“Jazz Is For Joy”

Question: Does jazz merit more academic study than other 20th-century genres?

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Gary Giddins: Well, everything that is of any value merits academic study and I suppose even some things that aren't of any value, there's all kinds of popular culture courses that go into areas that I don't really see the point of. But the sad truth is that, in the 1930's or 1940's, people—me, when I was growing up in the 1960's, I listened to jazz because loved it. I didn't need anybody—I could teach about it by reading books and reviews, but mostly through listening. I hate the idea of turning jazz into homework assignments. I would never have a quiz saying, "Who's the clarinetist on the Hot Five?" I don't care. If you like the clarinetist, you'll know who it is.

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But appreciation is another thing, music appreciation and how to enjoy it. I mean, I am astounded at my age with a 20-year-old daughter to discover that kids of her generation don't want to watch black and white movies. I understand that they gave up on silent films, but black and white? So, now movies have to be taught in academia because people don't know how to watch them, they don't know how to appreciate them.

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It's inevitable that that's where it's going to happen, but if the class turns into something dry and academic and a question of memorization, then I say, to hell with it. If it doesn't give you pleasure, go someplace else. Jazz is for joy. It's for euphoria, it's for emotion, and anguish, and excitement, and all of the joys that great art can produce, and if it loses that, then it's lost everything. 

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Question: What’s the best advice you can offer students in your profession?

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Gary Giddins: Well, really, my answer to that hasn't changed in most of the years I've been doing this. I think first of all, if you're a critic—I'm a critic. That means you are a writer. So, yes, you have to make yourself an authority on whatever subject it's going to be. Music, movies, literature, whatever it's going to be, but what you really want to do is learn your trade by reading other writers. I think you have to read veraciously, especially people who have done what you have done to see how it's been done in the past; what works, what doesn't work.

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When I teach criticism, I'm not a great admirer of Pauline Kael. Forgive me, I know a lot of people are, but I used to use Pauline Kael as an example in my class of everything you ought not to do, from the imperial “we,” to the arrogance, to the predictability of liking anything by a certain artist, or hating anything by another certain artist; but on the other had, yes, you should read her for yourself, obviously. By reading different critics, you find out who speaks to you and what kind of voice you want to have. So, I think that's the first thing.

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And then in terms of succeeding, because of who you are and what your voice is, and you have to have passion, if you don't have passion for it, why would you bother? This is not a way to make a living in any conventional sense. So you really, you need to have the passion and the belief, arrogant though it may be, to believe that you're saying something that nobody else is saying.

Recorded on November 13, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Yes, jazz should be studied in the academies, says critic Gary Giddins. But if its raw emotion gets "turned into homework assignments," its whole meaning gets lost.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
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