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Sunday, February 07, 2021

Jazz and Me, 20 Years On

One day during the Christmas holidays, I went downstairs to where our old television with its still-working DVD/VCR set-up stands, and I pulled out an old treasure: the complete documentary Jazz, which I had recorded on VHS tape when it was first broadcast, 20 years ago. Maybe some part of me realized that the show was hitting its anniversary, or maybe I just wanted some of that old-time jazz as the cold and dark January days settled in. It's a long documentary: 19 hours worth. I finally finished it, and it was a fun journey through times and music that I remember well.

I didn't grow up listening to jazz. The closest thing to that music in our house when I was a child was probably the omnipresent Hollywood musical soundtracks, some of which were downright jazzy in the old big band sense, and whose music has been an enduring part of our family life as our daughters have grown up. It was until years after I'd grown and developed my own musical tastes that I found out my Dad had been a big fan of Ahmad Jamal when he'd been in high school, but he hadn't kept any of his albums, any more than he'd kept any of Elvis's. Melissa's family was a little different; her mother and father (especially him) loved--along with lots of cheezy 1960s folk-pop like The Monkees--big, brassy, orchestral numbers, and they had kept their records, and so her young life was filled with all sorts of classical music (the louder the better) in addition to soundtracks, and you had some Gershwin and Brubeck and other jazz elements thrown into the mix there. But still, neither of us could really be considered jazz fans.

But a couple of things happened as we both made our way to Brigham Young University and eventually meeting and then marrying in 1993. Melissa played the French horn in marching band and orchestra in high school, and among her friends were some trumpet players who did jazz as well as classical. They introduced her to the music of Wynton Marsalis--who, in the mid-to-late 1980s, was probably better known (before he made the cover of Time Magazine in 1990, anyway) for his recordings of the trumpet concertos of Handel, Purcell, Haydn, and other artists than for his jazz. She, in turn, introduced his prodigious output to me. As for me, well, as I've documented at great length, I've always been a creature of radio--mostly pop and rock radio, but I've always been willing to spin the dial (back in the day when radio had dials) to see what I could discover. After moving to Utah to attend BYU, I discovered the Salt Lake City radio scene, which was worlds more diverse and sophisticated than what I grew up listening to in Spokane, Washington. Specifically--I think I can even remember the place; it was the house of a Utah relative of one of the fellows in my freshman dorm, whom we were visiting some Friday evening for some reason, in either late 1987 or early 1988, and the radio was playing in the background--I discovered KUER, the University of Utah's public radio station, and Steve "Daddy-O" Williams's "Nighttime Jazz." Something about the program--Williams's delivery, perhaps, or the way he made every tune he spun seem like both an original discovery and something whose history I felt embarrassed not to already know--absolutely hooked me. Discovering the distinctive lyrical possibilities for different instruments, as they soloed both fast and slow, upended--for the better--what little I thought I knew about music at that time, and while it didn't make me throw out my Paul Simon or Police cassette tapes, it did made me want to learn more. For the rest of my time in Utah, I'd tune in whenever I was in the mood--and in time, I found a lot to supplement that wonderful resource. (Turns out Williams retired from KUER about six years ago, after having run the program for more than 30 years, and the station has gotten out of jazz programming entirely. From a distance of decades, I tell Utah residents today: you have no idea what you've lost.)

Melissa's and my courtship and early marriage was filled with live music, which is something poor college students can do when they live in a university town. And for all the limitations of Provo, the home of BYU--and believe me, there are, or at least were, a lot--getting out to musicals and concerts and guest performances and student groups was easily accomplished. Right off the bat during her freshman year, Melissa volunteered to be an usher for shows in the fine arts building, and consequently got into to see just about everything. I was lucky enough to fall in with a wonderful gang of guys, some of whom ended forming Vocal Point, BYU's premier male a cappella ensemble--and through them, attending early rehearsals and shows, and just hanging out at their apartments, I (and later Melissa and I together) were never at a loss for creative, jazzy vocalizations and tunes. It's thanks to those talented dudes that Glen Miller's "Tuxedo Junction," Ella Fitzgerald's "It's Only a Paper Moon," or Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" became a part of my consciousness. Still, for all that, jazz wasn't at the forefront of what we listened to or sought out.

It might have been the man himself, Wynton Marsalis, who added some necessary fuel to my jazz fire (as obviously he also has for probably hundreds of thousands of others over the decades, to the delight and the chagrin of the man's many fans and equally many haters). Marsalis played with one of his large ensembles at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City in 1994--on his 33rd birthday, as it happened (at one point during the show, dedicated to the work of Thelonious Monk--and it was fantastic--a number Marsalis was conducting was interrupted by a member of the band, who had sneaked away in full sight of audience while Wynton was briefly soloing a minute before, suddenly reappearing with a cake with lit candles, and who marched across the stage while the whole ensemble shifted on a dime to "Happy Birthday"). It was a great evening, and it lead to multiple others, especially after Melissa and I moved to Washington DC, where were blessed--for the first couple of years we were there, anyway--with the much-missed WDCU, the public radio station at the University of the District of Columbia and simply the finest jazz radio I've ever listened to, and probably ever will. DC didn't have the a cappella scene we knew back in Provo, UT, but it more than made up for that so much more. Through our church we got to know an FBI agent who was also a skilled jazz pianist, who could do killer Bud Powell numbers when his mind was set to it, and a ferociously talented (and wonderfully, ferociously opinionated) cabaret singer who could put on some killer shows. During our time in DC we got to see artists like Ray Charles, Branford Marsalis--and Branford's brother Wynton again, which was probably the jazz highlight of my life. It was in 1997 at the old Warner Theater, with his Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra, soon after he'd begun his tour for his just released jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields; the original vocalist on the oratorio, Cassandra Wilson, wasn't with the band, which was a loss, but Jon Hendricks was, and that was an exposure to some tremendous jazz history there. While not the most enjoyable concert I've ever attended--Blood is a pretty heavy work--it was easily one of the most memorable, not the least for being able to wait along with all the other fans and spent a minute or two with Marsalis himself, who--for all his terrible reputation--was a total gentleman, despite his shirt being soaked with sweat from the show (he asked which one of us were musicians, and when Melissa said she was, he focused entirely on her, asking her why she hadn't kept up the French horn).

Looking back over all this, the fact that I simply at up Jazz when it premiered seems kind of inevitable. Ken Burns comes in for a lot of criticism from different segments of the progressive left, and as much as the NPR-listening, PBS-watching, bourgeois liberal part of me wants to fight against it, the socialist in me knows it's true. Rewatching Jazz makes pretty clear that the man really is a Pax Americana Democrat, with not a sliver of postmodernism complicating the way he constructs historical narratives. As with the documentary series that made his name, The Civil War (which I also have fond memories of, despite all the historical reservations that I think any educated person today ought to have about that beautiful but deeply flawed accomplishment), Burns approaches jazz music as a Great Man of History story. At one point while working through the episodes over the past month, I decided to keep track of how many times the narrator would introduce the focus of the next segment by saying something along the lines of "this man will change jazz forever" or "after this man, jazz was never the same," but I literally lost count.

For actually working jazz musicians, or for people who really get out to the clubs and the shows regularly enough to watch the improvisation of these talented musicians in real time, the near-exclusive focus of Jazz on the various titans of the music--the Duke Ellingtons, the Charles Minguses, the Dizzy Gillespies, the Count Basies, the Herbie Hancocks, and more--is probably more than a little depressing. And annoying too, given how the Burns's narrative celebration basically ends in 1960, skips the next decade and a half, and then only admits the jazz story is still ongoing once Dexter Gordon returns to the United States and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers is rejuvenated by the addition of the Marsalis brothers (Wynton and Brandon) in the late 1970s. If you love fusion jazz and Miles Davis's Bitches Brew (and I eventually came to, every bit as much as I love his Sketches of Spain or Birth of the Cool), this show isn't for you.

But I say: watch it anyway; you'll be glad you did. Or at least, I'm glad I did. Life goes on, and the sort of stuff which inspires and entertains you at one point of your life won't be the same at another. These days, it's our daughters who fill our home with songs from musicals and film soundtracks (when they aren't informing us about their new-found passions for, in the case of our oldest, Van Morrison, and in the case of our second-to-youngest, the k-pop sensation BTS). Melissa is much more likely to listen to zumba and dance music, and I probably listen to more Paul McCartney than anything else. But this series got me to go to my CD cabinet and pull out just a sampling of all that I've collected over the years. Ken Burns may be a failure as a critical historian, but as a documentarian of musical stories and historical excellence, I can't fault him one bit. So much wonder and tragedy and joy and sadness are packed into those 19 hours, all of it done in conjunction with tremendous music, whose chord changes and progressions and melodies can make you swing, weep, laugh, or just sit back comfortably and be carried away into the musician's own private world, which might discover to your surprise that it connects with memories within your own as well.

If you can listen to jazz musicians at work live--or if you can look forward to doing so, when the pandemic finally ends--you really should do so; I'm fortunate to teach at a small school that nonetheless has built tremendous instrumental and vocal jazz programs over the years, and they've been wonderful to support over the years. But even if that sort of resource isn't available to you, keep an ear out, tuned to whatever channel you can find on Spotify of Pandora or even humble radio. Jazz surprised me, years ago, delighting me with a range of mood and tone that I'd never known before. No, it hasn't defined my life--but it has added to it immeasurably. So poke around yourself (and, again, Jazz is a pretty good place to start, for all its limitations), and be surprised. You never know what you might find.