience.


Phil Wilson MP

Phil Wilson is Labour MP for Sedgefield.


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