…jazz must first of all tell a story that anyone can understand.
In the fall of 1963, my senior year of high school, I was enrolled in a world history class. It was a disaster from the first moment, and I didn’t stay in the class more than a week or so. I loathed the teacher and was probably looking for reasons to leave. At this remote date I don’t even remember what he said to me, but it made my cheeks burn. I know that I got out of my seat and announced I was dropping the class.
The teacher looked at me over his glasses. “You can’t drop this class,” he said.
“Watch me,” I answered.”You’d rather fool around in the band room than actually learn something,” he said.
Somehow I managed to hold his gaze. I mumbled something like, “If you say so,” and I was out the door.
Dropping the class took all of two minutes in the guidance office, but I didn’t bother to go back to the history class to gloat. I was left with a schedule that consisted of English, advanced math and French. The rest of the day I was in the music room. There was one period of band and another of chorus. That left two periods every day for me to practice. I was an alto sax player, and I wanted to be a jazz musician. Specifically, I wanted to be Paul Desmond. I don’t know what it would have taken for me to succeed in this. Frankly, I had the talent. Knowledgeable people whom I trusted told me so, repeatedly. I got to the point where I sounded quite a lot like Paul Desmond when I played, but by the time I was 22 or 23, the horn was in its case permanently. I had moved on.
I hadn’t thought about this for years and years until I found that quotation from Thelonius Monk (thank you, Stumbleupon). Jazz does tell a story, but I had no story of my own to bring to becoming a jazz player-particularly a player like Desmond.
When I listen to him now, I am struck every time with the things I refused to hear in his music back then. Yes, it’s lyrical and melodic. I knew that. Yes, his sound is sweet as a kiss. I knew that, too. But I couldn’t hear the melancholy and the weariness in that sound because I thought those things were coming from my own teenage angst.
And there it is. The story I wanted to tell as a musician had already been told. Brilliantly. There was no need for me to practice six hours a day to hear that story. All I had to do was put on a record.
There’s a lot of that skinny 17-year-old still alive inside me. Maybe that’s why I chose to tell this story first. As for world history, I’ve begun to find a small spark of interest in it only in the last few years. Even a bad teacher can’t shut down a reasonably curious mind forever.
And now my little blog is launched.