But what I’m liking most right now is a scene about ten minutes in, where our jazz-musician heroes are in a jail cell talking about forming a band. And Whorf, as the boogie-woogie piano player, makes this fast, sweaty, grinning, impassioned speech:
“It’s got to be our kind of music, our kind of band! The songs we’ve heard that have been knocking around this country, real blues, the kind that come out of real people—their hopes and their dreams, what they’ve got and what they want. The whole USA in one chorus! And that band ain’t just guys blowing and pounding and scraping—it’s five guys, no more, who feel, play, live, and even think the same way. That ain’t a band, that’s a unit! It’s one guy multiplied five times, it’s a unit that breathes in the same beat. It’s got a kick all its own and a style that’s their own and nobody else’s. It’s like a hand in a glove, five fingers, and each one fits—slick and quick.”
Sure, it’s overwrought and improbable and almost silly, but there’s something exciting in there too, something I miss in our self-aware times. No musician would have said anything like it even in 1941, but people were at least willing to pretend that he might. I like the idea that popular art could try to capture the spirit of the nation, could have a shot at uniting and defining a people, and that an ambitious young musician wouldn’t be embarrassed to say so. It’s a vision of art that suggests there’s something bigger than individual glory or private expression, a vision of the republic as a living body, and it seems to me this raw-nerved and threadbare old country could use some of that.