April is Jazz Appreciation month. 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 far down on the list of
popular music 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 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 singer named
Jimmy Helms and got a job as an intern in a recording studio where I learned
These activities led me to Atlanta, where i enjoyed a 33-year career as a
( gasp! ) jingle writer 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 30 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.
A little-known side benefit of playing jazz is the fact that it makes one a
more versatile musician… being a decent jazz player usually means we
can play three or four other styles of music with ease. Piano players and
guitar players benefit the most from this, being able to play country music
and rock and roll very easily. Being able to walk into a club, hear their band
play two or three tunes, then sit in with them and blend in perfectly… that’s
a kick for both the band and the jazzer! I’ve had so much fun sitting in with
strange bands over the years, making new friends in the process!
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 its inherent tonal sophistication
would somehow magically transform the listener, or at least raise their
musical taste a notch. Not sure it ever worked, but it was fun trying. and
always, always, I hoped that the emotional power of instrumental jazz
would reach the vast audiences of the world who seemed to need a singer
and a lyric to help them feel the music. I continue to hope it might still happen.
One of my favorite benefits of loving jazz and playing it came in the form of
blurring the lines of racial distinction, then erasing them altogether! Playing
deep into the Boston nights with the black musicians in an after-hours club,
my Montana-born racial prejudices dissipated into thin air and were then
flushed into extinction by the jazz, the harmony, the singleness of purpose
we created. A late evening of hot jazz, Johnny Walker and some fried chicken
began a brotherly love and respect for all races that has never left me. A fine
jazz drummer, Reid Jorgenson of Boston introduced me to the Pioneer Club
and life in Boston after 2 a.m. and I will never forget him for it, or for
all the other great times we had playing together!
A huge benefit of playing good jazz is the spiritual connection it suggests for
those of us jazzers who are looking for an intangible power outside the scope
of organized religions. Good jazz soloists can all relate to the special feeling
of “playing beyond ourselves,” experiencing a “high,” an out-of body, beyond
time and space period when our playing level rises above our normal
capabilities, and seems to be flowing from somewhere outside of
ourselves, or perhaps from an intangible source inside ourselves. Whatever,
it’s real and it’s powerful… powerful enough to give many of us a quiet
personal strength along with a daily guidance that can be tapped into
outside the realm of music.
Atlanta was, for me, a great town for jazz. From ’72 ’till now, there are
world class jazz musicians who live and work there, many whom I’ve been
lucky enough to play with. I would mention them by name, but the fear of
missing one stops me from doing it.
Finally, I continue to love jazz and to play it from time to time as it continues
to sustain me. As long as brain functions and fingers wiggle, I can sit down
at a keyboard, still raise the hair on my own arm, and still draw an
occasional tear. A month for a lifetime love?? Barely a drop in the bucket…