A Musical Case for the Genius of Community

“Jumping Jive” by Norman Lewis, 1942

Think of your favorite music scene. Was it the punk wonderland of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s? Or maybe Seattle’s grunge of the 90s? It could be the jazz, blues, and swing that came out of Harlem in the 1930s. As soon as you have a scene in mind, you’ve probably already thought of two or three of your favorite musicians who emerged from it.

We tend to think of scenes as defined by the extraordinary artists they produced. I think it’s the other way around. “There are often places in the world,” composer and producer Brian Eno once said, “where it’s suddenly quite easy to do something quite brilliant.” I believe this is true — even self-evident — and answering the resulting question “Why?” will lead to a rethinking of the nature of individual talent and communal creativity. Are we just fortunate that highly creative people tend to bunch up in certain locales at certain points in history, or is there something else going on? I think that there is: these famous scenes, and so many more, constitute a kind of social and creative ecosystem.

Indeed, this kind of community is like a garden. There are the beautiful flowers, of course, which command most people’s attention — but in order for those flowers to grow there must also be fertile soil, pollinators, earthworms, and the right amounts of rain, shade, and sun. By the same token, a successful creative community must not only have its stars, but also its own climate of mutual support, including venues of expression and inspiration, lesser known but no less important artistic collaborators, social connectors, affordability, collective identity, permeable social boundaries, and friendly competition.

I call this ecosystem a “communitas.” The word is a Latin noun, “referring either to an unstructured community in which people are equal, or to the very spirit of community.” In cultural anthropology, communitas is used to describe a group of people experiencing “liminality” together. Liminality, according to anthropologist Julia Gluesing, “can refer to the state of inbetweenness, or to the phase in a change process where one has given up old ways of seeing and behaving but has not yet replaced them with new ones. It is a time of possibility.” So, to me, communitas is a useful word to describe the soul of a community in the process of reinventing their culture.

I moved to Chapel Hill to attend the University of North Carolina in 1983. By 1986, I was drumming in rock bands. Although small, the town was an absolute wonderland of musical talent: at any given point, there were 12 fantastic bands performing locally, and no two sounded alike. This held true when some Chapel Bands got national attention — Archers of Loaf, Superchunk, and Ben Folds Five are highly disparate musical entities. My own band, Squirrel Nut Zippers, was even more original to the scene.

It wasn’t until I left Chapel Hill to go on tour that I realized my formative years were spent laboring in a sacred vineyard. Until that time, I assumed that all college towns were more or less the same; that they were populated with exciting, innovative, and talented people. This just wasn’t the case. I understand now that I was living in a communitas.

In the mid-1960s, a young art student named Brian Eno attended an exhibition. “It was a show at the Barbican, which is a big gallery in London,” Eno remembered years later. “I’d always been interested in that period of painting, and I thought I knew a lot about it. I went to this exhibition, and I must have seen seventy paintings of painters I’d never heard of before. Good paintings. Seventy Russian paintings that I, who had studied Russian painting, had never heard of.

“I looked at this and I thought, ‘What was happening was there was a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, contributing ideas.’ I knew the big names, but I suddenly realized that they weren’t that much more important than all of the other people in the scene. The whole scene was important.”

Eno immediately coined a term for such a community: “scenius.” According to him, it stands “for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”

Until recently, the concept of communal genius didn’t really exist. Traditionally, our culture has valued individual geniuses as the sole engines of accomplishment. Scottish essayist and philosopher Thomas Carlyle is largely credited with originating the “Great Man Theory” in the 19th century. “The history of the world,” he wrote, “is but the biography of great men.” Brian Eno, when he walked into the Barbican exhibition, was expecting to see paintings by the “big names” he had been taught: Kandinsky, Chagall, and Malevich. Those talented men were certainly represented, but so were at least seventy others of comparable talent and sensibility. Eno immediately understood there was another force at work; one that would turn the Great Man Theory on its head.

Nothing exists in a vacuum; certainly not culture. We have seen, throughout history, many examples of places where it’s easy to do something brilliant — yet little effort has been made to identify scenius’s essential elements, let alone ask the most basic question about that statement: Why? What are the collective elements that would constitute an “ecology of talent” — another Eno term — and is it possible that such a thing not only supports individual genius, but engenders it?

More than Eno’s idea of scenius as a mutually-supporting ecology of talent, this ecosystem must also include tastemakers, patrons, social connectors, and venues of expression.

Eno’s idea of scenius is centered around the interplay of a community of artists. Author Austin Kleon recently expanded the concept.

“What I love about the idea of scenius is that it makes room in the story of creativity for the rest of us: the people who don’t consider ourselves geniuses,” Kleon wrote. “Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute — the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start. If we forget about genius and think more about how we can nurture and contribute to a scenius, we can adjust our own expectations and the expectations of the worlds we want to accept us. We can stop asking what others can do for us, and start asking what we can do for others.”

Let’s look at a few historic examples of communitas, starting with Harlem:

The New York City neighborhood of Harlem encompasses only three square miles, but was the center of African-American artistic expression in the 1920s. It started with music, more specifically jazz, when the musical play Shuffle Along premiered on Broadway in 1921. Written by vaudeville comedians and musicians, its largely unknown cast included future superstars Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. It was the first time an all-Black production had been staged on Broadway, the first time jazz had been heard on Broadway, and it was an unqualified success.

The Shuffle Along company

Shuffle Along led to the desegregation of theaters. It united white and black supporters. It also led to the artistic and literary flowering of what would become known as The Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes, a young poet new to the city, saw the show and was transformed. He famously went on to incorporate jazz rhythms into his poetry. There was no real defined aesthetic to the movement. Instead, it was rooted in identity, as Hughes would later observe:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We will build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we will stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

Harlem was a communitas, with enough space and resources to allow a flourishing of artistic expression. It was there that jazz and blues became established as the lingua franca of American popular music. There’s no better example of shared identity being fundamental to a successful creative community — and in this case, the concept of the “New Negro” was the only antidote to a society which actively suppressed Black expression.

The French Impressionist painters during the Belle Epoch not only changed art, they changed music. “At that time I was writing my Fils des étoiles,” composer Erik Satie wrote, “and I explained to [Claude] Debussy how we French needed to break away from the Wagnerian adventure, which did not correspond with our natural aspirations. And I told him that I was not at all anti-Wagnerian, but that we needed a music of our own — preferably without sauerkraut. Why not use the representational methods demonstrated by Claude Monet, Cézanne, Toulous-Lautrec, etc.? Why not make a musical transposition of these methods? Nothing could be simpler. Are they not also expressions?”

Composers and friends Erik Satie and Claude Debussy

The subsequent work of both men would, in time, alter the course of classical musical expression. (Indeed, Satie is considered the father of minimalist and ambient music: in 1917 he coined the phrase “Furniture Music” (musique d’ameublement). “We urge you to take no notice of it and to behave during the intervals as if it did not exist,” Satie wrote for the first Furniture Music performance. “This music…claims to make a contribution to life in the same way as a private conversation, a painting in a gallery, or the chair which you may or may not be seated. You will be trying it out.”)

Brian Eno speaks candidly about the new kind of multidisciplinary collaborations he saw in recording studios in the mid-to-late 1960s as something distinct from the traditional top-down organizational structure of symphonies. “What you have instead is suddenly a field of possibilities,” Eno said. “Of course you have somebody who thinks of the song, and then you have other people who help arrange the song, then you have this person called the producer, then you have the engineer, then you have the people who design the instruments and software and so on. You end up with a very large group of people making this kind of art, just as you do in cinema. This form of social organization is characteristic of 20th century art, and 21st century as well.”

There’s no better example of this than the Beatles’ work in EMI studios during the period known as Swinging London. Producer George Martin, who structured albums, improved songs, signed off on the right takes, and contributed many supplemental orchestral and choral arrangements, is rightly called the “fifth Beatle.” Much can also be said about Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick. It was his idea to run John Lennon’s vocal through a Leslie amplifier to get that spacey sound on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” as well as stuffing sweaters into Ringo Starr’s bass drum to achieve a muffled sound that not only influenced the drummer’s style, but became an industry standard. Much of Emerick’s engineering innovations have also become canon. Now you can buy a digital plug-in that mimics the sound he was able to achieve by pushing studio compressors beyond their intended use.

Geoff Emerick and Ringo Starr

Communitas depends on social connectors. They’re the people who are most vocal about an emerging artist or trend, delight in making introductions, and are completely free of the social awkwardness that most artists have.

Starting in the late 1970s, the sleepy college town of Athens, Georgia, became one of the first successful regional indie scenes. If you talk to members of any of the well-known Athens bands — from The B-52s to Pylon to Love Tractor to R.E.M., they will all credit a man called Jeremy Ayers as the binding agent of the whole scene.

Montmartre of the Belle Epoch and Berlin in the 1920s had much in common, not the least of which is a kind of horizontal social hierarchy. In Paris’ first cabaret, Le Chat Noir, artists, poets, humorists, and musicians mingled with working class regulars, military officials, and even royalty. All were uniformly insulted by the cabaret’s owner and outsized emcee, Rodolphe Salis. “Well, look here!” Salis is once supposed to have said to the future King Edward VII. “It looks like the Prince of Wales all pissed!” Both Satie and Debussy played piano in cabarets to make a meager living.

The post World War I Weimar Republic promoted tolerance and social democracy. As a result, Berlin became a level playing field for the normally dispossessed: queers, women, and people of color. It produced Marlene Deitrich and Berthold Brecht. African-American Josephine Baker premiered her new dance The Charleston in 1926 in the Nelson Theatre on Kurfürstendamm. Cabaret singer Claire Waldoff was openly lesbian and lived with her parter. As the BFIs Margaret Dariaz said of the time, “It was a period of great experimentation and vitality and also of diversity and multiplicity of voices.”

Claire Waldoff

In early 1952, Sam Phillips rented a small space at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis and opened Sun Records. At Phillips’ direction, Sun became the soul of diversity, releasing gospel, hillbilly, rockabilly, western swing, and blues recorded by Black and white, female and male. In 1954, Elvis Presley released his first single on Sun and changed popular culture. But Elvis was laboring in a sacred space: Phillips brought him into a world he had already created — one of free, diverse, and passionate expression — where musical genres could be dissolved and recombined. Even though the Beatles are credited with the first recorded guitar feedback on a record, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Willie Johnson got there first, thirteen years earlier, for Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service.

Sam Phillips

Phillips’ reputation as a pioneer and fair dealer made Sun a home for an incredible diversity of talent. He was not an artist, but he gave artists a platform for expression and attention that would transform the latter half of the century.

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I’m very much interested in how much communitas engenders genius. Of course there are gifted artists who appear generationally. But who influenced them? What community brought them the right attention? What avenues of expression were available to them?

Even the term “genius” is problematic. Its original Latin meaning described a “tutelary deity” of a person, family, or place. Only much later did the term come to mean the talent peculiar to an individual. When we think of historical people considered to be geniuses — Mozart, Da Vinci, Einstein — we think of them as sui generis; separate from their own time and place. But surely their extraordinary talents were nurtured, cultivated, and refined in a community of support and opportunity.

Wired founder Kevin Kelly thinks that talented people do their best work when buoyed by communitas; a level of attainment that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise. I agree with this, and think it merits much deeper investigation.

“The genius merely advances the growth of seeds already embedded in the spiritual subsoil,” sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote in The Dynamics of Spiritual Realities, “and every innovation, however creative, is always drawn back into the general process.”

As any failed tech startup will show, communitas cannot be willed into existence. But it’s essential elements can be identified, and its actual influence properly recognized. We are leaving the era of commodified individuation, and heading towards a greater understanding and appreciation of healthy ecologies: from sustainable farming to cultural expression. It’s time to leave behind the old top-down ideas of creative organization and abandon the Great Man Theory. People make up communities, and people are made by communities. When a creative environment achieves the right balance of the differing components of communitas, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Once we emerge from this pandemic and its resultant isolation, this is very much the kind of community I’d like to invest in.

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.

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