When Steven Olikara first picked up the guitar in third grade, he quickly discovered his musical interests spanned artists of all genres from Kurt Cobain to John Coltrane.
Starting his first band when he was in fifth grade, Olikara noticed something else about music: It transcended the political borders, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds of people in his Milwaukee hometown.
That’s how Olikara, today a Wisconsin U.S. Senate candidate, first came to see how music could teach him lessons that apply to politics. Olikara spoke about how foundational jazz principles could help heal American democracy in his Conference on World Affairs talk: “Find the Jazz in Democracy: Toward a More Inclusive and Honest Kind of Politics.”
The talk, given inside Macky Auditorium, featured a jam and fireside chat with renowned saxophone player Ernie Watts, who has toured with the Rolling Stones and played alongside Frank Zappa.
Saturday marked the final day of the University of Colorado Boulder’s 74th Conference on World Affairs. The event series, which began Friday, featured a host of different topics and experts and was free and open to the public.
Olikara’s passion for jazz started when he began playing in his middle school jazz band.
“What captivated me about jazz was how free it was, how open it was,” Olikara said.
He described how Milwaukee may be known for its beer and cheese, but is “also the most politically segregated metro area in the United States.” Each band that Olikara jammed in showed him different subcultures of his hometown.
“Our bands were a motley crew of people across those different (socioeconomic and political divides),” Olikara said. “I saw something really important: When you create spaces that are open, that affirm peoples’ dignity and humanity, the art that we were creating was more dynamic, more original — it was better.”
This, Olikara said, should serve as a metaphor for democracy, which he said works best when open spaces are created for diverse voices to share their ideas.
He asked the crowd of roughly 100 people to shout out how they would describe America’s democracy and the state of politics today. The audience said: “corrupted, doomed, polarized, ineffective and broken.” Olikara said he believes the jazz spirit could “renew the heart of democracy,” using three jazz modes: free expression, evolution and listening.
Olikara said free expression is a yearning in all people. The freedom to express oneself and create new ideas is essential to democracy and to jazz, he said.
When it comes to jazz evolution and how it applies, he said jazz fundamentally is an evolution and is known as a call-and-response style of art that builds on other peoples’ sounds and ideas, just like democracy should.
“It’s not about the 50-yard line,” Olikara said. “It’s about meeting on a new playing field altogether. I think that art has really been lost in our political discourse. It’s not a call-and-response. It’s more of a call-and-shutdown.”
And finally, listening, Olikara said, is one of the greatest skills a jazz musician can posses and a tool in improving America’s democracy. He said that applies not just to elected officials, but residents, too, who should work to hear new perspectives that don’t just mirror their own.
Besides running for senate, Olikara is the founder and president of the Millennial Action Project. The nonpartisan political organization’s goal is to inspire young people to lead and “bridge the divide in American politics,” according to the group’s website.
Olikara has applied his own jazz theories while leading the Millennial Action Project. He said the political group’s work has led to gerrymandering reform in Ohio, expanded vote-by-mail ballots in Wisconsin, and helped to create a bill to get funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence as a public health issue. Olikara said that bill was passed and signed into law.
“I believe this will be a movement that transforms American politics and passes on a stronger democracy to our children and grandchildren,” Olikara said. “And, any time people tell you, ‘This is impossible. It’s too hard to do,’ just remind them what Nelson Mandela said: ‘It always seems impossible, until it’s done.’”