I came to appreciate jazz firstly through pop music. It’s is an unlikely connection, as much of pop music stands in direct opposition to the world of jazz, which is known as being musicians music, as opposed to material for radio, and for those of such tender years as myself at the time. I had heard the name Duke Ellington through various channels, one such channel being Joe Jackson’s 1982 “Night & Day” album, where the Duke was quoted in the liner notes. Joe Jackson was known at that time for his song “Steppin’ Out”, surely a far distance from, say, “Mood Indigo”. He was to embrace the more complex brand of instrumental music much later, but had incorporated a lot of Afro-Cuban styles on that album as well as demonstrating a considerable talent for jazz piano.
It opened my mind for the time I was rifling through my Dad’s record collection, for whatever reason, and found a copy of The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s now out of print “Jazz Goes to Europe” record, in all of its watermarked and tape hiss glory. On paper, I really shouldn’t have been that impressed. It certainly wasn’t the music I had associated with at the time, mostly being made up of British Pop synthesizer bands like OMD and China Crisis. But, there was something warm about it, something in the rhythms, the warmness of the double bass sound, which was a bit of an alien sound to me in the age of the Linn drum. There was something else too. I could hear that the musicians were really having fun, playing in poly-rhythmic time and incorporating little snippets of old standards as they stretched out their improvisations – possibly an early example of sampling! One of the reasons I am drawn to any music is the aspect of entering into a world which is different to my own in some cases, and this new music, having been recorded a good fifteen years before I was born, seemed to be a ticket to a new vocabulary of melody, of chord structure, of a different way of listening. It challenged me without being pedantic about it, with a beauty there which stood as an island to the mainland of my pop interests.
But soon, it took over.
In 1986, our school band went on an exchange to Newport Rhode Island, the home of the Newport jazz festival. Now, I had no idea about the festival at that time, and my knowledge of jazz did not extend much further than Brubeck, whose records I sought out at Sam’s in Toronto, my musical Mecca at the time (that’s another story). In going, I thought I would thrill the crowd at the Rhode Island school with my sophistication. No more Tears For Fears for this boy! It was all about the rhythmic complexities of “Blue Rondo A La Turk” for this trip. Little did I realize that my host, whose home I would be staying for my time there, would forget more about jazz than I would ever know! When it came down to it, I had never even heard of Charlie Parker, the Dylan of Jazz. I had limited knowledge of most of the key figures of the tradition – who was Coltrane? Miles who? My dreams of impressing my musical compatriots ended up being about my own education, and a trip to a local record shop, where I picked up Charlie Parker’s “Bird With Strings” on vinyl. “You can’t leave Rhode Island without a Charlie Parker record,” said my host. I also couldn’t leave Rhode Island without trying the “Chowda” either, for which I was woken in the wee hours of the morning to try a spoonful of on my last day there. New Englanders are passionate about music and clam chowder, it seems. It was an important cultural exchange – jazz and “chowda” for Newfie jokes.
Upon my return, My trips to Sam’s were even more fruitful – The Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Paul Desmond, more Charlie Parker, more Brubeck – so much so, that it was hard to know where to begin. I was like an archaeologist having found some lost city, standing in the middle of some ancient citadel, with crusty towers rising all around me. Who should I check out first? Should I stick to early recordings, or try to check out some of the later ones? Should I buy one artist’s work to get to know them in detail, or should I cast my net wider? In many ways, my passion for music as something essential to life and by no means a frivolity or luxury, began here in earnest. These searches, this self education, were self-defining pursuits and helped me to realize just how rich a cultural tradition could be, and that I could take part in it just out of my own appreciation.
Since then, my circle of appreciation has widened, and yet still over the course of the years, and through out my musical meanderings, I feel that I have yet to scratch the surface of this idiom which stretches back over the course of centuries. No one really knows how old this music is, and I suppose the mystery is an intriguing one, lying between the lines of the music of King Oliver, to Louis Armstrong, to Coltrane, to Miles, to the Marsalis’s. Jazz, like rock music, is a varied genre, and some of it remains inaccessible to me. But it renders a certain satisfaction on listening which cannot be reproduced by any other, the best of the music revealing itself differently on each listen, like a gem catching the light at different times of day.