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For the last 25 years I have tried to figure it out. The usual scenario goes like this-you start listening to Jazz without even knowing what you are doing. You think you are just listening to some music that is cool. And then the process of natural selection begins. You like some things more than others. And before you know it, your friends call you a Jazz fan. Sound familiar? Well, that is how it worked for me, except many times I would also play the music as well as listening.
Jazz is not just the music, it is a way of life. Everybody feels it. When you go to a Jazz concert, you immediately know that instead of repeating same old thing, the musicians are making something new every time. We call it improvising. It really is composing in real time. Of course there are rules, but it is still the same idea-you get in front of the microphone and start making things up. It is very exciting because it is so real. I always thought that improvising is very close to flying. Humans can't really fly, but we all know the feeling of looking out of the skyscraper's window; it is scary and exciting at the same time. Once you get in the air, there is no stopping until you land. It is the same with improvising-once you start, you have to go through the entire life cycle of your solo before you can finish.
In our culture today we don't get much truth of any sort. Most of the people we see on TV or in print are improved images of themselves. And there is so much of it that it becomes a surreal reality of a sort, which often replaces at least a part of our own life in our mind. Listening and playing Jazz is like a glass of fresh water. Kandinsky said that the one of the purposes of graphic art is that you leave the museum feeling that your eyes have been washed. Art brings you back to reality, gives you another chance to look at real life, at yourself, at people surrounding you. We all are so used to enormously retouched performances on MTV that seeing a live human being creating something in front of our eyes opens a whole new world. Jazz brings truth and reality to the stage. It always did. Most Jazz musicians of the past, after playing their own social, paying gigs, would gather somewhere to just play together with whoever comes until 5 or 6 in the morning. Music was always the purpose of their life. It still is true today.
Jazz offers a universal way of communicating with other people. There are no words, but instead we are enabled to share our feelings, ideas and concepts. The language is so universal that it seems to work just fine regardless of country, continent, culture or belief. I have played Jazz in many countries and with people from all over the world. Most of the time I wouldn't know what they feel or what they are saying except for when we are playing together. Perhaps if everyone learned how to play Jazz, we would have less war.
Jazz offers a new symbiotic communication culture, the language and a voice for the 21st century.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.