Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Jazz of Jazz


Just watched a film about Keith Jarrett and improvisation. Despite personality quirks (with some intriguing clues from his brother as to where they came from), for me, the man’s music never fails to hit home. Or rather, the music that comes through the man and his fellow players as well, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. The quality that I admire is that sense of getting right to the essence of the tune, of living fully— emotionally, physically, intellectually— in the center of each note of the tune. And in the solo works, taking it further yet by getting to the source from which music unravels. And in all cases, getting out of the way to let the music flow of its own accord and listening each step of the way as if all of life depended on it.

Of course, to get to that place, there were all the hours of practice, both classical and jazz, learning the language that came before, imitating the ones you admire, constant self-critique and searching and failure to find the sound you hear in your head. The deep craft and commitment of any artist in any field. But at the end is something far beyond mere practice, certainly beyond just getting the notes right or pleasing an audience. It has something to do with riding into the unknown, yet deeply known, on the wings of the given notes that catapult you further or floating on the stream of no notes given, but releasing into the flow. At the end of the matter, it’s not pleasant tones or ego-thrashing accomplishment that thrills the audience, it’s that deep memory of the child-like exploration of a world filled with wonder and terror and everything new and discovered and everything ancient and always known. That’s the jazz within jazz.

It’s also the “Orff within Orff.” As Carl Orff himself said, in a quote I think Keith Jarrett would applaud: 

Music begins inside human being, and so must any instruction. Not at the instrument, not with the first finger, nor with the first position, now with this or that chord. The starting point is one’s own stillness, listening to oneself, the ‘being ready for music,’ listening to one’s own heart-beat and breathing.

As I give workshops around the U.S., I hear story after story about robotic administrators demanding assessments of children that kill the spirit of the artistic enterprise. The children gift us with their nature and we in turn can gift back opportunities to transform their unbridled and free expression into beautiful and dynamic sounds and gestures. That’s the needed conversation and no cynical adult demanding results has any business taking part in that conversation. But because we ourselves have been beaten down by school systems demanding compliance, have been seduced by machines and numbed by entertainment and tuned to spectacle over intimacy and trained to adore the stars and taught to view every corner of our precious life as an economic transaction or a rational collection of parts or a faith-based acceptance of whatever the current charlatan spouts, we don’t even know how to respond. Authentic, probing, soul-stirring music, whether with children or adults, exists to remind us to live more fully and search deeper.

Jazz has turned into an expensive affair for polite audiences and there’s nothing any of us can do about that. Still miracles abound. But in its heyday, it was the needed language of the streets brought into depth and eloquence, a searching for the language that people were starving to hear.  A night at the Vanguard or Five Spot was often a transformational event for players and audience alike. It could lift you out of your seat or shake your head in disbelief or sing your pain or trumpet your joy. It still can, but life with a latte on every corner and instant entertainment on your device has become so damn tame, all desires (except the really important ones) fulfilled with a button push or a Starbucks card. We have been put to sleep and if Maynard Solomon claims that Mozart’s music was made to “disturb the slumber of the world,” how much more so Charlie Parker and Monk and Miles and Trane and Ornette— and yes, Keith Jarrett and beyond. It’s a miracle that we still have those amongst us to continue the probing to wake ourselves up. We need them.

And nowhere has the slumber become more disturbing than in our schools. My voice is smaller than small, but if I had to reduce my message to schools and teachers and music programs, it would be “Wake up!! Stop settling for the bland textbook middle, stop producing perfect little shows with kids dutifully playing all the right notes, stop shutting down the looniness of childhood into a dull adultified version. Aim for buzz, laughter, a few tears, spectacular failures, surprising successes (not to be captured by formula kid-tested step-by-step manuals). Dig deeper, leap higher, listen, listen, listen.”

To get you in the mood: Turn of your cell phone, dim the lights, lie down on the floor and let Keith or Keith and Gary and Jack— or Miles or Coltrane or hundreds of others digging down to the jazz at the center of jazz —take you back to the worlds we have abandoned in our national discourse and see what you find there. It just may be yourself.

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