I nearly let Jazz Appreciation Month pass me by, so I want to catch what little is left of it before we make our journey into May. Of course, I believe we should celebrate jazz every month. Before we begin our exploration, however, let’s agree on a working definition, while keeping in mind an observation attributed to Louis Armstrong that if you need to ask what jazz is you will never know. For me, jazz is the musical equivalent of C. S. Lewis’ oft-quoted statement that “You can’t change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” Jazz is basically learning to do something new with what you have been given and refusing to follow the directions.
Although we probably are born with a sense of rhythm, we are not born with a preference for any particular type of music. Like most things in life, we learn to have preferences, and we are products of our choices. I can’t pinpoint the moment when I was introduced to jazz. Obviously becoming a musician was a start, and from the time my parents bought a Hammond Organ, music has become the underlying soundtrack for my life, especially after I heard Earl Grant’s incredible Hammond performance of “Swingin’ Gently” (before you read another word of this column, listen to this right now!). Maybe my writing a research paper on the music of J.S. Bach in my high school English class was an influence, because from that paper I discovered that Bach improvised many of his organ preludes and service music; that, by definition, makes him a jazz musician. The recording that led me down the path toward my current passion for jazz was Ramsey Lewis’ 1965 funky piano instrumental version of Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd.” Shortly after this I was introduced to flautist Herbie Mann and became entranced by his renditions of pop standards. And then I began to understand that many of my favorite pop musicians, from the Doors and Blood, Sweat, and Tears, to the Allman Brothers and Chicago, were in effect jazz musicians. The only drawback at the time was I didn’t have anyone from which I could learn any jazz licks or chord substitutions other than the “Pointer System” chord lessons that came with my Hammond Organ. And thank goodness for these rudimentary lessons that showed me how chords form the foundation for musical performance. Everything I perform today is a testament to the influence of those slender blue books filled with chords.
The essential thing about learning to appreciate jazz is to listen to as many examples as possible and then picking out what you like and don’t like, understanding of course that what you dislike today may turn out to be your favorite thing tomorrow. I remember very strongly disliking Dizzy Gillespie when I first heard his bop renditions. I simply couldn’t understand how anyone could like stuff like “Salt Peanuts.” Today, after listening to countless jazz performances, I love Dizzy Gillespie and appreciate what he is doing. There are jazz performers I like better than Dizzy, but at least I have found an appreciation for something I didn’t care for at all “back in the day.” There is no excuse today for not giving yourself a jazz education. After all, you carry the world’s greatest jazz performances around in your pocket every day. Your smartphone is the world’s largest and most complete jazz club, and it is a crime not to take advantage of all this abundance. How can you not love a world that contains the joy (and the sadness) offered by people like Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell, Art Farmer, and countless others. Just take a look at Art Kan’s iconic 1958 photograph, “A Great Day In Harlem,” and witness the “Big Bang” of jazz history. This picture is the jazz equivalent of the quintessential Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album cover.
There are those who like to tell us that jazz is dead and no longer relevant. And these same people will tell us that the obituary for jazz was written in the early 1960s. Needless to say, I don’t believe this, and can disprove it by referring you to my AppleMusic playlist, which contains all sorts of music in addition to my extensive jazz curations. If you believe jazz is dead, take a listen to a few of the recordings release during the last two or three years–a list that includes, among many other fine examples, Esperanza Spalding, Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra, Scott Bradley’s Postmodern Jukebox, Mike Clark and Delbert Bump’s “Retro Report,” Brad Mehldau, “After Bach,” Hush Point, The Nels Cline 4, Detroit Jazz City, Albare, the Vijay Iyer Sextet, and Diana Krall (who is married to Elvis Costello, a whole genre all by himself). And, while you’re at it, take a listen to guitarist Bill Frisell’s award-winning new album “Music IS.” A wondrous joy to behold.
Jazz is therefore a perpetual blending of the old and the new, And we have never had the ability like we do now to sample every significant recording in jazz’s long history. In the finest and most thought-provoking meditation on the meaning of jazz, Geoff Dyer’s BUT BEAUTIFUL: A BOOK ABOUT JAZZ (1996), we come across this eloquent and suggestive passage about the symbiotic relationship between the old and new in jazz: “The ongoing influence of the tradition ensures that past masters are present throughout the music’s evolution and development. Old recordings, meanwhile, are digitally remastered and repackaged to make them sound and look like new, and some of the newest-sounding music is that which is most saturated in the past. Ideas of forward and backward, the sense of the past and present, of old and new dreams, begin to dissolve into each other in the twilight of perpetual noon.” Couldn’t the same be said of all music (and art, literature, etc.)?
See you next week.