John Laird is The Columbian's editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blast from the past
If you think I'm crazy with this column, check out how I described dogs as Democrats and cats as Republicans in this 2007 column:
Americans would be better served if Congress were run like a jazz big band. Popularity ratings of our national ruling body would soar from the current all-time low to the heights of approval enjoyed by countless jazz big bands that have decorated American music for nine decades.
I confess to a certain bias in this discussion. My world is drenched in jazz. If I were to buy a personalized license plate, it would probably be: CT BASIE. The Count and other big-band virtuosos offer me a daily refuge. After a busy day of crouching on the curb and watching the political parade wobble and lurch before me, I retreat to Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, Doc Severinsen, Big Phat Band and others for solace.
Any comparison of Congress and big bands leads to this inevitable conclusion about musicians: Brass are Republicans, and woodwinds are Democrats.
The brass section of any big band consists of three instruments: trumpets, trombones and … uh … I forgot the third one. Oops!
But anyway, brass players are the morally upright members of a big band. You can tell just by looking at them that they're more patriotic, more religious. Yeah, they're a little loud and brash sometimes, with a certain "Don't Tread on Me" defensiveness. But like Republicans, brass players are reliable and rigid in their devotion to traditional jazz doctrine.
When brass players stand and take the spotlight in a jazz band, they project a certain Glaringly Ostentatious Performance. This GOP approach aggravates the woodwinds, of course, but it plays well to the base and invigorates brass admirers in the audience.
When a brass player hits the wrong note, comes in early or commits some other great sin, the penalty is automatic: Call a press conference with your wife standing beside you. Weep openly and confess your sin while she stares straight ahead suspiciously as if to ask, "Why am I not convinced?"
Sounds of hope and change
In contrast, woodwinds are the liberals of a big band. This section consists of two instruments: Mostly Saxophones Next to Bashful Clarinetists. This MSNBC construct allows the woodwinds to balance the brashness of the brass section.
Woodwind players are the touchy, feely musicians in a big band. They hope to redirect the performance to a more mellow tone. This hopey, changey stuff doesn't always work out. But the woodwinds know that -- like Democrats -- they're easier on the ears. They negotiate well.
You might wonder how percussionists fit into this comparison of Congress and jazz big bands. That's easy: Drummers are independents. Sometimes they support the conservative brass, and sometimes they support the liberal woodwinds, but they always keep a steady beat. Drummers like to remind us about their role in a big band: They're the ones that matter most, like independents in an election.
Jazz big bands typically open a song by playing in smooth harmony, similar to the ardent vows of bipartisanship we hear when Congress convenes. Gradually, though, the two sections start to drift apart. Woodwinds will stand and wail with gentle persuasion while brass players sit dejectedly, waiting for their chance. Then they switch roles. Trumpets and trombones stand and retaliate thunderously.
Then a miracle occurs. Woodwinds forgive the brass for their selfish audacity. Trumpets and trombones absolve the saxes and clarinets for their yes-we-can naíveté. Then they all make glorious music together, playing so compatibly as to leave no doubt about their proficiency.
The brass and the woodwinds accomplish all of this with little to no overt direction by a specific leader. None is needed. Each section knows it is playing at genius level, and yet each section knows it needs the other for the big band to achieve its goal.
Would that Congress could emulate this rich and rewarding unity, allowing each ensemble to present its distinct gifts, but later coalescing to the admiration of constituents. Sadly, the cats in Congress just aren't that cool.