Du Jazz

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 3The 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 recordingsthe 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.  

___________________________________________
Listen:
Flamenco Sketches (Davis)
So What (Davis)
In the Court of King Oliver (Marsalis)
Things We Did Last Summer (Hargrove)
Moonlight in Vermont (Getz)

4 Comments

  1. I too have been engulfed and have spent many a nights at the clubs; Birdland, Smoke, Blue Note, the Vanguard, and Mintons, at the feet of a trumpet, as you wrote. Just listing them stirs up nostalgic excitement. Some nights taking in as many as three sets because I could and if so, why wouldn’t I. To hearing live jazz again sooner than later! Cheers! And let’s not forget the newer artists, like Kurt Elling, and Gregory Peck, Jazzmeia Horn, and Kendrick Scott Oracle. The greats live on in these artists. Made my day reading your post, thank you.

    1. Author

      Hi Stephanie, glad you liked the post. Many thanks for introducing me to Gregory Porter!

      I never made it to any New York clubs, but I did enjoy many nights at Blues Alley and One Step Down in DC. Just Jazz in Buckhead, during its too short life, was a wonderful place to grab a bourbon sour and listen to the house band do “My Funny Valentine”. One day soon…

  2. Jazz and other forms of music can be like any other gourmet delicacy in that it’s an acquired taste. In the late sixties and early seventies when most of my school classmates were listening to Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night, I was picking up vinyl albums of Strauss waltzes and other so called long hair music. I don’t recall exactly when I migrated towards traditional jazz but in the 1980’s there was a local radio station that served up the sounds of Richard Elliot, the Rippingtons and Gary Burton on vibraphone among many others. I also started collecting Wynton Marsalis during this time and now he is the artist that I have the most work of. My wife surprised me with tickets to a performance of Wynton and the Lincoln Center Jazz Ensemble during their tribute to Duke Ellington tour. WOW! Getting to hear Wynton in person was like seeing an original painting for the first time. The subtlety and nuance was mesmerizing and I will never forget that experience. As a recovering audiophile I will warn you that acquiring high quality playback equipment can be as wallet emptying as any camera GAS. Next to original art and photography my love of classical and jazz music is life sustaining.

    I eventually built a dedicated listening room with dual wall construction and no parallel walls and a coffered ceiling with acoustical panels. The walls had three layers of sheetrock glued together and the ceiling two layers. The base plate of the interior walls rested on an acoustical rubber pad that prevented bass from being transmitted into the slab and the attic was decked above so that the sound could not travel beyond the room. I finished off the space with Bowers & Wilkins speakers. We moved from that house over ten years ago and I had to sell my equipment. I better stop or I may start to cry.

    You touched a chord in me with this post. Craftsmanship crosses all fields of endeavor and enriches lives in ways that can’t be described. As you strive to bring harmony and maybe even a little discord to your garden you can be assured that there are those in your neighborhood that see your garden as Kind of Blue.

    1. Author

      Bill, I see we are kindred spirits. Seeing Wynton at the Lincoln Center—WOW!!! That is amazing in the truest sense of the word. I haven’t be able to See Wynton or Miles live, but have been able to see a few others. I saw Roy Hargrove when he was just starting out in an intimate setting with about 30 people. Beautiful. I’ve seen Pat Methany in concert twice and was blessed to see Shirley Horn, my favorite jazz vocalist, as well. I treasure those experiences.

      Sorry to hear of the loss of your listening room. We did a renovation 11 years ago, and since then my amp, receiver, CD player and turntable have never made it back into service. I still have them. Maybe one day…

      Gardening affects me like music. Whatever part of the brain responds to beauty, loves flowers and notes. And yes, it’s wonderful to see neighbors pause and take in the flowers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *