How did you come to jazz? To this question, I often find myself scratching my head and typically settle on a vague answer only made more vague by an impulsively apologetic shrug. “Well, you know, it just happened”. There was never any kind of jazz-related music playing around the house and even my childhood piano lessons didn’t put the genre on my radar the whole time I took them. It wasn’t exactly frowned upon or disregarded by my circle of friends and relatives. It simply didn’t exist. The closest I ever got to an awareness of the music growing up was a scuffed compilation CD of Glenn Miller my parents had left sitting on a dusty bookshelf in the living room. How did it get there in the first place? I will never know. As I moved into my late teens, I picked out a Coltrane retrospective CD while shopping with my parents at a grocery store in my hometown in France. I remember it had the song Russian Lullaby on it, the last track. I had never heard anything played with so much intensity and fire, at that breakneck speed. And no amp or savvy production to give it a boost. What the heck is this, I thought. This beat is infectiously fast! Is this humanly possible? From here on out, I went on a Coltrane binge – mostly the late and supposedly less accessible recordings – that didn’t leave much room for any other jazz artist or other music style for a while. After wearing out Stellar Regions and the Live at the Village Vanguard sessions – which ripped apart any sense of metronomic stability – I worked my way back through the earlier records and slowly gravitated toward the more straight-up swinging jazz I had only had a glimpse of before at the time. That’s when Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue caught my attention. Low and behold, it had my new hero on it, blowing his heart out on every tune. So, it is possible to make a truly distinctive and individual statement in the most collective setting one can think of, I mused. Thus began my sinuous initiation to this thing called jazz. Twenty years down the road and a new instrument to practice – the double bass – I’m still struggling to define the contours of the art form. There are times when I just can’t take the polyphonic quality of some of the music and go into a jazz-free regimen for days, only playing rap, classical and what not, or no music at all. Jazz can be overwhelming as complex emotions are.
I guess that’s where I’m getting at with his post.
As much as I have denied it defensively for years, I came to realize that yes, jazz is complex. But complexity is not a sanctuary for intellectuals or an elitist class of the Enlightened. Human emotions are complex. To me, when played sincerely, jazz is the epitome of a complex human emotion, one that ties the cerebral to the elemental seamlessly. At the risk of overstating the point, we all have something jazz inside us. Sure, the term originated under unfavorable auspices. As the BAM (Black American Movement) controversy made abundantly clear, the word jazz itself is morally problematic when we look at its racist and derogatory beginnings. It’s no wonder, then, that most jazz lovers and haters are still fairly opinionated about where to draw the line between jazz and non jazz, not realizing that this line has never been and will never be scored in indelible ink.
To me, the difficulty of defining the genre is a testament to its cultural importance, enduring appeal and vital energy. It will not be pigeonholed because it has change, difference and human interaction at its core. I’ve always been struck by the fact that in the early days of the nascent jazz idiom – predominantly in the music of New Orleans – performers often played over each other and rarely got a solo spot to shine. They all soloed together simultaneously, so to speak. Yet it was the combination of individual talents that shaped and guided the overall sound of the band. In that way, people like Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington clearly deserve the jazz originators label that they usually get credit for. Their music served as a catalyst of the marriage of Black folk culture and European classical-inspired white America.
Ask your friends if they listen to any jazz and the handful of those who do will likely mention a couple of classics from the 60s but probably nothing past this golden age of the music. I understand that, that’s what I started listening to when I was first turned on to it. It’s probably harder to know where to look for jazz artists today as the music is stylistically more varied than it was sixty years ago, and paradoxically a lot more accessible, just a click away on social media or the Internet in general. Yet, in this day and age of hip hop, pop or other-infused jazz, even today’s up and coming artists always have some kind of connection to these foundational roots, however unconsciously buried they may seem to be.
Since this is a place where I should recommend things, I’d like to share some of the relatively recent releases that I have been listening to over the last year or so. Inevitably, they reflect my personal inclination but hopefully also the diverse range of music that today’s “jazz” artists are creating. Jazz alert: the styles range from the post-post-post (are there more?) bop vernacular to plain esoteric stuff. As guitarist Bill Frisell simply puts it on his recent solo album, Music Is, “music IS”.
If any of you out there reading this wants to share their story of how they encountered jazz and how they look upon the music, I’d be very happy to feature their story as a guest post on wellyouneedit. So, fire away.
Matt Brewer Mythology
Brad Mehldau Gabriel
Flash Pig Year of the Pig
Andrew Cyrille Quartet The Declaration of Musical Independence
Bill Frisell Thomas Morgan Small Town
Craig Taborn Daylight Ghosts
Eric Revis Sing Me Some Cry
Glenn Zaleski My Ideal
Mary Halvorson Code Girl
The Bad Plus Never Stop II
Mark Guiliana Quartet Jersey