“Check this out.” For one edition of my trombone teacher’s weekly dose of music appreciation, he removed a red CD from a jewel case with dark blue liners and placed it in his stereo. Mysterious, rubato piano chords floated out of the speakers; then the bass kicked the time off, and the piano answered it with a simple riff. A drumset quietly simmered beneath it all. Three horns joined in with the piano for a while before giving way to a trumpet solo. “This sounds pretty cool,” my teacher said, fading the music out just as the trumpet solo ended. “He’s not a great trumpet player, though.” I was fourteen years old, and I agreed.
Aside from that, my grade-school brushes with jazz were few and far between. Though I played in big bands in middle and high school, it was basically an academic exercise. My enjoyment derived less from the music itself than from the difficulty of playing it—not to mention the fact that I didn’t have to rest as much as I did in concert band. Certainly, the thought of pursuing a degree in jazz studies never entered my mind. When a series of improbable events brought that to pass, I found myself in a unique position: unlike my peers, who self-identified as jazz musicians, I was on the outside looking in. This was somewhat intimidating, but mostly it was a blessing.
My peers relished the thought of being the first to expose me to their favorite album or musician; at the same time, they spared me the more esoteric discussions of jazz that have become barriers to entry for many potential listeners. That was all to the good, since my occasional forays into such conversations usually went something like this:
Them: What do you play over this chord?
Me: I don’t.
Had I been a non-musician, my ignorance would have passed without remark. But I wanted to be one of them, and as such, they felt obligated to educate me. Because they did not fear my rejection—as they might with a layperson—they helped me understand the music they loved with patience and kindness. Buoyed by their support, those were the halcyon days of my life as a jazz listener.
They did not last. Partly, this was the result of my expanding tastes. No longer was the jazz section of Amoeba Music my first stop on trips to that venerable Los Angeles institution, and sometimes I didn’t browse its well-stocked jazz shelves at all. To be sure, my jazz musician friends also listened to other kinds of music. Still, no trip to Amoeba was complete for them until they had combed through the name cards in the jazz section in search of new releases and old gems. And that was the heart of the difference between us: in spite of all the jazz I had played and listened to, I never came to define myself through jazz.
But though my allegiance to the genre of jazz might be suspect, there is a lot of jazz music I love. As such, the notion—seemingly entertained by more and more people—that it might ‘die’ troubles me. For my own part, I have no idea how to deal with the many issues jazz faces in the twenty-first century; still, I think that, if I talk simply and honestly about the jazz I love—in a way I could have connected with even before I knew anything about jazz—it might resonate with those on the outside looking in.
Why do I love jazz?
Because John Coltrane’s piercing solo entrance on “Afro-Blue” from Live At Birdland—on the heels of a thunderous McCoy Tyner statement—makes me shake like a leaf.
Because Ornette Coleman performed for three hundred hippies in various states of undress in the hundred-degree heat of the Bonnaroo Music Festival wearing a lime-green suit and black hat. Because he passed out, and his son jumped over his drumset and caught him before anyone present sensed something might be wrong.
Because my brain was a completed jigsaw puzzle—until Brad Mehldau’s introduction to “All The Things You Are” on Art Of The Trio, Vol. 4 spilled the pieces onto the floor and put them together to make an entirely new picture. Because I couldn’t imagine it happening again—until I popped Largo into my car stereo.
Because a spam email from Amazon.com suggested that, as someone who purchased an album by Brad Mehldau, I might also like Jacky Terrasson’s Smile. Because I inexplicably followed the recommendation, and was glad I did.
Because I was sick and tired until I listened to Keith Jarrett’s The Melody At Night, With You. Because I didn’t think a solo piano performance could be any more beautiful than the one documented on La Scala—until Mr. Jarrett played “Over The Rainbow” as an encore and showed me how.
Because I didn’t know a saxophone could weep until I heard Dexter Gordon’s performance of “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry” on the album Go!
Because Wayne Shorter’s bracing blues kept me company as I despondently gazed out my hotel window across the vast Bombay slums. Because when I met him years later, he told me “this isn’t a day job. People want to hear your story.” Because as we watched him perform from backstage, my friend put his trembling hand on my shoulder and told me he was going to cry. I was pretty close myself.
Because I was scared witless the first time I improvised. It was a good feeling, and I still enjoy it.
Because a friend of mine took his own life. The musicians who used to play with him put on a memorial concert, and during the last piece—Maria Schneider’s gorgeous “Sky Blue”—alto saxophonist Matt Zebley played one of the most incredible solos any of us had ever heard. It encompassed everything a musical statement—or a life, for that matter—could be. The last chord faded into a silence deeper than death, a silence that lasted one full minute before anyone dared to breathe. Later, those gathered bemoaned the fact that no one had recorded the performance; privately, though, I knew that the full beauty of such a thing could only survive in the hearts and minds of those who experienced it.
This list is far from complete. It is also far from specific. Still, I enjoyed writing it; and if my naïve scribblings in any way advance the cause of jazz and jazz musicians, I will be most gratified.