The first jazz album I really liked was Take Five
by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. "Blue Rondo a la Turk," the opening number, sold me. It was exciting, playful, shifting, artsy, adventurous, smart, swinging, and crisp. Like the album, that tune was a picture in sound: group sound, yet individual sound, too.
The balance of group and individual, of vision and sound, is what makes jazz special. The group plays together, yet each one has a unique, foundational role. Each musician listens to the others, responds to them and lifts them. Any one may also have a turn (or more) to step out as an individual and explore the boundaries of song, sound, and group cohesion.
As a listener, I traveled these boundaries with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, Evan Parker, and other innovators of the avant garde and free jazz movements. Their music was not always my favorite, but I heard beauty there. I heard effort. I heard space. I heard myself waiting for the next step.
When I was a teenager, I gravitated to the big, classical guys: Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Dexter Gordon. Their cassette tapes would go into my alarm clock, and they would play me to sleep. To me, theirs was Kerouac's night music, the music for those of us who wanted more...more night.
Of all, the piano players were my favorites. I collected a ton of Keith Jarrett, whose solo concert album from Bremen and Lausanne changed me profoundly. How a man walked out and played and went on the way Jarrett did was amazing. So many of the pianists also moved me, and they continue to do so: Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Bobo Stenson, Marilyn Crispell, Irene Schweitzer, Paul Bley, Horace Silver, Vijay Iyer, Esbjorn Svensson, Ethan Iverson, Michel Petrucciani, Marcin Wasilewski, Hiromi, Brad Mehldau, and many others. All of these musicians are superb alone, yet they also mesh in group contexts.
Jazz, to me, has never been about sitting to receive a work of art delivered by musicians. Instead, it is about witnessing and maybe even being part of a process. In ensemble settings, the players communicate with one another. They don't just play the number or present it. They don't just imitate the song as it is on an album. They don't give a packaged product. No, jazz musicians build a song. They pass it amongst themselves like a beach ball in the bleachers, but seriously enough. They dialogue. They converse. They elaborate. They customize.
I love jazz because nothing else is so creative and diverse. I love jazz because it is what it is, and it lets me be what I am. Other music, which I love too, is not the same as jazz. Rock is image, ideology, and performance. Classical is architecture. Blues is real. Hip Hop is a relentless beat that can become anything from a heart to a gun to a sob to a confrontation. Disco is escape. Funk is wild and fun. Folk is private.
But jazz is democratic. It's not a spectator sport for either the player or the listener. Indeed, the listener is a player in a way that simply is not so for other musics. In my opinion.
I love jazz for the democracy, for the opinions it offers, and for opinions like mine it allows. If you don't love jazz, you don't love participation.
But if you want to hear and be heard, you must love jazz.
(For Eric Jackson, whose weeknight radio program on WGBH Boston has recently been scaled back.