An interview with Buddhist jazz musician Dan Blake

The latest album from saxophonist and composer Dan Blake, DaFe, opens with a bizarre piano solo titled “Prologue—A New Normal.” The track is meant to warn of the world ahead of us if we don’t act on climate change. Blake’s warning is just the tip of his activism: Since 2015, he’s been on the board of Buddhist Global Relief, which fights hunger and malnutrition, and has been producing benefit concerts for them since 2010. More recently, he has organized on behalf of organizations such as Extinction Rebellion, a global environmental movement and the Campaign of the Poor. Blake, who holds a doctorate in music theory and composition and teaches at the New School in New York, has practiced Theravada Buddhism since college. Now 40, he considers it crucial to use his platform to bring attention and funds to social justice work.

Blake spoke with Tricycle about the relationship between music and enlightenment and how jazz has always fueled social change.

How did you choose the title of your album? I read Burning, a novel by German-language author Elias Canetti. I discovered that the title of the English translation referred to a religious ceremony of the Spanish Inquisition when heretics were burned at the stake. At the same time I was reading It’s time to get up, by Buddhist teacher Thanissara, who talks about the need to engage in direct action against climate change. Fires in California were becoming more frequent then, and all of this made me wonder: Are we sacrificing ourselves? What are we sacrificing ourselves for? Why, as a species, would we allow this to happen?

The term da fe in Portuguese literally means “of faith”, so other questions came to mind: what do we have faith in? What is the meaning of faith in a society like ours? What can spiritual practices teach us?

How does making music, for you, answer these questions? Many musicians talk about a very deep listening that brings us closer to each other. We share a deep bond that cannot be articulated. And then I discovered the bodhisattva of compassion, Guanyin, who achieved enlightenment through listening. His name translates to “world sound perceiver”. There is a direct relationship between sound and compassion and therefore between music and compassion. The question then becomes: how do you bring this to the world? Playing music, even music that I’m really proud of, doesn’t directly feed hungry people. This does not stop climate change. It can raise awareness and inspire people to listen, but the question for me is, what more is there?

Jazz has a long history of being linked to social activism. What is it about the genre that makes this connection so present? In my view, the role of artists in social movements is to support people who are doing active work on the ground. Probably the most famous case of this in jazz would be Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, released in 1939, which focused on lynching in the Jim Crow South and raised awareness of the existing social movement started by activists like Ida B. Wells. Holiday was persecuted by the FBI and suffered greatly because of her tenacious and courageous performance of this song.

“Playing music can raise awareness and inspire people to listen. The question, for me, is: what more is there?

Another element of this comes from the mid-1960s with the legacy of John and Alice Coltrane – a legacy of potential spiritual awakening through music. John Coltrane’s famous album supreme love talks about the idea that there is a love so powerful, so universal, that it could unite all of humanity and connect us to a cosmic vibration of healing.

How does creative problem solving during musical improvisation help you solve creative problems in other areas of your life, such as your activism? Often, in a game situation, there is a lot of uncertainty, we often wonder “what is going on here, what is my place in this? It’s similar to how I view myself in relation to the wider world and climate and social movements. I believe the clearest way for artists to engage in activism is to use their platform to talk about what they believe to be moral imperatives. What kinds of creative solutions can we come up with to solve the problems that matter most to us?

It’s important for me to focus on the work done, often by people we don’t know or never meet. I am thinking of someone like Samuel Nderitu and his wife, Peris Wanjiru. These are farmers in Kenya who are developing an incredible network of small-scale farming families who are learning sustainable farming practices to feed their families. They also take over a local food supply chain. This will allow them to avoid the predicament of so many people in Kenya, who find themselves in the hands of multinational agricultural corporations like Monsanto.

For me, the most important thing is to pay attention to the movements that are being organized right now and to focus as much as possible on this work and these people. Quite simply, they are my heroes.

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