Sunday, December 12, 2010

No Jazz, No Diploma!

Several events recently conspired to remind me of the richness of classic Jazz and the woeful state of musical education and appreciation in the US.

First: one evening last week I was a little early for a holiday party, so I decided to play tourist, wandering past the tree at Rock Center, crossing Fifth Avenue to light a candle at St. Patrick's (at $2, the undisputed best value in NYC), and continuing north, a rare native among the mostly European pre-holiday swarm.

Passing Cartier I was suddenly struck by the familiar sound of John Coltrane's alto-sax on his seminal rendition of My Favorite Things (link below) pouring out of the speakers and into the chilly late fall air. Thousands of people were passing-by, some recognizing the famous show-tune above the chatter on their cell phones. Few, I'm sure, recognized the legendary 1961 solos by Coltrane and McCoy Tyner on piano.

I stood still on the corner and listened.

Next: very early Saturday morning, "round midnight" in fact, my wife ( the Darling Girl ) and a daughter (a DD) and I were listening to our nephew/cousin play a set with his band Oh Whitney at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. I was reminded of the days when Adrien was about 13 year old and playing in a jazz combo in a little place near his home in St-Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris. He had been a baby-faced drummer in the midst of adults, barely visible behind the smoke and his drum set. In Brooklyn, he managed to hold a good but still developing band together.

Finally, I read in yesterday's Times that James Moody, one of jazz's great sax players had died (link below). I began the day in his honor listening to his record Young At Heart and continued humming/singing his Love and Marriage throughout the day. I usually save jazz for the late afternoon or evening, but his deceivingly simple note-playing and relatively soft tone was a perfect way to begin the day.

James Moody
Here's an amazing fact: it is actually possible to obtain both a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree without having to demonstrate an understanding and/or an appreciation of classic Jazz. This is a monumental  mistake.

But, the good news is that it is never too late to make up for this lapse in what one hesitates to call our "education." We are better off approaching jazz from the heart and soul, rather than simply from the head. This is, of course, precisely our problem: we think that we can think our way into and out of any problem at all. After all, we are in control, aren't we?

As if.

Jazz explodes that thought and in doing so provides a rich gift: the ability to overcome our fear of not being in control by turning it into joyous and mysterious sound. Jazz, at its best, gets very close to being sacred music. Coltrane, Davis, Ella and Sonny Rollins never said, "Hey, let's go think some jazz." They wanted to let their souls roam and play.

Even with that caution about an intellectual approach, I still highly recommend Ben Ratliff's book The Jazz Ear as a primer. Ratliff, the Times' jazz critic, held a series of conversations with noted jazz musicians, while listening to those musicians' favorite recordings. These conversations provide a guide to the history of Jazz's musical and human story, a great deal of which, but not all, is also the story of African American music, history, and culture.

But, mainly it's fun, sexy, sad, joyous, bruising, exultant, fearful, triumphant. It is The Iliad and The Odyssey with no requirement to know ancient Greek. You only have to sit still, or, if you're lucky, stand on a city street corner in the evening, and listen.

My advice is to begin with two well-known tunes, re-interpreted by Coltrane and Miles Davis: My Favorite Things and Bye Bye Blackbird (links below). Then, just go from there. Not only will you complete your education, but you will have a richer life for it. And, don't forget James Moody.

Moody obit:
The Jazz Ear:

1 comment:

Ted McDermott said...

Additional education:

"Blue Train"


"A Love Supreme"


take a break from jazz and familiarize yourself with Townes van Zandt