I hated jazz. In a conversation with an older friend, 30-year-old me held as ridiculous that anyone really liked jazz. I grew up with the last major wave in jazz expression, “free.” This was the style that came with Ornette Coleman in the early 60s. Bitches Brew, the much-heralded 25-minute sound cloud of Miles Davis, which 15-year-old me heard at the insistence of a très cool dude who was 31% too hip and trying to rescue me from cultural obtuseness, assured my distaste for the next two decades. When I was in college, free jazz was the rage. While some may have heard high art, all I heard was random notes—lots of them. There was no melody I could discern and no point.
That I came to like jazz at all was an accident. I would never have voluntarily sought it out or listened. Late one night in the late 1980s, unable to sleep and bored out of my mind, I started flipping through TV channels. I landed on an old movie where a guy was trying to set a romantic mood. After lighting a few candles and killing the lights, he put on an album. The music that came out was simply beautiful. I sat there mesmerized for the next minute or so. When the song went off, I forced myself to watch the rest of that lousy movie until the credits rolled. Finally, I saw the line: “Flamenco Sketches, Miles Davis Quintet.” Miles Davis!?! Seriously??? The guy who did “Bitches Brew”? You see, Miles Davis was the very person 30-year-old me had resolutely and confidently sworn I would never like.
The next day, I was off to Tower Records. (Remember Tower Records?) I found the CD, Kind of Blue, which, if I recall correctly, was only 7.99—cheap at the time. Once at home, I went immediately to “Flamenco Sketches” to be sure I had gotten the right album. Yep! This was like no jazz I had ever heard before. It was calm, melodic, undulating, subtle, whispery, soft. Then, it hit me—I paid 7.99 for a single song! What if the rest of the album was like “Bitches Brew”? I pushed the CD player button to restart from the beginning—then sat back, waiting for a wall of noise. What I heard was the first few, playful insouciant notes of “So What?”—another winner! After that, I relaxed, took my time, and savored a jazz album. Me—listening to jazz…
Knowing that I could like jazz, I went looking for similar music. Since my internet access was a 2800 baud modem, I went to the book store. I was surprised to find so many jazz books. However, learning that Kind of Blue was considered by many to be the best jazz album ever was not the least bit surprising. Soon my research revealed that Kind of Blue was “cool jazz,” a form pioneered by Miles Davis and Gil Evans starting with the release of Birth of The Cool in 1949. It seems the ascension of free jazz in the early sixties ushered in a new style and handed cool its walking papers. For me, this was good news. I had at least 12 or so years of music to explore! And that is the story of how I came to love jazz.
Since discovering Miles and the cool, I’ve discovered so many other talented musicians who can transform exhaled air into beauty, and with nimble fingers, take me back, instantly, to a chilly June night on Boulevard St Germain. Jazz has a feel and sets a mood. It removes me from wherever I am to a dimly lit table a few feet from a trumpet, or maybe into my car, sunroof open, windows down, driving through the countryside. Jazz puts a Booker’s bourbon on the rocks with a splash of water in my hand and advises me to take that seat over there in the shade.
One May evening in San Francisco, as it was getting dark, carrying my dinner—wine from the corner store, and a huge pastrami sandwich with creamy potato salad from David’s— I made my way to the top of the hill. Then, turning to see the terrain conquered, I noticed the mist rolling in. Fascinated at being able to see it creeping, block-by-block toward me, I stood there, momentarily transfixed. I knew the chill was coming but couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to be engulfed. That feeling of being engulfed is what it was like listening to Kind of Blue the first time. I swore I would never like jazz; yet there I sat, CD case in hand, listening, eyes closed, immersed and loving it.
Wynton Marsalis’ Standard Time, Volume 3; The Resolution of Romance, was my next big discovery. I bought it at an Olsson’s record store at 19th and L Street NW in DC. Listening to “In The Court of King Oliver,” one can feel that warm Nawlins breeze gently gliding past and smell the beignets. When I hear it, I have to get up and do something. If somebody is around, I have to say something. Motion and activity are not optional.
Since Wynton, I’ve added hundreds of CDs to my collection and now add more freely than ever, thanks to streaming. Streaming has brought back previously unavailable albums. So, I’ve been checking out new (to me) artists. Lately, I’ve focused on Oscar Peterson and Sonny Rollins.
About 15 years after telling my older friend no one really liked jazz, forty-something me told him I had a Miles Davis collection. He burst out laughing and said, “I thought you hated Miles! I told you, you’d like Miles!”
By that time, I had at least 20 Miles Davis recordings, the Miles Davis Columbia box set, Bill Evans’ Complete Riverside Recordings box set, and a few dozen more jazz albums, so what defense could I offer? I simply smiled. I don’t remember telling him I had a copy of Miles: The Autobiography. He was already laughing hard enough.