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Telling Stories and Singing Songs

Peter Rubie By

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The Jazz Life is a monthly column of stories about the experiences of being in the jazz community. Of playing and practicing and what it asks of us. It will be the equivalent of a drink at the end of the night, as we sit around swapping stories about mad bastards and brilliant buggers and singers who melt your heart and others who freeze your blood. Of being with the tuneless and the tuneful.
"I believe if you're paying a man to play, and that man is on the bandstand and can play, he should get a chance to tell his story." —Lester Young

Prez was once asked how to improvise, and reportedly he said, "Tell them a story." Telling stories about living the jazz life in the early 21st is the heart of what this column is going to be about. Pour yourself a beer or a glass of wine, and settle back. This is our life you'll be reading about and hopefully contributing to.

The Jazz Life is a monthly column that I'll be curating by either writing or editing for "All About Jazz." There are many of us who strive to find satisfaction and a place for ourselves embracing the jazz life. But what is that? We play, we sing, we practice, we teach, we do gigs for ridiculously small reward sometimes, on occasion playing until the early hours of the next day just so we can do what we love to do most, a balm for our occasionally sore souls and to keep our skill level up and moving forward.

I went to sit in with a friend a little while ago, and it had clearly been a difficult day for her. "You don't look happy," I commented. "I'm not," she said, and turned away. And that was fine. If she wanted to talk I was around, as were other friends. And then we started playing, and my friend perked up at the tune, and came over and sat at the piano stool, and as she played a kind of calm and then a broad smile came over her as she got more in the groove and the experience of playing. And I once again saw how music really does transform us and heal us at its best when it is played honestly and without artifice, if only for a few passing moments. It all counts.

The fans that love the music, LOVE the music. But it feels like far too many could care less whether the live music they get to hear has any art or skill attached to it. And that's ironic given that earning money in the music industry has in many ways returned to its roots, emphasizing live performance as the best way to earn a living as a musician. The recordings help to get us better gigs, build and extend our reach to larger audiences as we become better known. But the world of recording has changed since we took back some power from the recording companies who dominated the music industry in the last half of the 20th Century. To many people we are the equivalent of buggy makers still practicing an all but extinct craft that stopped being relevant to the pop world 60 years ago. But is it? God knows Michael Brecker's contribution to the pop world has been mostly unsung, but powerful for all that. My friend Jack was sampled for a track by the hip-hop collective A Tribe Called Quest. If there are so many of us into playing jazz that schools and jazz camps flourish in the U.S., and Europe, and there are avid jazz fans across the world, from small villages in Indonesia to great cities in Japan and England, is it really true that what we do is just self-indulgent and has little meaning or value?

I hear my 15 year old son working on "Airegin" on his violin, nailing the tune, improvising slowly at first, and then up to speed, then hear him switch to Chick's challenging "Tones for Joan's Bones." I listen to him play Clifford Brown's solo on "Joyspring" at speed with the recording impressively getting much of the swing that Clifford used; see the near-obsessiveness that grips him to play and listen to music in general and jazz in particular from when he wakes to when he goes to sleep. This is his motivation not mine. Part of me would be much happier if he chose a safer path, an easier life to come. He is not alone, though, and another part of me knows that jazz is going to be safe for another generation because of kids like him.

If ever there was a lifestyle that should encourage us to embrace a Zen attitude to living it's being a jazz musician. Regardless of who we are lucky enough to play with or study with, and how accomplished we may be, we all struggle with things like juggling a family life, probably a day job to help pay the bills, practicing, gigs, audiences, recording, promoting ourselves, interacting with fellow musicians, discovering who we are and what our musical voice really is. We wrestle with nagging fears that we are frauds and failures when we listen to the greats of old and now. Reportedly, at the height of his fame in the mid 1960s, someone approached Wes Montgomery and complimented him on how great his playing was. Wes said, "You should have heard me in 1948 when I was with Lionel Hampton." Worst of all is realizing that perhaps one of the things holding us back is that we may be suffocating in a fog of self-defeating fear as we struggle to embrace as best we can what the life of an improvising creative person really entails —once we figure out what that actually is.


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