Appreciating Jazz

During the Jazz Festival last year, a secret society formed here at WXXI. In order to join, you had to be a little bit sick of hearing about the Jazz Festival. It was a small group, to be sure, and I cannot reveal the participants. I think they bonded in part because they felt left out of the daily who-did-you-see-last-night-and-who-are-you-seeing-tonight conversations. Their question of the day was more like “What is the big deal?”

Years ago, I asked the same question about jazz. But I also was sure there was an answer. I was motivated. I really wanted to like it. Jazz was like this other country I longed to visit – beautiful, dangerous and cool. But when I went there and drove around, it all looked the same, and I couldn’t find my way. What I came to discover is you really have to live there, and get familiar with the neighborhoods…but don’t worry about learning the language. After all, Edith Piaf doesn’t have to sing in English for you to get it. It’s the same with jazz. You can think about each tune as a story told in another language. The words may not make sense but you can identify the emotion: joy or anger or lust or longing. The story unfolds with many speakers, like a conversation. Sometimes one person talks more than the others. Often they overlap. During one conversation, the saxophone may dominate, but listen for the piano snickering here and there. Listen for the drummer to challenge a point. Listen for the bassist to add an aside.

Just like a real conversation, it helps to have participants who are articulate and intelligent, people who look at the world in a unique way and can express that vision. That’s certainly a hallmark of the giants of the form (Monk, Mingus, Coltrane, etc.) It’s also a good standard to judge what you’re hearing at the Eastman, or Kilbourn or Harro East or on Jazz Street. So listen close...and enjoy!