It’s been a long time since I “discovered” something that just plain outright changed my life.
If you had asked me what I thought of jazz music 6 months ago, I would have shrugged, made a face and said, “yeah, I don’t really get it….”
Despite being a life-long music fan, who can, in all honesty, say that I have an eclectic taste and have listened to, watched, played and enjoyed everything from classical to traditional Scottish to country music, I have never really got a handle on jazz. The free-form nature of it, the noodling, the way the performers always look like they’re having more fun than the audience. I just wrote it off as not for me, not something I understood or frankly made any attempt to understand.
I played the trumpet when I was younger, from the ages of about 10 to 15. I had 1-1 lessons and played in brass bands, wind bands and orchestras. During that period don’t recall being exposed to much jazz music. Certainly, improvisation wasn’t encouraged. Lessons were structured around workbooks. Band rehearsals involved copious sheet music. On one memorable day, I was invited to participate in a jazz workshop with some guest musicians. Initially, I was intrigued. But, to my utter horror, it was an improvisation session. I was petrified. I had never done anything like that before, had no idea where to begin and was terrified of doing it wrong. We had to take turns improvising on a given theme. After a seemingly endless rabbit-in-headlights moment, I remembered my music theory, spewed out some notes related to the key we were playing in and hoped I hadn’t embarrassed myself or my teachers. The encouraging words I received afterwards were recognisable in their tone as the kind of thing people say when someone is crap, but gave it a bash. I beat myself up about it, but looking back, nothing in my musical education had ever encouraged improvisation, imagination or straying from the sheet music. But that awful day stuck with me and this fleeting encounter with jazz was enough to make me give the whole genre a wide berth from then on.
I also played drums back then and my drum teacher was a jazz drummer. A lot of kit-based lessons involved brushes and swing rhythms but drum kit was only a small part of the percussion curriculum so I never got to develop it much. And not having access to my own kit meant that opportunities to play around and improvise myself were few and far between.
My cousin plays piano, for a while as a semi-professional, and I was vaguely aware that he sometimes played with others but, to my shame, I never saw him play so I never really knew what kind of music they were into. His band did play at his own wedding, and he joined them for a couple of numbers. Turns out they were a jazz group. I thought the music was alright, good background for the reception. I discovered at this time that my brother was also a bit of a jazz fan, but he was once into Meatloaf so clearly his tastes aren’t to be trusted.
But a few months ago several things came together to push me in the direction of jazz and I have rarely felt such excitement at finding something new (to me). It has led me to experience some kind of revelation and changed my whole outlook on music and possibly life.
So how did this come about? Well, several things coincided.
I started playing drums again. Jazz drumming was coming up in conversations, in articles I was reading, in the backgrounds of teachers at the studio where I take lessons, in demonstrations and talks at events I was going to. I seemed unavoidable. If I was going to take drumming seriously, I was going to have to get familiar with the story of jazz drumming and some of the great names associated with it.
I read Jack Kerouac. He is always banging on about going to clubs and watching bebop performers. His writing made me want to explore that world, to put a soundtrack to the scenes he created.
I got moved into a shared office at work. I used to have the radio on at work, but sometimes even that is too much and I need straightforward music with no talking that mingles with the chat in the office and forms too much of a distraction. I tried listening to classical music but it wasn’t right. I wasn’t keeping me focused and motivated.
I was getting bored of listening to indie/rock music. I just suddenly couldn’t find anything I wanted to listen to. Nothing was interesting anymore. Or rather rock music wasn’t fulfilling an emotional need I had at the time. Or rather I realised that I was listening to too much loud rock music to block out emotions that I really should have been paying attention to and dealing with. I tried branching out into pop/electronic and listened to the likes of Chvrches and Years and Years. They are both good. I got diverted into a Bon Iver phase when he(they?) released a new album. It is astounding.
But I needed something else.
I spent a while browsing around Spotify looking for some inspiration and a few jazz tracks popped up. They struck just the right balance and made for decent background music while working. But now and again I found myself stopping, my ear caught by a particular phrase, section or piece. What had previously been an indecipherable jumble of notes in an incoherent pattern was suddenly making sense to me. To be honest, I freaked me out. I don’t do jazz! It’s just not my thing! Except suddenly it was. I didn’t know who I was any more. All those lazy metaphors about doors opening, light dawning and worlds opening can be inserted here.
I turned to my jazz piano-playing cousin for help. He very kindly made up a playlist to get me started exploring the world of jazz. I put it on while doing housework one day. I really can’t explain it other than to say that IT ALL MADE SENSE. I had to stop cleaning to sit and take it all in. It wasn’t just making sense, it was making me emotional. Some of the pieces I found deeply moving. I didn’t know what was happening to me.
I had already requested that he avoid anything too “big band” and anything too “easy listening”. I reported back that I preferred the tracks at the start of the playlist, and was less keen on ones at the end. Unbeknownst to me, the playlist had been in chronological order. So it turns out I prefer older, more traditional jazz. He sent me some links to recordings that he and his band had made a few years ago. Hard-bop standards. So Jack and I have the same taste. I prefer instrumental stuff, although am not averse to vocals. I’m struggling a bit with the more progressive / fusion styles, although perhaps I have to evolve with the music and in time I will come to understand and love these too.
It occurred to me that one of the reasons it all clicked with me is that I was now listening from a drumming perspective, not a trumpeters perspective. Trying to follow a melody line left me dizzy. The drum part gives more of an overall impression of the piece, with a clearer route through the sections and the variations in texture and feeling.
And Oh. My. God. Jazz drumming is just ART.
Any old idiot can bash out a rock drum part. It takes proper skills, technique and musical understanding to execute jazz drumming. Every so often I am just blown away by the sheer artistry of the drumming.
So I have explored a bit more, I have sought out some radio programmes that offer not only the music but a bit of info and background too. Last weekend the BBC did a pop-up jazz station, so I have caught up with a few programmes from that. One surprise presenter was Colin Murray, whose Radio1 late-night show I used to listen to back in the day. It transpires he is also a relatively recent convert to the genre and it was good to hear him talk so enthusiastically about his journey, as I am making mine.
One thing Colin Murray spoke about was when he “made public” his interest in jazz, that it is something he had to “admit” to. I feel the same. I am reluctant to mention it to people, aware that it elicits a certain perception or judgement from people. Hell, 6 months ago, I was one of those judging people!
I am aware that I now need to experience jazz music live. I have no idea what may be on offer in Glasgow but it is now my mission to find out. Unfortunately, I have few friends who are interested in going to “normal” gigs with me, so I reckon my chances of finding folk to go to see jazz with me are small to non-existent. However, I will not let that deter me and I hope to report back here on some jazz gigs in the new year.
So I am excited to explore this new (old) world of music. Weird keys and odd time-signatures no longer frighten me, they excite me. I have stopped trying to figure out what the artist is trying to do/say/mean, and have spent time figuring out what the music means to me. I know I have a lot to learn and discover and I can’t wait.
Jazz is actually like a revelation.