A new blog named Blue Notes: Riffing on Jazz has openied its doors. Normally I don’t post about blogs in general terms–I prefer to point out an interesting comment or post–but this is an exception. One of the things I think is missing from the Internet is in-depth but personal writing about music–not just “The new whatever album rocks” or “Went to see Famous Band last night, got drunk, stagedived, killed a hedgehog and drank its blood” but really personal reflections about music (and, I suppose, about art–literature fares slightly better). Its not necessarily something I could do, so I’m glad to see someone else doing it well.
And especially about Jazz. I grew up with Jazz, my father having owned a Jazz club in Denver some ten years before I was born. One of my favorite bands growing up (and still one of the few musical groups that my brother and I really bond over) was the Stan Kenton Orchestra. When I got older, I got more into bebop and its more avant-garde offspring, but Stan Kenton paved the way, preparing me to hear music that didn’t echo whatever the hit-of-the-day was.
Today, Jazz faces a sort of crisis. The things that made Jazz a vibrant, crucial medium in the first half of the last century–the emotional and political costs of being black (and Jewish) in America, the innovation, the improvisation, the rawness, the attack on listeners’ sense of just what music is and could be–have been taken into hip-hop, leaving Jazz classicists like Wynton Marsalis to transform living, breathing Jazz into a conservatory art, chamber music for middle-class culture vultures. There are Jazz musicians I like today, don’t get me wrong, but for the most part I don’t see Jazz as a living medium today, any more than abstract expressionism or musical theater are.
Where Jazz does still live is in the tiny nightclubs–much like my father’s old club, in fact–where nobody’s concerned with making a statement or in fact any of the things I’ve just written about, where they just want to make music. In Harlem, there’s a club called St. Nick’s Pub, a long and narrow room that seats maybe 40 or 50 souls, where Jazz happens. Monday nights, after the tourists fall out, musicians come from all over the city to jam with the house band, musicians like James Carter, Don Byron, Terence Blanchard, and Savion Glover, as well as some guy you never heard of, some woman with great pipes or magic fingers, and the (un)usual collection of misfits who maybe don’t belong but certainly don’t care. It’s a lot like this:
Recordings are fine, but they lack a certain urgency. Give me an average band in a smoky room and you can have your box sets, CD Guides, and liner notes. I like the way the acoustic bass tickles my spine. I like the way the piano rings through the glassware. I like seeing guys sweat there way through a solo. I like watching them whisper to one another after the chorus, guessing what they might be saying. I like to close my eyes and drop into a meditative state while waiting for an unexpected turn or tear in the fabric?.even when it doesn’t happen (and, even on the best of nights, it rarely does), I love indulging in the possibility.