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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.

"Working with a photographer who was doing a picture story on Lester (Young), I found that it would be necessary, for a particular shot, to move Lester's horn from the piano-stool he had set it down on. I asked for permission to do so. "Sure," Prez said. "But hold it carefully; you dig? That's my life."—Robert A. Perlongo

So, THAT'S really the point. That horn, that ax, that channel for how we express ourselves musically, that constant struggle to find grace and fluid beauty, angular or otherwise is something we ALL wrestle with, whether famous or near-anonymous. That's what draws us all together—the song of our love for the music and the effort it takes to play it as well as we can.

Nothing brought that home to me more than when I was talking with a terrific pianist after a set, apologizing for getting lost in a tune. He told me, "Don't worry man. When I was a student Herbie (Hancock) once told me he used to get lost all the time when he played in Miles' band. Herbie said, 'Those guys would start a tune and then go out, and we would just listen hard and hang in there, and somehow we all finished together.' " And that was pretty much what we'd all done. You get in trouble, you listen as hard as you can.

The best Jazz solos, like the best stories, have shape and form and emotion. I will read proposals from anyone who is in the jazz life in some way, listeners as well as performers. It will seem infuriatingly elitist to some, but I don't care. More importantly it will try to embrace Art Blakey's philosophy of jazz: Bu would let anyone who was brave enough, sit in with his band, but woe betide you if you couldn't cut it. That was some FAST company to keep! Trumpeter Valery Ponomarev once told me that he practiced playing jazz in Russia as a kid by playing along with Jazz Messenger records. Then when he finally got to New York he went downtown and sat in with Bu at the end of the gig. Blakey was encouraging—but a kid named Wynton had the trumpet chair at the time. A year later, however, Valery got a call. A gravelly voice said, "You wanna play in my band..."
This column is about the experiences of being in the jazz community, of maybe going to uncomfortable places. Of playing and practicing and what it asks of us. Of sharing what feels like a unique experience, only to discover it's something many of us have gone through in our own way. And that will be both affirming and perhaps surprising. It's somehow both humbling and inspiring to know that what you wrestle with and perhaps want to share, even the greats wrestle with in their own way.

The Jazz Life will be the equivalent of a beer or glass of wine 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.

The Jazz Life aims to be a different take on how we write and read about jazz—a communal exhalation after a deep breath where our individual experiences, funny, sad, maddening and profound nonetheless find common cause with all who read us. A community talking to itself about what's really important, or at least interesting to its members.

Until next time...

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