Jazz But Not Least

What's that you say? You've forgotten that this town has an immense, thriving jazz scene? Well, shame on you.

As you've been flipping through the pages of your Listen Up guide, perhaps you've noticed the precious little space devoted to jazz. But something tells me you haven't -- it's just not on your radar this year. And so a word on the subject might not be amiss, I think.

First, let me tell you quickly what I'm not here to do. I'm not here to try to tell you that jazz is superior to any other music. People who try to tell you that the music they listen to is "better" than the music you listen to deserve all the scorn you can muster. This, aggressively, is not that.

But it pisses me off mightily when I hear the music denigrated as boring or incomprehensible by people who have never stepped inside a jazz club. Especially since we are living in a city full of steaming, imaginative jazz players. There is a gold mine of jazz in this town, and if you're ignoring it, you're missing a huge blast of musical power that's surging all around you.

Why should you care?Let's say you're interested in edgy, latest-thing, blow-me-out-of-the-box music. And your perception of jazz is that it is out-of-date and soft, with nothing new to offer and, anyway, who can understand it? If you're thinking that, maybe think about this:

Jazz players are artists consumed by a form of music that they know is going to relegate them to an outsider's status as long as they play. They're going to be ignored by the press, shown no respect by record companies, shunted aside as fringe artists, and misunderstood by their contemporaries. Even the mainstream "alternative" culture ("mainstream alternative": I made it up) is going to cold-shoulder them. That's not a career choice you make just for grins.

So why do it? Almost all jazz players will tell you that, early on, the music got into them and took over. Maybe it was a saxophone soloist breathing fire, urging sorrow, joy, or mystery with a bending, twisting cascade of soulful, fiery notes. Or perhaps it was some crackling, rhythm-shifting drum beat, the searing blare of a trumpet careening to the top of a scale, or a gentle-as-the-dew guitar run that in just a few notes re-created the feel of a winter sunrise or a lover's caress. For jazz players, the inspiration to create and to find new forms of expression through jazz, to passionately assert what is current and what is timeless in the world and in their own lives through the music, is a constant. If you pay attention to an articulate jazz musician even for a minute, you will catch that urgency.

The improvisational element in jazz shoots another jolt through the wiring. At crucial points during each number, the players take turns launching themselves into the unknown; this can be breathtaking when it works and cause some serious train wrecks when it doesn't. Because they are improvising, the musicians have to be listening fiercely and communicating almost telepathically. If the drummer switches tempos, or the piano player decides to explore something new in the changes, everyone onstage has to react midstride. It's not for wimps and it's not for poseurs.

But as a listener, you don't need to be able to identify any of this as it's happening to get completely blown away by the music and by the interplay between the musicians.

I think that's why some people go cold at the mention of jazz. They've formed the notion that it's some intellectual exercise, like you have to know the rules or the code or jazz will just sound like 16 cars honking at you. Forget that. Jazz is gut music at its soul. You don't need to "understand" it. You just need to let it grab you.

Man, I just don't like it.When I say "jazz" to you, what do you hear? If you get just one picture in your head, hear just one sound, then you need to know (since you've read this far) that there is a whole world waiting for you, because there are a million ways into jazz. Bebop and post-bop, Latin jazz, "free" jazz -- those are just some of the places you can go. And especially now, funk, soul, blues, African, rock, hip hop, dance -- just about everything your favorite club DJ can spin -- is being tossed into the jazz mix.

The days when "purists" sat around debating what was or wasn't "really" jazz have been swept away by a current generation of jazz players anxious to incorporate into their art every sound and style that moves them. These people have grown up listening to the same music, dancing to the same grooves, that you have. Starting with the acid jazz heroes like Charlie Hunter and continuing with incredible modern players like Nicholas Payton, Russell Gunn, and Joshua Redman, a host of great young musicians are producing jazz on the national level that is definitely not old-fashioned or dry.

The masters -- John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Sara Vaughan, and a hundred others -- will rock your world if you let them. But if you're interested in opening up new territory for yourself and you want to start current, you've got options.

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