I found myself in an interesting mood this morning. Feeling tired and sleepy, I decided to skip the usual morning podcast-listening session in favor of the recently purchased Mulligan Meets Monk record, a Thelonious Monk disc that found the master pianist teaming up with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.
The experience got me thinking about jazz and my relationship with that musical art form. Growing up, I didn’t hear much of it aside from pieces in commercials, TV shows and movies here and there. It wasn’t until high school that I had my first real exposure to one of the few, truly American art forms.
At the time I had a website — I was very intent on calling it a site and not a blog because I thought the word was silly (it is) — where I would trade bootleg recordings with people. Actually, it’s still up because apparently Angelfire is still a thing. Anyway, out of nowhere I got an email asking if I would be interested in putting a banner ad up on the bootleg trading page in exchange for some swag. I said sure, popped in some code and eventually got a package in the mail from this company I’d never heard of.
It was Blue Note, the biggest jazz label around. I had no idea. Anyway, this happened twice and I wound up getting some records that might not have made it into my regular rotation, but definitely primed the pump for my later love of the genre. I remember getting Soulive’s Doin’ Something, Karl Denson’s Dance Lesson #2 and Charlie Hunter’s Songs From An Analog Playground.
I still listen to these records and am glad that they were the first ones I came across because they opened me up to the idea of new jazz. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, it’s a genre of music that is perceived to be mostly ruled by dead musicians. This is still a vast, evolving art form that new people are doing amazing things with.
I remember being blown away by the way Denson incorporated a DJ (DJ Logic to be specific) into his compositions, Soulive kept things fun and funky and Hunter brought in singers like Mos Def and a pre-fame Norah Jones to help bring his songs to life. There’s a vibrancy to those records that make them worth listening to and also built an interesting foundation for what jazz could be in my mind. This is not a stagnant form and it should not stay static. Art doesn’t work that way, museums do.
The first classic jazz record I ever picked up was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. That jazz/rock fusion album probably wasn’t the best place to dip my toe in for either the genre or Davis’ fantastic catalog, but one of my favorite magazines at the time Guitar World, did a huge feature on it and I was interested. Unfortunately, the acid washed improvisation wasn’t something I was quite ready for yet so I only listened to the full double album a few times before shelving it.
It wasn’t until my senior year of college at Ohio Wesleyan that I really continued my jazz journey. I’d pretty much nailed down all my required classes to graduate and decided to take it easy on myself both class and schedule wise. That translated into a very relaxed schedule that included Jazz 110 at the music building, a place I’d only been a handful of times in my college career (it was in a completely part of the campus).
The class seemed split between people like myself looking to get an easy credit and others who were legitimately into this kind of music. And, honestly, it was a pretty easy class. The hardest part came when we were played various instruments and had to write down what they were. That’s not my strong suit and I think I bombed that quiz pretty hard. But the rest of it was pretty basic stuff with a mix of history — tracing the music back to New Orleans — and memorization. For the final I remember listening to a long list of songs because we’d have to name them on the test after hearing a snippet. I’ve always been bad at remembering non-obvious song names, so that was tough too.
The songs themselves all came from the Ken Burns Jazz box set, which we had to buy for class. A lot of kids burned or downloaded it, but I got one (well, my parents got me one along with my other text books which I did feel a bit bad about because I was actually excited about the purchase. Still, I got a good deal on a used one). If you’re even remotely interested in jazz, that box is a great place to start because it takes a chronological look at the form going from old school New Orleans brass band stuff all the way up through Weather Report. In other words, it’s a great sampler.
One of the big things I learned from that class were the different subgeneres of jazz. You’ve got everything from New Orleans and bop to blue, swing, acid, fusion and even jazz-rap. There is a ridiculous amount of music out there that, but the nice thing about the Ken Burns set and the Jazz: The First 100 Years textbook we used is that I got an idea of the form’s spectrum. From there I was able to zero in on the elements and subgenres that interested me most. For instance, I remember reading about Cecil Taylor’s crazy piano playing and then gave him a listen on the box set and realized I wanted to listen to more of that. You can do a lot of this with various websites and YouTube these days, but that’s not where my musical journey took me.
From there, I started exploring the greats. I picked up a couple Benny Goodman records — including one that’s a two disc full concert — got more into the biggies like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly and Charles Mingus. I’ve also branched out into some of the odder stuff like Us3, a hip hop group that only sang over sampled jazz licks.
One aspect of jazz that I fell in love with pretty quickly was how dramatic and comic book-like the whole scene was for a while. When I got into comics, I just dove in and started learning all I could about these characters. Eventually I built up a pretty solid mental database of who did what and when various characters teamed up. There’s a lot of that in jazz too. All of these people had these big personalities and crazy backstories. They were part of a band (team) for a period of time and then either moved on to another one or started their own. There’s also all kinds of team-ups all over the place. There’s a drama to the whole thing that sparked my imagination and helped me get interested in not just the music, but the people as well. Projects like The Quintet or Duke Ellington recording with Louis Armstrong hold a lot of appeal for me.
Another aspect of the form — at least the stuff I seem to be drawn to — is that it can be listened to on various levels. I can put something like Monk’s Alone In San Francisco and flow in and out of it while I do work or get some writing done. But, I can also sit and really explore these records, noting how they twist, turn and play with the form. I’m not nearly musical enough to get too in depth with this stuff, but I like a record that you could potentially sit in a dark room with and just experience. A lot of the jazz records I’ve listened to can be that.
While I still check out the jazz section of any used record store I find myself at, the main source of recently purchased records comes from Amazon’s MP3 store. Every month they put 100 albums on sale for $5 each and there’s usually a jazz album or two in there. That’s where I got Mulligan Meets Monk and a few others like Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’, Cannonaball’s Bossa Nova, Miles Davis’ seminal Kind Of Blue and even the Willie Nelson, Winton Marsalis and Norah Jones Ray Charles tribute called Here We Go Again.
It’s kind of wild to think that I’ve only been into this form of music for 8 years or so. Sure there were those first few Blue Note records, but those could have easily turned into outliers in the statistical equation of my music collection, a funny story to tell from my online past. What’s even stranger to think about is how separated this kind of music tends to be in the world of pop culture. Jazz just isn’t out there in the pop world as much as other forms, so it’s possible to completely miss it if you’re not looking for something new and different. Now that I think about it, that’s another common theme between jazz and comic books. Anyway, I’m hoping to remedy that a bit with my kid and expose her to this stuff at an early age. I hope she digs that swing!