This is the story of how, at age 52, I learned to like experimental jazz. Or, really, this is the story of how I learned I could learn to like experimental jazz … I’m a work in progress.
I grew up playing classical piano and listening to my parents’ mid-century vinyl. I got hooked on questionable musicals like South Pacific, folk groups like The Weavers, and — true confession — anything you could tap-dance to. The music I loved had tunes you could hum, and patterns an unpracticed ear could learn fast and repeat. I knew about jazz, of course, but mostly from Bing Crosby’s now-cringey song from High Society
So … fast forward to last month, when I was helping set up a voter-registration event in a tree-lined plaza. When we finished up, lots of tables and chairs still needed stacking, so I smiled as winningly as I know how and snagged a trio of twenty-something strangers who were languidly smoking nearby. They seemed surprised, but stubbed out their cigs and got to work. As we grunted the tables onto the handcart, they said they’d just arrived in town. Who’d a thunk it? They were improvisational jazz musicians on their first national tour, doing a set at Merriman’s Playhouse in South Bend that very night. I asked if they thought there were still tickets available, hoping the answer would be no, since a night of wandering jazz after a long day in the sun sounded pretty terrible. “Ah,” they laughed ruefully, “Yeah …we’re sure there are tickets left.” Bluff called.
I remembered a jazz musician joke: What’s the difference between a rock guitarist, and a jazz guitarist? A rock guitarist plays threechords for a thousand people, and a jazz guitarist plays a thousand chords for …. well, you can guess the rest.
I wasn’t sure what I was in for that night, but I wanted to do right by those do-gooders, and I love Merman’s Playhouse, a hotbed of creative music nestled right in our neighborhood. Turns out, attendance was sparse, and I was grateful to show up for this earnest trio — drums, alto sax, and electric guitar. But then they started to play … and I could feel myself starting to panic.
Where was the melody? Where was this heading? I tried not to look at the clock. The first song ticked past 5 minutes. 10 minutes. I could see other folks listening with interest and turned to some grim self-analysis. What was wrong with me? I was glad my friend, with whom I am Most Likely to Get the Inappropriate Giggles, wasn’t sitting next to me. The piece rounded the the 15 minute mark … and then something happened. I think, I started … to get it. I stopped trying to listen for patterns, and tried paying attention to the creative soundscape they were weaving.
I watched them lean into their responses to one another. The guitarist pulled out a tiny metal whisk and began coaxing chimes out of his strings that were eerie and beckoning. My mind drifted, buoyed by the unfurling vibrations. I started to feel part of the weft and warp of the sound. I was learning to listen.
Afterward, we bought their CD and we all chatted on the sidewalk while their cigarette smoke curled into the starry night. We learned the sax player supports his music by working at a SoHo oyster bar. The drummer was about to start teaching high school marching band. “We’ll be playing a lot of Beach Boys,” he said gamely. What a gift, I thought, to remember the strangeness and discovery, spontaneity and surprise, of being human, a work in progress … like jazz.
Music selections from "Faustian Pact" by Kinsmen and Strangers
and "Now you has Jazz" with Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong from the film High Society (1956)