Stumbling into jazz

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.

On reading (and finishing) Infinite Jest

It began about 5 years ago, when the librarians at my work (I work in a university) were discussing famously un-finish-able books.  Always one to rise to a challenge, I decided to attempt one of them.  I opted for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest because it was more appealing than James Joyce or Tolstoy. I used to be an avid reader (pre-children) of all kinds of books, but had fallen out of the habit (post-children).  The Irish comedian Dara O’Briain does a routine where he asserts that post-children it is impossible to keep up with all leisure pursuits or popular culture media that you may previously have enjoyed, but that it is vital to retain a few for one’s sanity and the odd chance you get to interact with other adults.  For me, I retained music (both recorded and live) and to some extent television, but out the window (figuratively) went films, books and all other hobbies.  As my first daughter got older, it became possible to claw back some time during evenings or weekends to pick up on those abandoned activities.  In hindsight, it was a mistake to attempt to read a famously un-finish-able book among my first reads in years.  I barely got 20 pages in before realising why it was famously un-finish-able.
But, fast forward 4 or 5 years, the younger child is now 3 years old and actually sleeps occasionally, allowing me an hour or so each evening to engage in a bit of reading.  It felt great to get back in the habit and pick up some books.  I started with the bar low – a couple of autobiographies, some easy crime novels that my mum lent me, then I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and the prequel Go Set A Watchman. On a roll, I upped the game and got into Jack Kerouac.  I could have happily stayed in Kerouac’s world for much longer, having picked up about 6 novels and a biography at the amazing 2nd hand bookshop near work.  However I had seen a couple of articles in the Guardian (here & here) marking Infinite Jest’s 20th anniversary.  Infinite Jest had sat on my bedside table for years, then had been moved to a high shelf when I moved house.  It mocked me. I knew I would attempt it some day, but had been avoiding it.  Then the stars aligned and having been inspired by reading the Guardian articles, with a good few books under my belt and firmly back in the reading habit, I found 4 nights when the girls were with their grandparents.  This was my chance.  I knew I needed a good solid run into the start of it.  In I went.
I tweeted about it to make it real – there’s nothing like making a personal challenge public to guard against failure.  Of those who got in touch in response, the majority had also started it but not finished it.  Some had had multiple attempts.  Some had been put off even attempting, the reputation making for too daunting a task.
As for my post on Watchman, I’m not going to write a review here, but as usual I’ll share some of my experiences of reading the book and what it has meant to me.
I worked with 3 bookmarks and a reference sheet. One bookmark in my current place in the main body of text. One marking my place in the endnotes. The third marked the end of the main book / beginning of the endnotes, so I knew where I was aiming for and wasn’t disheartened at the prospect of 1079 pages. Only a mere 981….  The reference sheet was a list of year names, although I found I needed this less and less as I progressed through the book and became familiar with the year order.
I also had to read with my phone handy for quick Googling.  I had to Google a lot.  Mostly unfamiliar words/terms.  Infinite Jest is littered with strange and unusual words.  I worked to the rule that if it appeared once I skirted over it, assuming meaning from context.  The flow of reading was interrupted too much already for the damn endnotes without stopping for every single one.  If it appeared more than once I looked it up.  These mostly turned out to be American brands or antiquated terms, and the search results frequently threw up reference to the book.  Clearly I’m not the only one Googling these terms, and clearly only the author has used them in the last century.  There are also the made-up words.  I sincerely hope there’s a band called The Howling Fantods.  Unfortunately every time I read “kertwang” I thought of “Numberwang” which probably wasn’t the intended reaction.
I endeavoured to read for 1 hour every night. Some nights I was so tired I dozed off after 30 minutes.  Other nights, if the girls were at their dad’s I would manage up to 2 hours.  I only took 2 nights off, when I was properly OUT out.  I would come into work bleary eyed and yawning. “Hard night?” “Umm, yeah….” with THE DAMN BOOK..!!
There were nights when I just didn’t feel it.  I was shattered, just wanted to shut my brain off and watch 3 episodes of Gilmore Girls in a row then slip into bed.  Actually sometimes I did allow myself 1 episode of Gilmore Girls to decompress and have a cup of tea before opening the book.  And through Gilmore Girls I learned that Glad (as in Man From / Year Of) was an actual US company.
I reached a point about 2/3 of the way in, about page 600 when hefting the book open was beautifully satisfying.  About 750 pages in, I pushed myself onwards, telling myself I only had a regular-sized book-equivalent to go.
Of course it wasn’t that simple.  The number of pages in no way relates to time taken to read.  I consider myself a fast reader, but progress here was far slower than normal.  I could plug away for a good hour, and advance a mere 10 pages.  This is in large part due to the constant flicking back and forth to the endnotes.  There are 96 pages of endnotes.  In minuscule font.  Some endnotes go on for several pages.  Some endnotes refer you to other endnotes or have footnotes themselves.  It is infuriating.  Especially when your flow of reading is interrupted only to find the endnote explains an abbreviation you are familiar with, gives some excruciating detail about a (fictional?) chemical manufacturing company, or simply states, “no idea”.  Some contain a few words that could easily be incorporated into the text (“or so he thought”, “and then some”) but the author forces you to stop, flip, read, sigh, grit your teeth then start back where you left off.  I came to loathe endnote no. 304 which one is directed to I think 4 times, at least once by another endnote.  And it goes on for 8 pages.  And did I mention the minuscule font?  I feared for my eyesight, envisioning a trip to the opticians resulting in a diagnosis of Infinite Jest-induced sight deterioration.
I found myself daydreaming about all the marvellous things I would do once I had finished the book and could reclaim those couple of hours each evening.  A panic set in when I realised I was going to Berlin for a couple of days in October.  2 nights away, then my BSL class was due to start the day I got back. 3 nights of not being able to read THE BOOK.  I had to finish before then.  There’s no way I could lose 3 days so (hopefully) close to the end.  I became all too aware that this book was beginning to have the same effect on me as the “Entertainment” that is the subject. All consuming.  Falling victim no doubt to some deliberate manipulation by the author.
It wasn’t all bad, though.  Much as the prospect of the daily reading appeared as a chore, once I settled down (3 bookmarks, phone, large cup of tea), once I entered the strange but familiar world, reading was actually a pleasure.  I WANTED to read it. Even when I was exhausted, eyes drooping and head nodding, I WANTED to keep going.  It was compelling.  What I wasn’t expecting, was that it was funny. It is a particular type of humour, but it appealed to me and I found myself smiling a lot and laughing out loud on more than one occasion. I particularly liked the many varied extraordinary and unusual ways that characters, often minor or incidental characters, were maimed or killed.  These descriptions are often briefly mentioned as almost throwaway comments, in the midst of several pages of excruciating detail about tennis training or filmmaking.
“Also, my own father, dead when his Kenbeck pacemaker came within range of a misdialled number of a cellular phone…” p776
Actually that whole section where Marathe is being “Swiss” is among the funniest and one of my favourite bits.
Getting through this book, understanding it, enjoying it and already planning on reading it again sometime, has meant I have proven several things to myself.  I shouldn’t be daunted by any piece of literature.  I am smart enough to read and “get” this kind of novel.  I sometimes doubt this about myself.  I didn’t grow up in a house with literary novels.  I have had to find my own path through classic and modern literature, and am well aware that I am still not particularly well read.  This was what made me explore Kerouac.  I had assumed his writing would be too intellectual/esoteric for me. I play down my own intellectual capabilities and tell myself that kind of genre is for other people. What I found, of course, is that Kerouac has a famously naturalistic style of writing that really appealed to me and I found myself wondering what on earth I had feared.  David Foster Wallace has a less accessible style, and the structure, language and complexity of Infinite Jest made it a tough read, but not an impossible one.  I was glad to get through it, also proud of myself for taking on the challenge and succeeding.  I won’t let myself be daunted by any book again.
Although it may be some time before I attempt another famously un-finish-able book…