A year ago we were in Istanbul...

"A year ago today..." as the Mothers of Invention used to sing, we left for Istanbul, Turkey and life hasn't been the same since.

Last night we played our first anniversary gig - a serious set of deep jazz, hard bop, lots of swinging ballads, bossa nova and a little bit o blues - and it was soul food for me.  The master, Wynton Marsalis, wrote about this experience like this:

... once the band begins to play, they know that for the next hour and fifteen minutes, everyone - musicians and waitresses, the initiated and the unsuspecting - will be united in the purest possible expression of community, having made the choice to become "us" instead of "me." Both musicians and audience are charged with the same set of difficult propositions: to listen to a point of view that's not quite your own with the same level of interest with which you speak; to roll with the punches; to give at least as much as you take. This is what swinging demands. This is what makes jazz great - and what makes great jazz elusive.

For the last 18 months, I have been playing with the Jazz Ambassadors.  At first (and sometimes still) I barely knew what I was doing.  Sure, I could play rock'n'roll root notes but I couldn't really walk it in time with the drummer's cymbals.  I had NO idea how swing consistently.  And I was terrified of some of the bop standards like "Cherokee" or "Night in Tunisia" or jazz funk like "Chameleon."  What's more, I didn't really know the literature or the history.  Thus began a deep crash course in becoming a jazz man:  I was highly motivated and had a modest talent.  But there was a huge learning curve and none of us was certain I was going to get it.

We started playing live in December 2010 - after one rehearsal where my mates were totally unconvinced - so I was sweating bullets.  I was also sick with the flu, too so it was trial by fire - and I escaped with my life.  The next two months I took lessons every week, practiced scales and modes a few hours each day, listened to everything I could get my hands on and read, read, read about all kinds of jazz. By February, 2011 our sax player smiled at the end of the gig and said, "Some body's been going to the wood shed!" I smiled back hoping that was a good thing - and then went to Wikipedia to discover that it means doing serious private practice.  Being able to play "So What" by Miles Davis that night helped, I'm sure.

By then we were playing 2-4 times each month, getting a few practices in, too and gearing up for what was to be the trip of a life time.  By the time we left for Istanbul, I was dreaming of bass runs and playing air guitar on the flight over to Spain.  We arrived in Istanbul 18 hours later tired and excited - only to be picked up by a van from the US Consulate's office and rushed to our first gig:  an open air city cultural festival for a few thousand people!  No sound check, no shower just jump off the van, sketch a brief set list and jump into the groove. 

It was electric:  from "Take 5" and "Tenor Madness" to James Brown's "I Feel Good" and a little weird surf music, we were in heaven.  After playing for an hour - and quickly checking into our 4 story flat - we were so wound up we had to go for dinner and drinks at midnight.  Which is no problem in Istanbul because our area of town was mostly just coming to life at that time anyhow.

We toured the city by day - an incredible adventure - and played American jazz at night.  We had gigs on both sides of the Bosphorus - the European and Asian neighborhoods - in clubs, hotels, our own private jazz party and even in the beautiful resort community in Iznick (the former Nicaea of early Christian fame.)  After hours, we would wander and explore until about 2 am when Charlie and Bennie would head off to find new clubs and eventually play with Turkish musicians.  Bennie even got a shot at the premier jazz club in Istanbul - Nardis - and brought down the house.

Marsalis knows of which he speaks when he writes:

Jazz musicians can play to change your life - notes that will help you understand and embrace yourself and other people, notes that are free to holler or shout or cry. And it's fun. Kind of like why children are so lovable. They scream and cry and drive you crazy, but they are so free and mostly honest that you love 'em.  Playing... it can be more fun than sex. I'm serious. If you are playing with people who can really play, you never want to stop. That's why there are so many long, sad solos out here. It's cathartic, a release. It's direct, spontaneous communication and you are doing it with other people and they are doing it, too. You can say whatever you want to say - and they can, too.

Playing with these fine people - and totally excellent musicians - has changed my life. It has given me more confidence to express myself -  musically and verbally - even in provocative ways from time to time - because I have come to trust that what I have to say has value. Especially when shared with others who will listen carefully, respond and challenge but keep moving on together. (Some people don't get this; they want everything to be in unison - mostly just their song or sound or idea - but that's just a drag. So while I hope they can learn to listen and improvise - learn and groove - in life and music that's their wood shedding now, not mine.)

So last night while we we're playing "Take 5" I kept thinking:  I have been blessed and nourished by these guys and this music in ways I never would have imagined.  And the song became a living prayer of gratitude for me.  So much so, that I felt sad when the music was over for the night. 

Thank you Andy Kelly for welcoming and teaching me some of the fundamentals of jazz  while always making the music beautiful. Thank you Charlie Tokarz for your patience, wit, talent and sweet soul music.  Thank you Bennie Kohn for giving me directions on the band stand - back to the head - and not quitting on me when others would have thrown in the towel:  you are a MONSTER musician!  Thank you Jonnie Hadad for your smile, your love and for helping me walk it and swing as we lay down the foundation of a song together.  And thank you Dianne De Mott for singing and experimenting and hanging tough for it is a joy to share music making with you.

In music and in life, serious listening forces you to recognize others. Empathetic listeners almost have more friends than other people... a patient, understanding listener lives in a larger world than a non listening know-it-all (no matter how charismatic.) Jazz sharpens your hearing because you are following musicans' ideas and trying to hear the human depth of their sound. The humanity in a sound - whether you hear it from your table in a jazz club or play it through your horn - comes from understanding the soft and hard parts of life. (Marsalis)

Amen and amen.


Black Pete said…
One short year and the treasures therein...
RJ said…
Incredible, yeah?

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