Jazzis

“Jazz is a celebration of creative spontaneity within a somewhat-defined musical structure.” That’s my definition of jazz. Ask 10 people what jazz is, and you’ll get 10 different answers. And rightly so, for jazz is many different things to many different folk. I was in a Montana bar one afternoon and listened to jazz get ripped from stem to stern by the regulars there, probably for my benefit. Seems their pure hatred of jazz ran far deeper than my despise of mindless, repetitive melodies with brain-dead lyrics sung by bad vocalists… which are far too prevalent these days.

 

I sat there at the bar, sipping my drink, just listening. It occurred to me at the time that I was witnessing far more than simply a venting of hatred for that mad and meaningless crashing and banging that people call jazz. I gently suggested that there was a lot of good jazz that wasn’t crazy and wild. “Oh bullshit!” was the reply. “It’s all a bunch of crappy noise, and you know it!” Then, of course, came the joke about rockers playing three chords for a thousand people, while jazzers play a thousand chords for three people. Yawn.
“But why is that?” I asked.
“Because your music sucks!” Came the instant and very loud response.

Well. All righty, then. So I was right… this wasn’t just about music, but as much about culture, education, politics and perceived social status, using jazz music as the enemy’s anthem. Good grief! Did the prejudice in this little bar really run that deeply? Everyone in the bar, including the bartender, was chiming in on how stupid jazz music was, and how stupid anyone was who listened to it. Soon all the conversation was aimed directly at me. Yikes!

This post is not just about me venting, it’s for anyone who ever felt like this or had this happen to them. Whatever my reaction to it is, it is human and real. I have walls built to ward off certain criticisms about my weaknesses, my faults. I can deal with being a bad lots-of-things, actually, but not “bad musician” or “bad jazz pianist.” And that’s why it hurt me. And it did hurt, until I understood the dynamics of the situation.

Anyway, I finished my drink and left quietly, knowing the futility of trying to put up any argument in favor of my beloved jazz. I went home, poured myself another drink and my mood improved immediately. I sat down and tried to unpack some of what had just happened to me. It wasn’t pretty. Let’s see here…. I love jazz, have built much of my life playing it and appreciating it. I’m a liberal with a college education. I’ve never tried to sell jazz as a superior form of music, even though I believe it to be. So what was their problem, those bar folk who let me know in no uncertain terms how they felt about jazz, and probably how they felt about me? Why would they attack one of the things I love most in the world?

All the questions I had about the happenings that afternoon in the bar have been answered. I’ve tried to boil it all down to the simplest terms, terms that could point to the heart of the problem and ferret out any misunderstanding or wrongheadedness. That process, to have any degree of accuracy, demanded that I lose my prejudiced love of jazz and my deep and abiding understanding of it. I needed to become a neutral observer to that isolated occasion. Not easy to do, but necessary if I were to light anywhere close to the correct answer.

My old man mind immediately tried to defend me… “Hey, I went through grade school here and lived here for 20 years before anyone in that bar was even born! I probably deserve to be here more than they do! And I came home, after a 40-year career, does no one see that??”  The only thing missing there was, “Dad-blamed whipper snappers!”   Then, finally, my younger, more fertile mind kicked in… “C’mon, man, those people have no idea who you are, what you’ve done in your life. You were a dart board, and they were sitting there with a handful of darts. That was going to happen sooner or later.”

 

But I needed to ask questions, fair questions. For example,
– Do they really hate all jazz? Yes, because it’s so easy to generalize and pick a side, or a tribe.
– Do they, perhaps, hate it because they don’t understand it? Oh, absolutely.
– Could it possibly be a racial thing, because Africans started it and black Americans developed it in the 20’s and 30’s. I don’t think this one is true… the bar crowd was talking about the music, not the players or the history or any of that.
– Did any of them ask me what I liked? Because I would’ve told them I love some of their country, some of their rock, and I’ve always been a huge fan of the classic rock. There might have been a great discussion of music we all liked and disliked, probably exposing a lot of common ground that never got a chance that day.
– Did any of them mention that they’ve tried to listen to several different kinds of jazz? Because there are a half dozen, at least. Jazz is not all crashing and banging, never was.

A jazz pianist and teacher in San Antonio, Doc Watkins, wrote this -“Jazz wasn’t meant to be complicated. Early legends like Louis Armstrong created their music for ordinary people, NOT academics.
It took me years to figure out how important this is.
When I first tried learning jazz, I looked everywhere for guidance. Textbooks were of little help; memorizing scales and patterns was useless without context, which is rarely given.
It wasn’t until I hit the restaurants, bars, and local street corners that I started to discover the best way for me to learn.”

 

Yogi Berra put it like this:  “I can’t explain jazz,  but I will. 90% of all jazz is half improvisation. The other half is the part people play while others are playing something they never played with anyone who played that part. So if you play the wrong part, it’s right. If you play the right part, it might be right if you play it wrong enough. But if you play it too right, it’s wrong.”

I’m not a big fan of anyone who is content to generalize for the defense of their prejudiced opinion. But is my opinion not prejudiced also? Well, yes, except that I was the only one in that bar who knew what the hell we were talking about. Or was I? As I said earlier, perhaps that strange encounter wasn’t about jazz at all…

 

The Dalai Lama had this to say yesterday –
“I really feel that inner values are the most important thing in building a happy world. Once you consider others and respect others, there is no room for cheating, exploiting, or bullying. Then trust develops and a positive sense of competition thinking, “I want to be equal to my friends.” But trying to hinder others or create obstacles for them in order to come first, is a negative aspect of competition, isn’t it?”
 

But I’ve drifted off onto the wrong path here.. This is supposed to be more about jazz and how it has been so misunderstood, rather than how much I’ve been misunderstood. The thought that they are probably connected is not supposed to be the focus here. It should be about jazz itself, not my connection to it. However, it’s becoming obvious I’m going to fail in that regard.

The jazz I love is deep, relaxing, thought-provoking, and complex enough to force me to really listen to it. And that, for me, is very easy to do. I’m much more comfortable with the inner world of music, color and emotion. The outer world had its share of challenges and thrills, of course… living in Montana was one of my favorites. Traveling some of the world has been uplifting, enlightening, expanding. And the “outer world” experiences helped define and direct my precious “inner world,” though I never recognized the relationship between the two until late in life. I naively thought they were separate… ha! I’ve had enough adventures for one lifetime, adventures that helped define my music and general creativity. But my real comfort zone has been, and always will be, the inner, intangible world of music and dreams.

Making a living in music was difficult from time to time. I never wanted to make my music about money, I knew the danger in that. Quincy Jones once said, “As soon as the music becomes about money, God leaves the room.” I believe that. In 30+ years of being a jingle writer and film composer, I never once had writer’s block.

So where is all this trying to take us? Easy… it wants to boil down to the truth, plain and simple. Truth and trust… good god, they used to be so much easier to find, back in the day. These days, the truth, because of what we’ve become as a media-driven, money-hungry nation, is sometimes as rare as hen’s teeth. I guess that makes truth all the more precious to me. And the truth about me and about jazz is, I’m a jazz elitist. Yup. And probably a music elitist as well. I don’t flaunt my knowledge of music but rather try to share it. If I’m misunderstood or resented, then hell, not sure I can do much about that. I don’t even tell new acquaintances that I had a career in music, unless they ask me or my Betty tells them. But as to whether or not I come off with a superiority attitude to some people… I’m simply not sure. If I do that, knowingly or not, I might have deserved the shelling I got that afternoon.

More truth – that bar crowd doesn’t understand music or art on any level. They showed a herd mentality that was almost scary. I suspect they hate and/or fear things they don’t understand. The enemy, for them, becomes almost anyone or anything that is contrary to their belief system. Now where have I seen that before…?

 

I suspect that my jazz and I are not, and have never been, a part of mainstream-thinking America. Always thought of myself as an average guy who lucked into a better-than-average life. My love of good jazz and the pursuit of it has occasionally made me feel like a different person, maybe even a somewhat unique person…  more blessed and probably a tad different from the average dude . But I guess I never really believed it until that afternoon in a Montana bar.

Steve Hulse