Thursday, August 8, 2013

Three blessings I celebrate in jazz...

Three things about jazz that blow me away:

+ First, at its best - not its ideological or elitist worst - but its best:  jazz is a total genre bender.  Gestating and coming to birth in New Orleans meant that it was creole gumbo through and through.  And as both Ted Gioia, Wynton Marsalis and MLK have so rightly observed:  jazz embodies the true heart of the American dream often better than our reality and practice.  Dig how Marsailis puts it:

Democracy, libertarian democracy, our form of democracy deals with the power of the individual – how that power of that individual can be used in combination with other individuals, the diversity of federal power and states’ power – the one and the many, always going against each other. That’s what jazz is. I solo, you accompany me. You solo, I accompany you. There’s a lot of choice in it.So, when I say it’s a model of democracy it means the first thing that is prized in jazz, the number one thing you learn is that “you have something about you that’s creative and special.” Sound like yourself...  second, everyone else in the band has their own unique sound. So what are you going to do when they start playing? Will you play with them, respectfully and complement what they’re playing, or play louder than them and drown them out?

(But) don’t abuse my rhythm section. It means a soloist will play all night. The rhythm section accompanies you. In the history of the world of music, there’s never been anything like a rhythm section. It’s a group of musicians, piano, bass, drums, guitar, who improvise along with your improvisation. So, they’re adjusting and making changes to accompany you. So, not only are you making up what you’re playing, they’re making it up. They’re improvising an accompaniment part.

Now he concept of swing is the most democratic of all the aspects of jazz, and that is the one that many times gets the shortest shrift because that means you can’t solo as long as you want. It means you cannot play the drums as loud as you want to play them. It means that you have to find the time of the other person that you think is rushing. It means that you have to play with these harmonies that the piano players play, and you don’t have any idea why that person is playing these substitution chords while I’m playing. You don’t have the time even to do this. The only thing you can do is....'

So, it’s a group dynamic, and it breathes. When a jazz band is playing, it’s like all of life – it’s in and out. It’s like what we do all day. We breathe in and out. It’s like you’re rocking the whole time, and you’re doing this because you’re trying to keep your equilibrium, and you’re just kind of getting in the flow. That’s why the art is so intoxicating. Sometimes you never want to stop playing because you get in this space and you’re improvising, creating this thing with these other musicians. (

What's more, jazz gives you permission to explore, honor, embrace and try on for size a whole other world from the one you have been born into.  Critic and West Coast jazz pianist, Ted Gioia, put it like this:

The beauty of an art form - in contrast to our genetic pedigree - is that we can pick our parents, so to speak. Cal Tjader can choose Latin music as part of his heritage without identifying a drop of Latin blood in his veins. Andre Previn can claim an inheritance from Horace Silver. S5tan Getz can selct6 Lester Young as a father figure, who in turn finds his source on inspirations in Frankie Trumbauer. All 5this cuts across racial dividing lines... Jazz stood out, at least for many decades, as one of the few arenas where some of us - maybe even most of us - could throw away the racial baggage that simmered through the rest of society and deal with each other through the unmediated channel of artistic collaboration. (The Future of Jazz, p. 31)
+ Second, when jazz is playful with both its roots and its future, some incredible things start to happen.  To be sure, much of the current world is addicted to recitals - anchored and wedded to the sounds of revival rather than the unrestrained Spirit of creativity - and that means that much of the jazz that is successful is looking backwards.  But think of the innovations that have happened when jazz artists were willing to be playful with popular culture?  Boppers took the great American Song Book, shook it by the throat and changed the sound of music forever.  Miles and Herbie, McLaughlin and Jaco did much the same thing with so-called jazz fusion.
So let's not get trapped in nostalgia - or anything that resembles musical Confucianism - that only honors the dead.  Again, Ted Gioia cuts to the chase:
I may be one of the few jazz historians who is not ashamed to admit that the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Brian Wilson were as important in shaping my aesthetic tastes as were Coltrane, Dolphy and Rollins.  Yet only a small percentage of the fusion records I have heard have really moved me... I would rather listen to Joni Mitchell thatn to Al Jarrau; I would favor Frank Zappa over Larry Coryell, Jimi Hendrix over Lee Ritenour; I would rather hear Blood, Sweat and Tears than the Yellowjackets; I would give the nod to Steely Dan over Sypro Gyra; and I vote for Sting over Grover Washington.  (ibid, p. 51)
Me, too baby - because the rock/pop artists exploring jazz insights are not only more passionate about their music than many of the fusion folk, they are also totally opposed to being precious. I've just been turned on to Derrick Hodge who plants himself firmly in the present while borrowing from boldly both the past and the future.  I cherish this playful, respectful creativity and want lots more it and lots less of the idol worship that kills the groove.
+ And third I am knocked out that OLD guys can keep playing jazz with zest and integrity.  Yeah, I am a big Springsteen fan - and I just chortled when he was on the cover of AARP Magazine - but longevity and creativity are not the exception among jazz artists.  And that gives me a lot of hope.  Wayne Shorter just celebrated his 80th birthday - and he's still as out there as ever.  Same with Herbie Hancock.  Jazz gives an old guy like me the forum to keep exploring the possibilities of music and life - and for this I am so very grateful.
I am NOT like Pete Townsend:  I DON'T want to die before I get old.  I want to savor the full sweetness of life.  I want to wrestle with being compassionate in the midst of suffering.  I want to love and honor those around me.  And I want the time and place to pass on a little kindness and hope to the next generation.  Jazz helps me do this.

Tonight I'm going out to hear two 80 year old masters play with guys half their age - and the whole thing will be a blessing.  On Sunday I'll play with my church mates - ALL of whom are much younger than myself - in a way that models our commitment to guaranteeing a place for EVERYONE at Christ's open table.  And THAT'S the reason I continue to be blown away by jazz.

1) Kandinsky @

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