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All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Jazz Musicians

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By Jessica Jones

Trust improvise give all you are to the bottom of the barrel don't fold don't fold know the melody before you start improvising and never avoid a solo just because you don't know the melody tell a story weave your little heart out dance like you will never get another chance let the baby play let the baby play listen to the music find the voice that speaks to you they won't believe it until they hear you play play all day play all night play on the street play for yourself save yourself save the world send your vibrations start the revolution with yourself find the peace in the center of the chaos find the chaos in the center of the peace take your piece take a big bite don't waste your time in translation the music will take you home the music will be your home the music will give you a reason the music will swallow its tongue and come out laughing trust improvise grow and be bold take your time take your chorus everything on the one fast is just slow subdivided take pride take a breath take another know the lyrics listen to the bass find your place if you get lost just come back it's all still here for you there is room for you write a tune or two speak through your horn what's your story feel be real trust and go time is a construct time is everything time is a flowing delicate golden hunk of what links us makes us alone together its where we meet in our same differences learn your lessons press on each one teach one elders carry the seed you have in you all you'll ever need the music is the blood of the people who make it its not just a ii-v-I its joyangerforgiveness juice and your only escape and more real than anything you see and too hot to touch and too accepting to look at straight in the eye but you need to try and fall down and then get up and keep playing which is praying which is staying to make the most of what you have with your trust love boldness.


The sound of the music has a message and it's not a message that is in the language of words. Words can only dance around the edges of it. Words can't describe a color you've never seen or the sound of your mother's voice. It is possible that the only way to get the message is to listen to the music. That it is really as simple and beautiful and unavoidable as that. There is something for you in the music and you are the only one who will recognize what it is and which music has it for you. You might have to look a lot of places. You might, like me, find the clues in all kinds of strange and captivating spots. Wayne Shorter said he tries to play like Humphrey Bogart walks. Albert Ayler said music is the healing force of the universe. Maya Angelou says she could crawl in and wrap herself up in the notes of Lester Young.

I teach a small high school jazz band in Brooklyn, New York. I gave them an assignment to burn me a CD of 5 jazz songs that had a unifying theme and to write liner notes for the CD. Of course, most of them didn't know what liner notes are because they acquire their music disembodied from any context or explanation or pretty much any tactile experience other than computer keyboard-poking. They didn't have the hours spent hanging around the record store flipping through the jazz albums, memorizing the covers and trying to imagine the sounds that went with the photos like my friends and I did. This means they also didn't have access to the jazz record store manager or owner, who loves to tell you what's the next amazing record you should listen to if you liked that one. Or who, like our friend Berigan in Berkeley, had a theory that you should build your modern jazz collection by first buying all the records by Miles, Art Blakey and Mingus and then buying all the records by everyone who ever played with those people.

The teenagers have their own way, now, to find the music. But it is often headless and floating and takes more work to figure out who is playing and when everything happened. The urgency and hope of the music that paralleled the civil rights unrest is just a history lesson to them. The sting of social criticism in rap is more familiar, but is hidden beneath the thick brambles of consumer-hungry omnipresence by more generic music.

As it turned out, I was surprised by the liner notes my students came up with after they had perused some old examples of the form. Many of the CDs they turned in contained songs I'd never heard by artists I know fairly well, and the compiled CDs had intriguing themes reflecting their individual tastes. Or as ninth-grader Leo said, "It may not seem like it, but I took a really long time to find songs that I liked to put on the CD."

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