A Free Concert Meditation: Will Socialism Look and Sound Like This?

Trump is in the White House, the classless society seems a long way in the future, and the District of Columbia like many other U.S. cities is plagued with gross economic injustice and obvious problems with evictions and homelessness. We face some other important social difficulties, too. Yet on June 15, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) offered about 100 Washingtonians a glimpse of the more than material benefits that an intelligent government bureaucracy can sometimes provide even under capitalism, and that a future socialist society might someday offer in greater abundance.

For two short hours, the SAAM's Kogod Courtyard hosted a free concert of classical jazz standards composed by Thelonious Monk, one of the great geniuses of the bebop era and perhaps the most original jazz composer of modern times. Performing a selection of Monk's work was the Irene Jalenti Quintet, with Jalenti herself, an alto with an Italian background and a passionate, torch singer's style, doing scat singing and/or vocalizing the lyrics for such Monk compositions as "In Walked Bud," "Round Midnight," "Well, You Needn't," "Ask Me Now," "Pannonica," and the iconic "Straight, No Chaser."

Not everyone is familiar with Thelonious Monk's style of jazz improvisation, nor is it universally popular with those who hear it for the first time. However, the concert was a hit with a racially diverse audience of younger and (mostly, but not entirely) older Washingtonians who sat in the Kogod in folding chairs as bright sun filtered down from the glass ceiling many stories above us and touched the leaves of the green trees in the atrium with gold. Behind the back of the stage, in the corner of the courtyard by the cafeteria, other visitors to the SAAM and the Portrait Gallery were eating and talking; young couples of different ethnic and gender identities were bonding; and to the side of the seating area in back, SAAM volunteers and staff were providing board games for the amusement of children to help them remain quiet while their parents listened to the music. The organizers of the venue also offered bottled water, wine, and cans of Atlas Beer brewed in the District -- supposedly by relying on solar energy -- for visitors willing to pay a little money.

If we ever achieve socialism here in the United States, will the revolution be able to offer more people the chance to enjoy concerts like this one, in other venues as attractive as the Kogod, with equal access to everyone, and without requiring anyone to pay for the experience? It's nice to think that if the Smithsonian Institution can do this kind of thing today, even in as class-divided and expensive a city as Washington is, it's not absurd to believe that a properly organized socialist society -- or even a merely social democratic one -- might be capable of making the opportunity to enjoy free art and music much more common than it is for us.

There are some self-styled socialists even today who make the argument that institutions like the Smithsonian Institution, local public fire departments, local public libraries, streets and roads built by state and local governments, and public elementary schools and institutions of higher learning already are examples of "socialism" in our midst. This means the USA in key ways is "socialist" already, these socialists believe, and this means that Americans are far more comfortable with "socialism" than most of us think. It's therefore not such a scary concept, the argument goes.


As a sometimes undisciplined Marxist, as a leftist who believes that the class struggle against inequality is central to any socialism I can support, I think it's mostly wishful thinking to claim that the Lincoln Memorial, the existence of I-495, and the survival of NPR all prove the "socialist" character of American life. Yet maybe democratic socialists need to give this argument more of a hearing.

The grim reality is that in the eyes of the Republican-dominated Congress and the Trump White House, even President Obama's highly flawed Affordable Care Act is "socialist" enough that they're intent on repealing it.

Similarly, Trump's touted $1 trillion plan to fix our society's crumbling infrastructure is skewed toward creating "public-private partnerships" and giving tax breaks to large corporations to get them to do the work, rather than relying on a "socialist" construction program run by the federal government.

Republicans opposed to "socialist" government spending programs are sure to propose cuts in the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts this year, and Trump's new secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, has recently told the media that he hopes to contract out to private corporations the business of operating camping sites in U.S. national parks and national forests. Zinke has said he does not believe that the government should be in the business of operating campgrounds.


In short, the Smithsonian's ability to provide Washingtonians and tourists with art and musical experiences comparable to the Irene Jalenti Quintet's performance of Monk's work is something none of us can take for granted. Along with federal assistance to Planned Parenthood clinics, the National Park Service's provisioning of campgrounds and visitor centers, the Postal Service's delivery of the mail, and free and universal education provided by public schools, the Smithsonian's art and musical offerings could well come under rightwing attack.

Should democratic socialists spend some time thinking how we can join with other organizations in this country to fight for the continued availability of parks and art museums, as well as the continued availability of public schools and health clinics? It's another issue we should be considering, I think.

In the meantime, for Washington Socialist readers who missed the Jalenti Quintet's performance on the 15th, it's worth keeping track of where else the group is going to be performing in this area, including in private venues. Not only is Jalenti a superb vocalist, but Elijah Jamal Balbed plays a great tenor saxophone, and Simona Premazzi takes a bold, confident approach to following Monk's compositions on the piano, although inevitably her playing falls short of what Monk himself used to do. Dante Pope, on drums, and Romeir Mendez, on bass, are well worth hearing, too.

Meanwhile, Washington Socialist readers who've never developed an appreciation for Monk's music should be aware that the SAAM also will offer additional free concerts through October as part of its monthly "Take 5!" series. The Michael Gallant Trio will play at the Kogod on July 20; Brad Linde's GINGERBRED with Caroline Davis is scheduled for August 17; the Ele Rubenstein Ensemble will play on September 21, and on October 19 the music of Emily Remler will be performed by the Steve Herbenman/Donato Soviero quartet. For full descriptions of these upcoming programs, visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum website.

Related Entries