Jazz: tips for surviving the fall of the year from Wynton Marsalis and Christian McBride

Half sarcastically, my boss says the only people who listen to jazz are college men looking to impress college women. But I disagree.

Fall is here, and winter won’t be far behind. This is when I need jazz.

The falling leaves; the fluttering notes, the melodies that seem in a constant state of flux...In my mind, the improvised melodies of jazz are linked with autumn's constantly shifting landscapes.

The fall of the year can feel tumultuous, so I use smooth jazz albums, like Bill Evans' "Moon Beams" to keep me calm in the face of it. I save harsher sounding albums, like John Coltrane's "Africa" or Miles Davis's "Jack Johnson" for the bleakest days.

My boss likes to tease, especially when he knows he'll get a reaction out of me. “Nobody really likes jazz,” he says pushing further, “It just sounds cool.”

But to some extent, that’s true. More precisely, these words represent a couple of ideas that are true. First off, there is a rift between jazz and the general public. The majority of people – even amongst music fans – do not buy jazz CDs, listen to jazz on the radio, or go to jazz shows.

However, even this crude blanket statement contains an admission that on some level,  jazz is “cool.” Reading between the lines a bit, while many don’t relate to the art form, they have a hunch that it has value.  They just don’t understand what it is.

The following can help. Here are a couple of easy ways for anyone to approach jazz and it comes from two of its most famous practitioners. Jazz bassist Christian McBride has played with an impressive list of stars, from pop legend Sting to contemporary jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman.

I asked him, “Do you have any tips or hints for people who don’t know jazz but are curious about it — that would help them decode it?”

“There are two things that I always like to say. Go see live jazz first. Search out what the hottest jazz clubs are in your area and go see a really great local group,” McBride said. “That way you can see it happening, as well as hearing it. The second thing is that this is not some type of Egyptian hieroglyphics. It’s just music. Just like with any other style of music, there are levels from easy listening to more abstract versions. I would say start off with something easy. Listen to Miles Davis’ 'Kind of Blue.'  Then you can wander out there and it won’t seem so foreign to you, after you’ve taken in the basic stuff.”

That is exactly what I did in college. The first jazz album I bought was “Kind of Blue” and as a nod to my boss, I must admit that the artsy girls I sought out had that album in their bags, too. It was in that same period that I attended a lecture by jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis has recorded over 40 albums. He is one of the biggest advocates for traditional jazz. When he came to my school, he offered me a second window into jazz.

“Years ago, when I was in college, you came and spoke at a lecture hall. You said that jazz was interactive, and you advised us to just listen to the music the first time an instrument is introduced in a song. The next time that instrument comes around, think of what it played the first time–keep that in your mind–because the soloist is about to change it and do something different to complement what he did the first time. Do I have that right?” I asked Marsalis.

“Right; that’s exactly right,” Marsalis said, “like following a conversation.”

That made jazz accessible for me. It wasn’t boring once I realized I could take part in it. My boss was right when he implied that breaking out the jazz will impress. I will also add that you can score even more points by placing Walt Whitman on the coffee table next to the Coltrane CD.

But while you are waiting for your guest to arrive, give this interactive listening a shot while sipping the wine.

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