The week’s column is written by Adele's brother and Jinny's son David.
“Anyone who understands Jazz know that you can’t understand it. It’s too complicated. That’s what’s so simple about it.” – Yogi Berra
Not too long ago I attended a musical fundraiser put together by a local organization dedicated to preservation of the opera. Now, I love music of all varieties, and though I would hardly consider myself an “opera lover”, I do understand its cultural importance and appreciate the beauty of its more salient arias. So, I went along and ended up greatly enjoying the offerings of a small group of professional singers brought together for the occasion.
It was a reasonably well attended event but one thing about the nature of the attendees was painfully obvious: ninety-five percent were well past retirement age. It’s almost needless to observe this doesn’t bode well for the opera. It made me speculate: Could this art form eventually disappear altogether from the cultural landscape, become the provenance of scholars and a handful of aficionados?
I know some of you are probably muttering under your breath as you read this, “Good riddance!” I have no judgement here. It’s perfectly understandable why someone would prefer P-Diddy over Puccini or Chesney over Carreras. In the modern world of non-stop entertainment offerings, the loss of one light in the seemingly endless string hardly seems of much account.
However, if one steps back and takes a broader view, one might see a slightly disturbing trend. For example, I recently read that around fifty percent of sports viewing males from 18 to 30 now prefer watching soccer over baseball. Baseball – our “National Pastime”, an indelible part of our social history. What’s up with that!? (Too slow, too subtle, too old – kind of like me.)
“Well, that’s certainly an eye-opener,” you say, “but what’s that go to do with opera music?” You might well ask. To my mind it’s all about the lights going out – one by one. Kind of like the family farm, good paying blue collar jobs, grandma’s tried and true home remedies, civil political discourse, affordable razor blades that actually lasted and so many other things. Those who remember, miss them. Those who never knew? Well, they’re probably on their cell phones. (Hey – it’s not their fault.)
Ok. I admit I’ve taken you down the garden path and the long way around. What I really want to talk about is Jazz – maybe the most wonderfully humane gift America ever gave the world. There was a time when the name, Dizzy Gillespie was iconic, right up there with Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Einstein. The U.S. government, (before it specialized in giving humanity endless war,) even gifted the world by sending Dizzy off on an ambassadorial tour. That’s right – not a general, not a statesman, not even a sports hero or movie star – a Jazzman.
Yes, Jazz – a totally new and original form of music born from the blues, a stew made in America. Derived from the traditional folk music of West Africa and Celtic England, an expression of both pain and hope. A sound full or spirit and longing. Irresistible to anyone with a soul. (The established order tried to marginalize it, but in the end they couldn’t keep Benny Goodman out of Carnegie Hall.)
When Dizzy was king there was barely an undergraduate anywhere in the civilized world who didn’t know who he was along with Coltrane, Brubeck, Monk, Mingus, Evans, Getz, Blakey, Baker, Davis and a host of others. It was the best of times musically – the hearts, heads and hands of master craftsmen, artistic visionaries and incredibly cool cats giving all they had, most often in cramped and seedy little clubs buried in the heart of our sleepless cities. They sacrificed much for their art, for “our” art. They told us about ourselves - our dreams, our fears, our passions and our humanity. Some gave their very lives. Nonetheless, it wasn’t just altogether good - it was great. But where are they now?
Nearly all gone. The lights have gone out - one by one. (Too slow, too subtle, too old.) If you look around you’ll no doubt notice the intellectual curiosity that was once a driving force in our nation is nearly gone, too. Is it any wonder then that something like Progressive Jazz should also fade away?
However, it’s not all bad news for those who might still care. Tucked away in our specialized institutions of higher learning, some high schools, both large and small, a few hallowed, urban venues and some lesser, odd-ball places – Jazz still lives. The candles are lit by the faithful. Discoveries are made by young musicians, the magic is revealed and revered. Don’t ask me how this happens in a world with the attention span of a gnat, where the once top 40 is now the top 10 and where corporatized, digitized, synthesized music produced from computer sampling rules the airwaves. No, I can’t exactly explain why these youngsters want to latch on to this increasingly anachronistic thing call Jazz, but God bless them, everyone. I know they’re going against the grain and those who want a career actually playing Jazz, (or pursuing any vanishing art form for that matter,) are playing long odds. They must be devoted dreamers and I salute them. This anonymous quote says it all: "A Jazz musician is someone that puts a $5,000 horn in a $500 car and drives 50 miles for $5 gig." ‘Nough said.
Perhaps the yearning for something that seems genuine is stronger than we might think. Perhaps the fascination with something that, in its complexity, defies our understanding while simultaneously tantalizing us with its humble beauty is much more compelling than we can imagine. Maybe it’s just that simple.