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Genius Guide to Jazz

What Is Jazz

By Published: August 12, 2013
As a living thing, Jazz communicates with us. It does so in a manner far more complex than the insipid pop songs some people use to express their feelings (or, more likely, their sexual urges) to each other. I like to think of Jazz as somewhat akin to the Holy Spirit, interceding for us with "groanings which cannot be uttered" (Rom. 8:26, or thereabouts), a higher language that speaks to and for us above the nominal plane of ordinary existence. Thus, Our Music is in itself a highly personal communication, and as such, makes the music a completely unique experience to every listener. And because Jazz, at its best, exists completely in the moment of its creation, it is timeless in the sense that exists above and beyond the limited human constructs of time. Sort of like Terrence Malick's film Tree of Life, which just seems to go on for bloody ever.

Jazz is, in a very real sense, a combination of you and the music in the very moment of your experience with it. It doesn't matter if it was recorded in 1927 by Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
and His Hot However Many Other Guys Were In the Studio That Day, or if you are sitting in your favorite local venue enjoying the work of any number of fine musicians who remain doggedly loyal to Our Music even though they'd probably get more gigs if they'd just cave in and become a Duran Duran cover band (which never really works out anyway. Everyone always wants to be Simon Le Bon).

It is also true that Jazz can only communicate if we are open to it; like anything else worth having in this life, you get out of it what you put into it. Unless you are the Coke machine next to my apartment complex's swimming pool, which arbitrarily decides when it is going to give me a Coke Zero and when it is just going to keep my damned dollar. Although, it has been known to give me two Coke Zeroes for my dollar, usually following a series of sharp blows and a long string of hard K sounds. And while I do not recommend the "punch and curse" method for getting more out of Jazz, but there's no reason why we can't give it a go on someone like Boney James just to make sure.

To be open to Jazz, we must be willing to consider all possibilities. By that, I mean that we must remain open even to those things that do not fall within our comfort zone. For many years, I was content to believe that Jazz died with Coltrane, and that the music was in the hands of subsequent generations of librarians. Librarians know a great deal about the materials under their care, and serve a very important function of keeping them for future generations, but they add nothing to the body of work; they are curators, not creators. But I was wrong. When I allowed myself to step outside my comfort zone, and to consider that it was possible for good Jazz to be made even in a world where grown men are allowed to dress like teenagers and teenaged girls are allowed to hardly dress at all, I found that there was still a great deal of very good music being made today. And I could experience in it the same range and depth of emotions I felt when listening to Coltrane or Monk. True, Donny McCaslin
Donny McCaslin
Donny McCaslin
b.1966
saxophone
is no Coltrane, but neither was anyone else. And if we are to be honest, we must admit that Coltrane wasn't transcendently brilliant all the time. In his later stages, particularly, even I will concede that some of those long, boundless, Free Jazz solos were more the musical equivalent of looking for one's car keys than they were searching for God between the notes.

What we will find once we begin looking beyond our comfort zone is that the more experiences we have with new sounds, not only does our appreciation for the current state of Our Music grow, but so does our understanding of all that has come before. The broadening of the mind sometimes takes us in unexpected directions. By listening to Medeski, Martin & Wood
Medeski, Martin & Wood
Medeski, Martin & Wood

band/orchestra
, for example, I found that my admiration for Seventies Fusion increased 100%, from "none" to "more than not any." I found myself warming to Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius
1951 - 1987
bass, electric
beyond simply recognizing his technical facility, appreciating the fullness of his artistry instead of just envying his chops. And speaking of chops, I found that by adding a couple of medium rare lamb chops to the mix, along with a bottle or two of reasonably priced Cabernet, I could sit through an entire Weather Report
Weather Report
Weather Report

band/orchestra
album without wanting to chew my own foot off.


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