April – Jazz Appreciation Month
“Celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) to honor one of America’s earliest and iconic art forms. Rich with extraordinary heritage and cultural history, jazz music originated in the blues era in the early 20th century and bestowed the world with bebop tunes to which we can dance all night.”
“In 2001, Jazz Appreciation Month was founded by John Edward Hasse who was a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Besides appreciating jazz literally all April long, the event was marked to hold aloft the history and heritage of the genre that has truly enlivened our lives.”
A month for Jazz Appreciation? Really?? Sigh. I guess I should be miffed about the designation of a single month for a style of music that has defined most of my life. But the truth is, Jazz is fairly lucky to get its month at all, considering it is fairly far down on the list of popular music styles of today.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons I relate more to the ’50’s and ’60’s… jazz was fairly big back then, as the big band era was just winding down. There was (and still is, to a degree) a musical iron curtain of country music around Montana back then. The jazziest thing you could get on Montana radio in ’57 was Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village.” Gyla Hulse sent me a Andre Previn & Friends album in ’60 that I wore out. Rick McGregor and I found a late-night radio program out of Salt Lake City called “Bowen and All That Jazz” that really helped give us the larger view of how much good jazz was really out there beyond Hank Williams.
In 1963 I heard Louis Armstrong live in Missoula and that was a kick. But what really lit my life-long fire for jazz was a Miles Davis album I picked up, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The pianist on that album was Wynton Kelly, and he was making the piano sound exactly the way I would want it to sound! And what he played was mesmerizing to me! That was the beginning, right there!
My ear wasn’t good enough to help me find the chords and voicing that Wynton used, so it wasn’t until three years later, at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, that I finally discovered how to play the sounds on the piano that had so enchanted me. My sophomore Music Theory class finally provided the magical answers I’d been wanting so badly. The answer turned out to be alternate voicings of otherwise ordinary chords, but they were adding the colors and tensions to the chords that my mainstream crap had been lacking! It was such an exciting breakthrough for me! I rushed back to the apartment and began playing for hours on the old piano we had there… I played those wonderful chords and voicing over and over again, somehow covering myself in their texture and beauty! I actually began to sound a little bit like Wynton! To this day (57 years later) I still delight in playing jazz piano in the Wynton Kelly style, or as close as I can muster!
My love of jazz naturally led me into other avenues of music… composing, arranging and sound recording. After completing my studies at Berklee I wrote music for two plays in Toronto, arranged an album for a great singer named Jimmy Helms and got a job as an intern in a recording studio where I learned audio engineering.
These activities led me to Atlanta, where I enjoyed a 34-year career as a ( gasp! ) jingle writer, many of them for Doppler Studios. During that time I composed and recorded music to 4 movies, dozens of documentaries and corporate films. Sandy Fuller taught me to be a location sound recorder and helped me start my own recording studio… which I ran for 31 years.
Being able to make my living in music for all those years was a blessing I can’t describe. Jazz led me into some incredible music experiences, some which were barely music related at all. There was a lot of travel, some photography… I even taught meditation seminars for a short time. But always my heart brought me back to my beloved jazz.
Funny, how a style of music, and the love of it can guide a person’s entire life. For most of my career I tried to make my music assignments as jazzy as my clients would allow, always hoping that not only would they love it, but that they might begin listening to more of it, and grow to love it as I did! I doubt that it ever worked, but trying to bring palatable jazz to the world was one of my main goals to the very end!
You see, jazz, in all its versatility, can easily drive more people away than it attracts. So many think of jazz as a bunch of “honking and squeaking” with terrible, angry-sounding melodies that no reasonable human could remember… or care to remember. One has to honor that response because jazz is so very wide-ranging, it can be that way… even to me, sometimes! It is easily the most expressive form of music we have, and in that, there has to be room for all manner and depth of expression. If the mood is “honking and squeaking,” then by all means let there be honking and squeaking! Let there be angry, obtuse melodies that no reasonable person (save a jazz musician… and even that tells us something, yes?) could remember and learn to hum in a million years. That’s okay. That’s all okay! Let it be. Jazz easily encompasses all cultures, all styles, all moods, all emotions!
Some of the best country musicians and singers were big jazz fans, and damn good jazz players! Roy Clark, Vince Gill, Buddy Emmons, Jerry Reed, Marty Stuart… killer jazzers, every one! But of course that’s not where the money was for them.
Two guys touring, (Growling Old Men) playing folk music and songs they’d written, came through our little town of Virginia City years ago and played a concert for about 50 of us at the Elling House. After, we all got together at Dick and Rosemary Lee’s house in town for drinks, snacks and a jam session. The Lees had a spinet piano in the dining room, Dick played upright bass and soon we were playing some old standards with the folk guys. Turns out they were both good guitarists and began riffing on the changes, as if they’d been playing jazz all their lives. At one point I turned around and said, “Hey, you guys are really jazzers!”
The one guy grinned and whispered, “Sshhh. Don’t tell anybody!”
Because that’s how it has turned out to be for jazz. It has damn near become a secret exclusive society for us, us “honkers and sqeakers.” The pop world has somewhat pigeon-holed us into a complex, atonal world that “normal” people can’t understand, and don’t want to hear. And if that’s the case, okay. But I’ll take our honking and squeaking atonal wanderings over your “three chords and a cloud of dust” with the volume clear up to bleed, any day. And if you find yourself unable to sleep some night and need some music to help you drift off, rather than The Rolling Stones or Def Leppard, I suggest a little Brazilian music, perhaps Astrud Gilberto, or Antonio Carlos Jobim. And yes, ti’s jazz… quiet, musical, melodic and refreshing, one of the one hundred colors of jazz music.
And after your night of deep and contented sleep, if you aren’t sure that Brazilian stuff was really jazz, ask your favorite rock guitarist if they have heard the song, “Girl From Ipanema.” If they’re over 35, they probably have. Now ask them if they can play it. Oops. Too complicated, too many chords? Brazilian rhythms don’t rock? Old people’s music? Whatever… I bet they can’t play it. And here’s the thing… almost every jazz player can, in their sleep! I’ve sat in with dozens of bands over the years, and they call out tunes that are way more difficult to play than “Girl From Ipanema.” If you don’t know them and own them, then you’re quickly outa there.
Hell, maybe jazz has become an exclusive music. If so, too bad. It didn’t used to be. And there are still great bands, keeping it alive out there. It isn’t dead, by any means, but has definitely slipped into the shadows of the American music scene these days. I get it, and I accept it. Makes me sad, because jazz was so hot and so cool in the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s. Guess maybe we thought it was always going to be that way. But jazz does yet another thing, a thing that is a blessing and a curse. It makes a definite, easy to understand statement on the society that is listening to it, or ignoring it at the moment. It is pointed, honest, and often brutal. It usually doesn’t reach the people we’d like it to reach, but there are still a select few out there who understand us, who know what we’re saying in our music, who hear our emotions spill out with joy, honesty and sometimes heartbreak, nearly every night. And that’s jazz.