“So Peculiarly American”: Basketball and American Popular Music

Nor are these observations meant to suggest that jazz musicians and basketball players are solo artists, for if anything, their greatness is the result of their work with groups. Magic Johnson remains a supreme example, for in his game, he elevated the level of play of his entire team. The same can be said of all great artists — they are defined with and against groups, but they are distinguished by excelling.

“Athletes,” Paul Weiss once said, “are excellence in the guise of men.”[13] While the media reveals some of our multimillion athletes as less than stellar in their personal lives, it is tough to deny that, within their arena, professional athletes represent sacrifice, dedication, talent, and, above all else, excellence. A friend of mine once observed that basketball players are almost an exception to the laws that govern moving bodies in that they are big men who move like small men; they are the redwoods of the human species who move with the agility and grace of men with lower centers of gravity.

And they are the improvisers of modern life, who teach us how to lead lives of grace, calm, and unmistakable style.

“I am the Mike Jordan of recording.”

— Jay-Z

In terms of impeccable style, recording artist Jay-Z and hoops legend Michael Jordan may just be Brooklyn’s finest — for they extend, each in his own way, what Whitman called “brag;” brag has become swag in the hip hop nation. While Whitman proclaimed himself a “rough” and “one of the cosmos,” Jay-Z and Michael Jordan have established for themselves global identities built upon grace under pressure. Jordan hits game-winning shots and saves the day with Bugs Bunny, and Jay-Z pens rhymes that shimmer with sparkling metaphors bristling with ferocity and inventiveness. While some critics of hip hop music frown upon the monotony of the beats, the oral performance remains one of world-class creativity, where language becomes a field of lyrical improvisation — or flow. Much like jazz musicians, rap artists and hip hop poets create a sense of spontaneity and fluidity, when in fact long hours of writing, rehearsal, and studio work culminate in a piece that seems completely organic. Even in Jay-Z’s song “Show Me What You Got,” where he draws a direct link between himself and Michael Jordan,[14] the instrumentation behind his voice is that of jazz music, complete with saxophone riffs. And while the beat is looped, the constant inventiveness of Jay-Z’s words remains present, and the beat itself becomes the canvas for his voice, similar to the ways in which basketball players transform the hardwood with its lines into the background for their endless improvisations.

While some critics of hip hop music frown upon the monotony of the beats, the oral performance remains one of world-class creativity, where language becomes a field of lyrical improvisation — or flow.

In terms of endless improvisations, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (of whom Sean Coombs said “I am the Great Gatsby”) is one of our nation’s cultural orphans whose life as a self-made man is “so peculiarly American.” In a pivotal scene from Fitzgerald’s novel, we are told that Gatsby “was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American — that comes, I suppose, with the absence of lifting work or rigid sitting in youth and, even more, with the formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games.” With an eye on wealth and the leisure class, Fitzgerald found himself both inside and outside, and this sentence foresees the America of today, a landscape literally dominated by the culture of sport. Sport in the United States garners billions of dollars annually, and some of the major global corporations of the land are connected with athletics. In his one sentence, Fitzgerald observes that sport has taken the place of work. After all, the 1920s witnessed the emergence of the sports superstar in popular culture — think Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, along with sports typically associated with leisure, such as golf and tennis, beginning to create its own class of professionals. This America that was beginning to emerge during the Jazz Age is now in full bloom; visit any American suburb, and while some high school students will flip burgers for summer coin, many more will be engaged in summer camps geared towards honing skills in a particular sport.
Summer camps exist for nearly any sport under the sun.

And all of this, really, is to suggest one idea — that the link between the popular music of a nation and its games is inextricable. They form the vernacular underpinnings for the United States of America, and of any nation under the sun; while nations will boast of supporting human rights, of advocating social equality, and the sort, the real national passions reside in sport and music, when the body and the mind are at play, endlessly inventing, recalling those days of recess, when sunlight and laughter, a ball and our boundless imaginations, were all we needed to face the road ahead, and to put our own spin on the world around us.

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  1. This wonderfully evocative idea is explored by long-time Columbia University professor George Stade in, among other places, his essay titled “Desportment” from The Hudson Review, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1969-1970). 732-736.
  1. This idea emerged from an impromptu conversation with Gilbert Nunez, a good friend and student at Columbia University, as we sat together in the cafe of Butler Library, summer 2010.

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