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Jazz Speaks for Life: A Short Essay on Disney’s Soul

So many spoilers are below. You’ve been warned.

About 20 minutes into watching Disney Pixar’s Soul (2020), I anticipated that this was yet another movie about achieving your dreams despite the time and pressure of family and society. I expected this to be another movie that celebrated the protagonist’s resolve to their craft and their passion.

Boy, was I wrong.

A Brief Synopsis

The story begins with Joe Gardner, a middle-school band teacher who is dissatisfied with his mundane life and unexplored passions and continually tries to make it in the world of Jazz. Before his big break, however, he meets his untimely demise and is transported via the giant conveyor belt that is making its way towards the afterlife. In a turn of events, Joe is able wiggle out of this certain fate and team up with a new soul, named 22, who is trying to find their “passion” in order to become a viable candidate for life on Earth.

Are you following? Well, I’ll spare the details of the film (which is really fun and smartly crafted and I do suggest you give it a watch) and get to my point.

After many attempts of getting his soul back into his dying body, our main man, Joe Gardner, is on the cusp of giving up his fight. It’s this moment when he finally witnesses his lovable (and at times, temperamental) trainee, 22, enjoy some of the little pleasures on Earth such as the taste of good food, walking outside on a fresh fall day, listening to conversations in the park—those sorts of things. While Joe’s epiphany is not immediate, he does catch on. It is when he simply tries to appreciate the small things, the hard things, the painful, and joyful things in life that Joe was able to compose an instrumental (“Epiphany” in the tracklisting).

Maybe We’re Out of Tune

As musicians, it’s so easy to get swept up in the techniques of our peers, cutting-edge equipment, and unfounded rhythms and baselines that we see on new albums and social media. It’s human nature to want to create the next best thing. Who doesn’t want to be that guy? Who doesn’t want to innovate the genre? Make it big? Like Joe, see your name in lights?

But, as the movie Soul calls us to recognize, maybe we should keep reminding ourselves why we love Jazz in the first place. Why did we first connect with this genre? When we get so caught up in nuances, maybe we should take it back to the beginning.

In fact, it seems that Joe Gardner himself found that skewed view of his passion for Jazz music to have led him through his life with blinders on. We watched as Joe connected with his barber (well it wasn’t him, obviously, but you get the point) as they talked about life, rather than the latest Jazz news. We caught the hint that perhaps Joe lost touch with his ex-girlfriend (or whomever) because of his unwavering desire to really be somebody in the world of Jazz.

Jazz should not be one’s identity. Jazz should not be the very foundation of one’s life, either. Rather, Jazz should be a tool. In 1964 at the Berlin Jazz Festival, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech to the masses that addresses this idea more eloquently than I ever could. He said,

"Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.

Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument."

A Final Note

When Jazz becomes our life, maybe it’s time for a walk. Jazz, Blues, Rock n Roll, painting, photography, sculpture, dance, etc., etc., etc. are all forms of art that serve simply as a means to interpret our existence. They serve as a means to capture the grief of a loss, the joy and obliviousness of first romance, and desire to inspire a community to peace and justice. Don’t forget what the art does as you try to tell the notes where to go. And when audiences see and hear what we create, they identify not only because they are in awe of our talent and novelty of our performance, but also, they identify with the feelings that they could not yet express.

So, in the rat-race to see your name in lights, ask yourself: what is it that gave you the light in the first place?


Written by Colleen Walker


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