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Telling Stories and Singing Songs

Peter Rubie By

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"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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