Have you ever seen jazz? That’s right – “seen jazz.” Have you seen it played, experienced it in person. I know you have heard jazz – at the movies, on TV (The Charlie Brown Christmas Special), on the radio. But if you haven’t seen jazz played live, you only appreciate a fraction of its beauty and brilliance.
I am not saying you can’t love and appreciate jazz just by hearing it. Listen to “So What” by Mile Davis, John Coltrane’s “Naima,” or even “Linus and Lucy” by Vince Guaraldi – I suspect that you will enjoy at least one of these songs. But jazz is best experienced live. And once you experience a live performance, you will hear recorded jazz in a new way.
New Orleans gave a gift to the world when musicians here began mixing different styles of music and created a whole new genre – jazz. I love that jazz was created in my adopted home, but that’s not why I enjoy the music so much. It is raw and real and existential. But I am not surprised that some people don’t like jazz. I do sometimes wonder if these people have given jazz a chance.
There is a prevailing misconception regarding the genre – that it is a rambling jumble of unrelated sounds and notes all jammed together. NBC’s “Parks & Recreation” captured this misconception with their “Jazz + Jazz = Jazz” quip. In the scene, Leslie Knope visits with Derry Murbles on “Thought For Your Thoughts,” the fictional Pawnee Community Radio program. Murbles asks Knope to introduce the next segment, “Jazz + Jazz = Jazz.” Knope reads, “today we have a recording of Benny Goodman played over a separate recording of Miles Davis.” A mixed-up mess follows and Knope looks confused. The point is clear, jamming two jazz songs together adds nothing and takes nothing away from jazz. The two unrelated songs don’t result in a mess, it results in more jazz. The writer of this scene seems to believe that jazz is a mess in and of itself – piling on a little more mess doesn’t alter the equation. It’s funny but quite unfair.
Jazz is loose and free-wheeling and it has a lot of notes – some of those notes are quite unconventional and shocking. But this does not make it a mess as the “Jazz + Jazz = Jazz” sketch suggested. The genre leverages traditional instruments in new ways and in new combinations. Jazz musicians often push those instruments beyond their intended limits. Listen to Trombone Shorty or the Hot 8 Brass Band to see what I mean. These exuberant bursts, blasts, beats, and flourishes make some people uncomfortable, but I love it.
At other times it is the quiet or silent space between the notes that carries the song’s power and beauty. Listen to Ellis Marsalis tease emotion from the piano with strategic gaps between notes. Perhaps some people view phraseology like that as odd or offbeat – to me, it illustrates creative genius.
Back to live jazz and what makes it so great. The most important and unique feature of jazz is improvisation. While recordings capture these improvisations, the recording preserves that one version for all time. A live jazz song is never played the same way twice. Live jazz is played as an ongoing conversation between the musicians. The conversation includes surprising, playful interaction and improvisation. The musicians strive for something new each time and try to surprise each other during their instrumental solos. Jazz songs beautifully illustrate the importance and value of both the group and the individual.
The first time I experienced this conversational aspect of jazz first-hand at Preservation Hall in New Orleans, I was blown away. The level of improvisation caught me by surprise. As the surprises continued through each song in the set, my appreciation grew. The musicians also tried to involve the audience. I distinctly remember the trombone player playfully running his slide between two front-row guests several times while completing his innovative solos.
Since then I have experienced live jazz many times in many different venues. Guess what, the improvisation still blows me away even though I know it is coming. Now I listen to recorded jazz with a new appreciation. So if you have heard any jazz that you like, I encourage you to go hear it and see it live. It will be well worth your time.